Thoughts on Natural Light

Jeffrey Dungan

When asked by my good friend Phyllis Hoffman to write a column in her wonderful magazine, the feeling I had was that of fear mixed with the excitement of musing and sharing thoughts and ideas. Any vestige of fear was quickly eliminated by her powerful persuasiveness, a trait that surely has contributed to her success as a businesswoman. The requested topic of interest was light. Light and architecture go together like blue and white in summertime, or like steak and wine (but really what doesn’t go with wine?). Light is such a wide-ranging topic. Of all the things one could say about light, I will focus on my experiences and what it means to me.

Light gives us shadows and highlights, and reveals to us the true form and shape of things. The great artists have long been known to live in certain regions where the light was better than other places. Photographers are quite dependent on light to do their creative work. Both artist and photographer choose certain times of day to do their work, when the light quality and angles are most flattering and evocative. Indeed, without light there would be no life; nothing in nature grows without it. In the creation story, light was the first thing made, preceding all other things. Regardless of one’s beliefs, I think most would agree that there is actually something spiritual about light– it’s inspirational and ethereal qualities ever-espoused through the ages of history. I love old quotes and pithy sayings. If you can say something in a few words, meaning is that much more powerful. My mind kind of thinks in words and quotes, and when I think of light, I think of the great Roman medical writer, Cornelius Celsus, who said, “live in rooms filled with light.” Also, one of my personal favorites, American architect Louis Kahn, said, “I see light as the giver of all presences, and material as spent light. What is made by light casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to light.” I love the idea that the shadow belongs to the light. And, one more from another hero, architect Ricardo Legorreta of Mexico: “Light belongs to the heart and spirit. Light attracts people, and when we see it in the distance, we follow it.”

When beginning design work, the first thing I consider is the site and how the house can fit into it. In the process, the arc of sun and its light across what we will build is critical to the architecture. Regardless of the locale, the way the light will cast a shadow is pivotal for it will define how the owners will wake up gently in morning and keep from being too warm in interiors to the west or the south. Northern light is wonderful because it carries no heat, being reflective and not direct light. Southern light is powerful, yet more controllable than east or west light.

My favorite way to work with southern exposures is to use porches and pergolas to screen the sun and to design overhanging eaves at a depth that allows winter sun to flood the space, while keeping summertime sun at bay. It is all based on the significant difference in the sun’s angle to the site in those two seasons. None of this is new thinking, but learned from the history of design before we became so dependent on the luxury of heat and air conditioning to make our homes comfortable. I still find it good practice to abide by such principles and believe it makes the interiors and the light more usable and enjoyable over the course of the day and the seasons. When you boil it all down and arrange things thoughtfully with nature, you can have rooms bathed in natural light. Light’s inspirational qualities affects us in positive and even life- giving ways. Even as I sit writing these words, the morning light is flowing in through the windows with the curtains casting a grid of slender shadows across the paper. So I write in the rhythm of off white, then charcoal grey, then light again—almost musical, sublime inspiring emotion.