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Space and Light


By Richard MacCormac

This essay first appeared in Modern Painters, Summer 1993

Those of us brought up in the rhetoric of the modern movement are familiar with Le Corbusier’s definition of architecture as ‘the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light’, but it needs little reflection to recognise the abstract, though passionate, platonism of this statement and its underlying assumption of the steady brightness of the Mediterranean sun. This essay is an experiment, an evaluation of architecture in terms of narrative, mood and space, taking light as its theme and referring to painting as a medium for engaging areas of expression which rarely form part of current architectural discourse.

The tradition of painting invites contemplation of effects of light infinitely more complex than that evoked by Le Corbusier. It reminds us that light is significant only in relation to darkness, and that we have become so used to obliterating darkness with the seemingly limitless ambient energy of electricity that we have almost lost any sense of what it was like in the pre-electric age. We have driven the shadows away from our wishful sense of the present. Paintings from the pre-electric past reveal how the small local light source or the shaft of daylight in the otherwise darkened room isolated the event and concentrated the sense of the moment, whether convivial or solitary, and, in the work of Rembrandt, arouse a poignant and precarious sense of mortality.

If architecture is a reflection upon building, then painting is a kind of double reflection incorporating people and time. In particular, paintings remind architects of the meaning of windows, that they are not just holes in walls but make habitable places both in a practical and symbolic sense. In Dutch seventeenth-century painting, the scene often ‘takes place’ at the window or in the bay. Externally the window personifies the building and affirms the human presence, whether in the domestic tradition, represented by Dutch painting, or in the medieval bay or the classical tradition of the window as the vestige of the little house, the aedicule of the god in the Greek temple. This idea comes from the late Sir John Summerson’s marvellous essay, ‘Heavenly Mansions’, in which he propounds the theory of aedicular architecture. This inhabited window, or little house, finds its place in much of my practice’s work, in the bay windows of the SainsburyBuilding at WorcesterCollege, Oxford, and in the aedicular bays of the New Court at FitzwilliamCollege, Cambridge. Windows signal the human presence, the subject often explored in the paintings of Edward Hopper.

The bay window seeks light. It expresses itself as a kind of lantern, but with the function of capturing, rather than emitting, light. It suggests the idea of daylight as a force, fierce and pressing in the south of Europe, gentle and pervasive in the north. In Scandinavia, the winter light, reflected off the snow or water, infuses interiors with a disembodied icy buoyancy, a sensation wonderfuly apparent in the Haga pavilion – the little summer pavilion of Stockholm’s Drotningholm Palace where reflections off water seem to suspend the mirrored interior in light.

In contrast the Southern interior, isolating itself with its massive shell, is like a pressurised diving bell into which light forces itself through the smallest apertures. Windows become instruments to tune the perception of the interior, which remains cool, separate and mysterious as in the great nave of Le Thoronet, Le Corbusier’s inspiration for Ronchamp, where a single circular aperture makes the interior resonant with a blast of light, and in Ronchamp itself where light forces itself through the cleft between wall and roof and through myriad small apertures.

The Northern cathedrals of the Middle Ages~ stand openly in light, are immersed in lucidity. The older constructional tradition of the:South, of Santa Sophia, Ravenna and St Marks, Venice, is cavelike, resisting the light, allowing only the illumination of its own mystery. Once admitted, light becomes fugitive, and the art of the mosaic, with its infinite facets, catches fleeting evanescent sparks of reflection which Ruskin described:


It is lost in still deeper twilight, to which the eye must be accustomed for some moments before the form of the building can be traced; and then there opens before us a vast cave, hewn out into the form of a Cross, and divided into shadowy vistas by many pillars. Round the domes of its roof the light enters only through narrow apertures like large stars; and here and there a ray or two from some far away casement wanders into the darkness, and casts a narrow phosphoric stream upon the waves of marble that heave and fall in a thousand colours on the floor. What else there is of light is from torches, or silver lamps, burning ceaselessly in the recesses of the chapels; the roof sheeted with gold, and the polished walls covered with alabaster, give back at every curve and angle some feeble gleaming to the flames; and the glories round the heads of the sculpted saints flash out upon us as we pass them, and sink again into the gloom…


Of twentieth-century architects, perhaps only Carlo Scarpa, a Venetian, found that sense of dissolution of surface, with his use of glass mosaic, alabaster and his recovery of antique plaster techniques to give deeply coloured translucent and shining surfaces which absorb and reflect, and excite the retina by confusing the precise depth of focus.

The building of the ancient world which precisely represents the metaphor of the cavern and of Plato’s cave is the Pantheon in Rome, in which the disc of the sun makes its daily transit around the interior as a single shaft of light projected on to the shadowy coffering of the dome. The idea of the Pantheon as cave echoes the eighteenth century archeological discoveries of Pompeii, which revealed lost underworlds of the past, unseen and unpenetrated by daylight for centuries. For Piranesi these discoveries offered an alternative reality to be set against the contemporary world. Piranesi inhabited this antique world and glimpsed the contemporary world through fragmented vaults in the Vedute, his views of ancient Rome. But in the terrible visions of the Carceri prison series the real world is entirely excluded, intensifying his metaphoric underworld, from which no escape is offered.

The underground cavern and its opposite, the daylit world above, offer, to architecture, a powerful psychological polarity to which many attributes may subconsciously attach themselves – timelessness, mortality, knowledge, memory, security, secrecy, savagery, incarceration and expiation. This polarity is found in the work of Gaudi, in the cave-like structures under his Barcelona gardens and in the incomplete Guell Chapel where the crypt, a roughly hewn cave, was to support a chapel of light.

