As the days grow shorter, I have to remember not to get totally disgruntled! We New Englanders are nuts about our short season of bright sun and outdoor evenings. 

So I force myself to anticipate different kinds of light - mellow September, crisp vibrant October, and long blue shadows on snow. I think of planning and architecture that nurtures us through the winter. A walkable neighborhood, a detached barn, thoughtful outdoor lighting, an outdoor fireplace - what will entice us outside? Indoor spaces with good flow for entertaining become essential. Landscape design that holds interesting shape and color through the year draws our focus outward into the sunlight. 

More than anything, natural light and enhanced views are the keys to enjoying our long winters. A stone wall washed with light from above, expansive glass that opens to the low southern sunlight, and plants that thrive with light are some of the details that keep us going.

This issue is all about light in architecture. Enjoy!

GIFT OF TREES AND SUN: Light in Architecture

Driving along the shaded lanes of Massachusetts, no one in the car would have known anything was unusual if it hadn’t been for one of the girls in the carpool. “Why do you always say that?” she asked me. My daughters giggled, knowing exactly what she meant. I kept driving. “There, you said it again!” she teased, “You said, ‘LOOK at the light in those trees!’”
It’s true, I made the kids notice the beautiful sights. I help my students and clients perceive light, and I design with light. I respond with almost too much sensitivity to the sights and sounds around me, but they get translated into light filled spaces. I was telling someone this carpool anecdote lately and she asked me, “Why trees?”

Like anyone, I marvel at a spectacular view. But subtle color and beauty in ordinary nature also inspire me, and I like to share that connection. Some drivers enjoy audio books (they put me to sleep) or a comedy podcast (better), but for me, the early morning or late afternoon sunlight pouring onto trees, houses and meadows was a gift during those endless hours carting my kids around.
During my art major days at Dartmouth I learned that painting means constantly considering how light can make things beautiful, harsh or dull, and my state of mind affects whether my surroundings look washed out or brilliant. For short escapes from demanding architecture studies at Yale, I would go out and draw the landscaped Gothic Revival and Modern courtyards that make the campus unique. In good building, as in painting, I realized that one goal, no matter the style, is to make all the elements harmonize within a given context.
For me, architecture is about placing a new building or renovation gracefully in its surroundings. This could be an urban neighborhood or a natural landscape. I create spaces that increase a person’s well-being, with a strong sense of indoor-outdoor play: expanses of glass, outdoor rooms, enhanced views, and local, natural materials. Light is just another material that architects use, perhaps the most important one. A dynamic material, like sunlight through leaves in constant motion, light captures the qualities of relationship and play.

Even the modest photographer’s studio in the photo on the right, carved out of dark crawlspace in a Victorian attic, becomes extraordinary with retro fixtures hand-crafted by the owner and varied natural light.

The books I’ve illustrated have a strong sense of place and relationship to the land, like my favorite buildings. In one book, about the Navajo Code Talkers in World War II, the earth, which the Navajos called “Our Mother,” had a spiritual significance. These brave men were especially devastated by the destruction of the South Pacific Islands. A Code Talker returned after 50 years and rejoiced at the restoration of one sparkling island. He said to the people, “You have rebuilt a jewel in the Pacific.” (The Unbreakable Code, Hunter/Miner) Light, like restoration, transforms place into priceless art.

Cambridge Photographer's Studio by ESSARC

Recently one daughter has restored kids’ confidence as a therapeutic wilderness leader. She loves solo car trips across the US, remembering the gift of trees and sun. When my other daughter, a painter also attuned to those early lessons of light in architecture, drives with her friends, she points out the light and colors of the earth and sky.

Iconic World Architecture

LONDON: A Story of Light and Enlightenment

I love how the streets of London display an evolution of light and transparency, from ancient stone arches of Roman ruins to modern-glass towers.

Dark, massive Romanesque arches of the original 11th Century monastery beneath Westminster Abbey form a foundation for its Gothic spires and magnificent stained glass. Late Medieval churches strove toward heaven and light, but they still feel dark to us.
Clarity came with the sudden introduction of Neo-classical architecture around 1600, influenced by the Italian renaissance. Society’s awakened, rational thought was expressed in clear rectangular windows, mathematically proportioned. In the embellished Baroque style that followed, architects would carefully design with light and shadow for contrast and grandeur.

The Enlightenment, or Age of Reason brought Georgian architecture (1716-1830), with its tall windows that let in even more light. Lacy fan windows became a signature of the Georgian style that included the crisp, white Regency architecture of London’s central residential buildings. Spanning the reigns of four King Georges, you can see its broad influence in the US, from Jefferson’s UVA and Monticello to Boston’s Old Statehouse and dignified New England houses.

Georgian fan window

Paddington Station's wrought iron and glass

Ornate Victorian architecture and the Edwardian style that followed related to England’s increased wealth in the 1800's. People must have been awestruck by the breathtaking glass and wrought-iron arches of Paddington station (1854), inspired by London’s Crystal Palace. These two revolutionary buildings paved the way for the introduction of steel around the turn of the century.
Steel was the game changer that allowed unlimited light and height. At first the popular historic styles overshadowed steel’s full expression, which was relegated to bridges and industrial structures. Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Arts and Crafts were the last holdouts for decoration before the modernist International Style celebrated simple industrial forms and machine-like efficiency. This shift in taste, along with the demand for fast rebuilding after World War II, brought about the light-filled modern buildings of today.

History will recount how our own Information Age gave birth to the phenomenal, light-inspired “Shard of Glass” skyscraper (2012). Designed by Renzo Piano, known for his light and exquisitely detailed projects, the Shard’s 95+ stories consist of several glass facets that incline inward without meeting at the top. The broken fragment shape and glass envelope create an interplay of reflection and transparency, with stunning views from the interior.

Top of the Shard

21st Century London