The importance of getting light right in design

In 2013, a bizarre news spread across the world. The Walkie Talkie Tower in London was blamed for melting a Jaguar car. Problem? The tower reflected sunlight at such intense levels that it warped panels and melted mirrors on the parked car. A similar news had spread in 2010 when guests at the Vdara hotel in Las Vegas reported that the building gave them severe sunburns. Apparently, the curved facade of the building acts like a giant magnifying glass at a specific time when the sun rays hit the surface. This caused it to send a tremendous hot ray into the swimming pool of the famous 57 storeyed building, causing sunburn to the occupants.

Above examples prove that if we do not anticipate the response of the sunlight while we design the building, it can create major havoc! Sunlight is the best natural means to obtain light. A designer usually sculpts the building around the sunlight. The play of light on various textures: the shadows and reflections, the patterns formed by the shading elements like the pergolas and the trees, everything animates the building design. This entire drama of the sunlight and shadows, in turn, evokes positive emotional responses among the occupants of the building.

Working in daylight is expected to boost the mood and hence, the productivity of the people living in the room. Access to sunlight is proven to have improved circadian rhythm in one’s body. Natural lighting reminds people of outdoors, hence it creates a calmer indoor environment which in turn reduces the stress levels. There was a case study conducted in few schools where it was proven that good natural light improved student performance and also the attendance.

So how does one work with sunlight indoors? We, as designers must know how well to enhance the sunlight where space is underlit and also know how to filter it, in case of overlit spaces. In cases where sunlight doesn’t reach the narrow passages, for example, mirror polished stainless ducts can be used to bounce off the light and direct it inwards. If sun glare is a problem, clerestory windows can be used to use the sunlight sans the glare.

Another important aspect is the use of jaalis. Jaalis have been used since historic times, the roots of which can be traced to the Indus Valley civilization. The people of Harappan civilization had no windows. They designed and placed jaalis as per the function of the space. They placed their kitchens on the north-eastern side of their house, whereas the cemeteries were on the south-west. Anthemius of Tralles, one of the architects who designed the famous Hagia Sophia in 537 AD, was an expert in handling natural light. He had designed a reflector which directed solar light at a single point within a building, taking into account the varying positions of the sun throughout the day, throughout different seasons. It is said, though not proven, that he designed Hagia Sophia using this reflector.

There are 40 small windows cut in the dome, and the play of light in the structure gives it the identity of a ‘floating dome’. ‘Reflection’ has also been used effectively via golden mosaic, tesserae (glass mosaic) and marbles.

If we have to look at modern architecture, the Church of Light designed by Japanese Architect Tadao Ando is a perfect example of minimalism married to use of natural light.

Using natural light as a mouldable entity is very important, knowing that it can make or break the design. Now we all know that most of the work is done during the daytime. But we would only work in natural light, we would have to go to sleep really early, and it would be slightly unfair for the nocturnal humans!

Artificial light is used not only at night but also in the daytime, in spaces where either the sunlight doesn’t reach or there is absolutely no alternative to using artificial light (e.g. laboratories). Majority of the light fixtures available today can mimic natural light and have an effect similar to it. One benefit that artificial light has over natural light, is that it can be used in n number of ways in design. It can be broadly classified as ambient lighting, task lighting and accent lighting. A perfect combination of these three types can help create perfectly lit spaces.

Apart from just illuminating, some artificial lights also help in other activities. For example, low light foliage plants such as pothos and peace lily can be grown indoors with sufficient artificial light only. Artificial lighting is also important for security reasons. Many people, especially those with private residences choose to light up the surroundings of their house for extra security so that any intruder or suspicious activity can be seen at night from the house. Inside the house or any other space,
dim lighting and less visibility can cause the occupants to trip. This may result in accidents. This had happened back in 2011, when customers shopping in the Hollister clothing store in Birmingham, UK complained of bumping into tables and other customers due to dim lights. While the idea of Hollister’s store design was to create a club-like environment, it did not
appease the customers who complained that they couldn’t even see the price tags on the clothes. This lead to people starting Facebook groups named ‘Hollister, can you please turn your lights on?’ and ‘Welcome to Hollister, like a torch?’ Needless to say, this affected their sales in turn.

Closer home, we have examples of artificial lighting going wrong on day to day basis. If the light over the kitchen counter is not well lit, the chances of the dish being cooked going wrong are high. Why? Because cooking relies heavily on the colour of the dish being prepared, and I am sure no one would fancy an extremely green pesto pasta. There are times when a lady might see her reflection in the mirror of her car and realise that her makeup is awfully done, thanks to the badly lit dressing mirror she has back home! All these examples simply prove that getting the light right is very important to design.

While we learn from above mistakes, we must also look up to good examples. The Empire State building, New York is a fantastic example of how the façade of a building acts like a literal canvas. The building is famous for its tower lighting system which uses a computer-driven LED light system to light the tower for special events and days. The excitement of people who are associated with the event brings the social fabric of not just the city but the world, together. For example, when the Indian tricolour was displayed on 15th August 2017 honouring our flag, it brought a tear to every Indian who looked up at the American skyline.

Source: Pinterest

To sum it all up, light is an irreplaceable asset to our designs and we must know how to use it as a sculpting tool. As the great master Architect Le Corbusier has rightly said, “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light”, we must try to think of light from day one so that we can avoid mishaps later as and when discovered. If we do not, no matter how great the design, it shall fail the test of time.


About the author:

Tejashri Deshpande, an Architect by profession and an animal lover by obsession, has her own design practice in Pune by the name of Design Doobki.

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