Natural light as an Emotive Tool?

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

This architectural blog explores the expressive occurrence of light as a qualitative experience within the built environment. Many of the most renowned thinkers in history, philosophers and scientists alike have tried to capture the very essence and true nature of light.


Image: House Koshino: External View


At its simplest, light allows us to see and to be seen; to spatially position ourselves and the things around us.


However, how can light add a qualitative experience to space and be used as an emotive tool within the built environment? In other words, can natural light create an embodied experience of place fostering a notion of connectedness to it? Place refers to more than an abstract location, it speaks to a deeper psychological consciousness experienced within a location (Norberg-Schulz 1979). To understand if an embodied experience of light will enhance an experience of a space, a profound understanding of how light is able to manifest itself within everyday occurrences is required. To do this 4 (four) connections of light in the form of a precedent study will be examined, as outlined below.

  1. Light and Time - Koshino House by Tadao Ando

  2. Light and Movement / Spirituality - La Tourette by Le Corbusier

  3. Light and Materiality - Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor

  4. Light and Intimacy - Mashrabiya Screen as a design element

1. Light and Time - Koshino House by Tadao Ando:

Image: House Koshino: Dramatic Light


Koshino House by world renowned architect Tadao Ando will be analysed as a means of examining the connection between light and time from an architectural stance. Koshino House uses skylight apertures to create an internal array of daylight and shadow. Due to the changing sun angle at different times of the day and throughout the year, an ever-changing environment is created.

Architectural technologies employed:

Skylights and Luminous coating on walls. This creates specular reflection (reflection off a smooth or shiny surface) allowing for further variations of light distributions. The image titled dramatic light depicts the stark contrast between light and shadow created by the skylights. Tadao Ando's placement of a seat under the skylight creates two opportunities:

1. The opportunity to look around the room and experience the passage of time, as the changing light and shadow reflects the time change of the day or season of the year; and

2. The prospect of looking up into the sky and experiencing a connection to the outdoors.


These visual opportunities also engage other senses on a secondary level. For instance, the warmth of the sun through daylight may be felt on the skin. The contrast between light and shadow when highlighted on a surface may prompt an individual to touch it. Additionally, Koshino House uses light and shadows to trigger the imagination. Strong daylight is associated with joy, happiness, or even the existence of life. Shadows relate to mystery and the unknown. The lighting in this environment not only accentuates a sensory experience of the room, but also strongly reflects how time changes. Ando has used the transcendant qualities of light and shadow over surfaces to highlight the passage of time and as a resul to embody notions of reflectance and contemplation.

2. Light and Movement/Spirituality - La Tourette by Le Corbusier:

Image: La Tourette: Cylinder Skylights


La Tourette, the lower church of the dominican order by Le Corbusier is used to examine the link between light and movement and light and spirituality. The chapel's spatial movement is directed towards the sanctuary through a series of interventions; such as angling the entrance and altar to point towards it. However, its most powerful and appealing feature is the chapel's various light sources. The lighting provided by an angled, vertical window on the east wall provides a visual clue on how to get to the sanctuary by highlighting the movement path. The sanctuary is further illuminated by the direct and focused light of three cylinder skylights.


Architectural technologies employed:

1. The use of skylights, and

2. windows that use direct, diffuse and redirect light.

The variations of light in the chapel create a sense of drama. Where some area's are bathed in direct light, others are contrasted in shadows or softer shades of illumination. The play on light intensifies the experience of the space by either attracting your attention to something that is well lit, or detracting your attention from something that is cast in shadow. The image depicts the powerful and direct light that is used to illuminate the sanctuary. The design intention was to use the skylights to establish a connection between the earth and sky; a connection that symbolises mystery or even celestial presence. Through this connection, a distinct and luminous environment that evokes spiritual emotion is created. Therefore, the powerful presence of light in the sanctuary embodies an essence of a place that is scared or of spiritual intent.

3. Light and Materiality - Thermal Baths by Peter Zumthor

Image: Therme Vals


Therme Vals is based on the idea of a cave or quarry like structure that is carved into its natural landscape. This notion is further emphasised by using natural stone from the site as a primary building material to develop the connection between the site and nature. Natural light is captured internally through a series of slits in the roof slab to contrast the heaviness of concrete, and creating the illusion of a slab that floats.


Architectural technologies employed:

- Skylight slits in the slab;

- Textured walls that reflect light; and

- Water, which reflects lights.


The image above depicts the intimate and sensual atmosphere of one of the bathing chambers. Shadows on the textured wall create a sense of mystery whilst the play of light, from the skylights and the reflectance of the water highlight the tactile nature of the stone, triggering the sense to touch it. These factors add a mystical dimension to the act of bathing by allowing for a rich palette of coloured and textured light, further enhanced by the reflective nature of the water.

The connection between indoors and outdoors is blurred by using subtle light and natural materials to create an internal cave like experience while partially burying the building. The transcendent qualities of this design encourage activities or spaces considered normal to become sensory experiences. Therefore, the ordinary act of cleansing one's body becomes a mystical experience. This design approach can be used for any type of space in which the designer chooses to accentuate an experience.

4. Light and Intimacy - Mashrabiya Screen as a design element


Image: Mashrabiya Screen


The mashrabiya screen serves as an intimacy metric between public and private thresholds. The screen was traditionally used to ameliorate extreme dessert conditions and is a component of ingenuity as it is capable of distinct light manipulation whilst providing an intimate human experience. It achieves this by providing constant airflow without direct sunlight, a visual connection to the outside world whilst maintaining private conditions for the internal occupants, and allows for artistic expression in the form of its intricate lattice screen. It is important to note that the screen can be designed with openings.


To summarise the 4 (four) precedents above it may be said that:

1. Koshino house explored the connection between light and time in which light embodied notions of reflection and contemplation;

2. La Tourette examined the link between light and movement and light and spirituality in which light embodied the essence of a place that is sacred or of spiritual intent;

3. Therme Vals studied the relationship between light and materiality in which various lighting techniques were used to create a mystical experience of bathing; and

4. The mashrabiya screen was examined as a form of light manipulation to create an intimacy metric between private and public thresholds.


Thus I believe that natural light can add qualitative experiences to place. This would be relevant when designing spaces like:

- meditation areas,

- prayer areas,

- alcove space that is used for private reflection,

- or even a domestic house like Koshino House.


#Archisess #KoshinoHouse #TadaoAndo #Architecture #ArchitecturalDesign #LearningFromAMaster #LightAndShadow #DramaticLight #ArchitecturalTheory #LightAndTime #LaTourette #LeCorbusier #LightAndMovement #LightAndSpirituality #ThermalBaths #PeterZumthor #LightAndMateriality #MashrabiyaScreen #LightAndIntimacy

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