The pendentive and domed construction, adopted by neo-classical architects in the late eighteenth century, is associated with secure and windowless building types such as banks, law courts, art galleries and mausolea. Soane’s Bank of England (now demolished) consisted of a series of great top-lit cavern-like pendentives and domes. Gandy’s illustrations of these, with other images, such as Alexander Pope’s grotto in Twickenham, inspired a project of mine, currently building for St John’sCollege, Oxford, where vaulted top-lit public rooms of white concrete structure and deeply coloured walls lie, concealed, beneath an upper world of planted terraces around which students live.

Soane was influenced by Piranesi and by Turner’s use of colour, specifically by his use of translucent coloured glazes. Soane’s equivalent to a glaze, to achieve what he called ‘lumière mystérieuse’, was to use coloured rooflights, usually amber, to wash the interior. This intervention of colour has the effect of isolating the experience of the interior from a temporal sense of daylight and weather. As one would expect, the idea is powerfully evident in Soane’s mausoleum at the DulwichArtGallery. It is also employed in the museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where the coloured roof lights have recently been replaced. In modern architecture, such a mediation of daylight with colour to create a mystery appears in the work of Le Corbusier at Ronchamp and also in the Chapel at La Tourette where the three great ‘light canons’ bombard the coloured interior with coloured light. Part of the effect at La Tourette is created by projecting coloured light on to surfaces which are at the opposite ends of the colour spectrum, red on to red and red on to blue, so that there are extraordinary contrasts between vividly lit surfaces and those that glimmer darkly.

Such manipulations of light challenge common experience and the expectation of enclosure which buildings usually satisfy. The dissolution of physical enclosure, which gothic architecture strove for and achieved at the St Chappelle and Kings College Chapel, appears in the mystical sense of the possibilities of glass in the polemical writing of German architects such as Scheerbart, Taut and Scharoun, visions entirely betrayed by the utilitarian actuality of the glass architecture of subsequent history There are recent exceptions such as Nicholas Grimshaw and Bill Pye’s everchanging water wall at the British Pavilion at Seville, Hopkins’s Schlumberger tent outside Cambridge, a billowing volume of light, Nouvel’s pattern of steel irises transforming the south facing wall of the Arab Institute in Paris into an oriental fabric of steel and glass, Foster’s Sackler Gallery at the Royal Academy, or Benson and Forsyth’s little oratory in Cumbria, a cylinder of silent translucency.

But the reductive materialism of the modern movement confused literal transparency with what Colin Rowe has called the ‘phenomenon of transparency’, which, paradoxically, can be more readily obtained with solid materials, because it is about the illusiveness of the physical boundaries of space. Again with Soane, we can examine this in the breakfast room at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Here, a: space is defined by a pendentive dome, but the walls, which might be expected at its perimeter, have disappeared and the room redefined by screen walls beyond, lit from continuous skylights above, giving the impression that they are outside the space of the room itself. In the library, this trick of extending boundaries is realised with mirrors above the bookcases to suggest rooms beyond. In the picture room, walls literally fold away to disclose further spaces; and, in the whole interior of the museum, unexpected vistas, corridors, mirrors, alcoves and glass floors push out through the boundaries of each room to create an aesthetic of relativity.

These effects are related to Piranesi’s perception of antique ruins as fragmented – enclosures through which further spaces and vistas can be seen. But perhaps both Piranesi’s and Soane’s ideas of space also derive from Pompeian wall painting in which rooms are enclosed by painted screens through and over which are glimpsed vistas and perspectives of architecture. The Soane museum can be interpreted as three-dimensional Pompeian wall painting.

The illusiveness of space and its physical boundary is an inherent part of the aesthetic of modern architecture, evident in the early work of Mies van der Rohe and always in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. It is also found in a diversity of current practice: in the PicassoMuseum in Paris, for example, Roland Simounet develops, in the context of an existing structure, a sense of surface which is sometimes palpable and rooted, sometimes shifting and ambiguous, in its layered planes and in the relative reflectivity of gloss and matt surfaces. In Leiviska’s church at Myyrmaki in Finland, surfaces seem suspended in space and light, released from gravity.

I will conclude with two projects from my practice’s work – the unbuilt chapel for Tonbridge school and the completed chapel for FitzwilliamCollege, Cambridge. Both these schemes bring together many of the preoccupations of this essay: the idea of the aedicule, the building within the building, the polarity between the underworld and the world above, and the use of light to create an illusive definition of space.

In the Tonbridge scheme, the building within a building is a kind of ark which contains the congregation, and the gap between this wooden structure and the perimeter makes an ambulatory for the choir through which light filters. The design addressed the problem of achieving something of the quality of reflected light in a gothic building, a quality that modern construction cannot easily replicate. In gothic buildings, the intensity of direct clerestory light is usually mediated by the deeply-moulded shafts, ribs and reveals which form an aura around the window opening. In contrast, Victorian and Edwardian ‘gothic’ buildings (including the original Tonbridge School Chapel before it was burned down) often suffer from glaring contrasts between the brightness of the windows and the shadowy walls. In our proposal the cellular construction of the wall was to be filled with reflected top-light, and similarly the vertical shafts of the clerestory were to be backlit by concealed roof-lights to overcome the glare. For the same reason, daylight was to be cast directly onto the roof structure.

In the little chapel for Fitzwilliam, equivalent effects are achieved in a distinctly different way. Top-light is thrown down the perimeter walls, disengaging their enclosure from the central baldechino-like structure which defines the congregational space. This space is also defined by a vessel-like timber structure, an ark, which in turn, is not only separate from the perimeter of the building but distinguishes the sacred space from the underworld of the crypt. This building brings together several of the themes addressed in this essay. But it remains virtually monochromatic unlike my next comparable project, the Ruskin Library at LancasterUniversity, which may be a subject of future interest to Modern Painters.