Light Is Always Experienced

Experiencing architecture is a sensory and emotional experience. Our body and senses “feel” the space almost instantly, even before we begin to consciously analyze its various aspects. Natural light plays an essential role in this experience, and interaction between the user and the space. Primarily, natural light allows us to visually experience any space, and satisfy the building’s lighting and energy requirements. But the role of natural light in architecture goes much beyond the basal demands of buildings. 

“More and more, so it seems to me, light is the beautifier of the building.” – Frank Llyod Wright.

Architects can influence one’s experience of the space in various ways through light. It can highlight a wall in a room, or a junction in a space, that then allows our eyes to be guided naturally – to see what the architect wants us to see. Natural light is capable of producing a dynamic atmosphere in any space – the light quality shifts from a soft glow in the mornings, to an intense brightness in the afternoons, to a diffused luminescence in the evenings. Natural light thus has the innate ability to influence the mood of the users, and elicit an emotional response from them. 

While architects have always taken into consideration the importance of natural light in their work, there have been only select architects over the years who have succeeded in molding light in such a manner of innovation, that has created transformative spaces like no other. It is no coincidence then, that these architects are also considered to have mastered the art of architecture, and are today known as legends in the profession.

Notre-dame Du Ronchamp, Paris – Le Corbusier

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet1
Notre-Dame Du Ronchamp ©

Le Corbusier – modernist pioneer, and one of the most important architects of the 20th century, whose work continues to influence generations of architects to date, considered form and light essential to an architect’s vision. “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” Corb’s musings about light are continuously reflected in his work, where the interplay between sunlight and space is the foundation upon which his projects are built.  

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet2
The Chapel’s punctured façade ©

Notre – Dame du Ronchamp, one of Corbusier’s most influential works, is a chapel located in Ronchamp, Paris. Devoid of the ornamentation and extravagance typical of sacred spaces, the space still inspires in one the sense of divinity, through the medium of light, which is used to create a mystical atmosphere. Light is treated differently in each space. In the main central chapel, the façade is punctured with asymmetrically placed apertures glazed with a mix of clear and colored glass, which flood the interiors with direct sunlight. The wall behind the cross is punctured with smaller openings, resembling sparkling stars, that frame the altar. Diffused light also filters into the space from above, through a cleft between the curved roof and the wall, adding another layer of lighting. 

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet3
Side chapel brings in sunlight ©
The Pursuit of Light - Sheet4
Illuminated altars ©

The towers of the three side chapels catch light from the sun at different times of the day due to their orientation, which results in light streaming in from the “heavens” illuminating the altars. Corb’s approach to the reveal of brilliant light through meditative darkness in the chapel creates an ethereal atmosphere suitable for contemplation and prayer. 

Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban, Bangladesh – Louis Kahn

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet5
Jatiya Sangsad Bhabhan ©

Louis Kahn – one of the most revered American Modernist architects from the 20th century, is considered a master in the use of natural light. For Kahn, light was not an afterthought, but the soul of the building, equal in importance to the function, structure, and scale. The Jatiya Sangsad Bhaban (National Assembly Building of Bangladesh), considered Kahn’s magnum opus, showcases his philosophy about light, and his mastery over it. 

Kahn conceived the Assembly as a transcendental event, and used light as the means to translate that essence to the building. “In the assembly, I have introduced a light-giving element to the interior of the plan. If you see a series of columns you can say that the choice of columns is a choice in light. The columns as solids frame the spaces of light. Now think of it just in reverse and think that the columns are hollow and much bigger and that their walls can themselves give light, then the voids are rooms, and the column is the maker of light and can take on complex shapes and be the supporter of spaces and give light to spaces.”  

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet
Double walls and apertures create a natural lighting system ©

Kahn did not believe in artificial shading, and used the concept of layering, double walling, and large apertures, in order to allow certain amounts of sunlight, as he thought necessary, into the interiors. The interior spaces hence received light in a myriad of ways, resulting in an organic and dynamic natural lighting system, where each space was lit in varying degrees of luminescence. The repeated geometric shaped openings – circles, triangles, and rectangles – act as light wells that, in typical Kahn fashion, not only illuminate the interiors, but help define the space within the structure.  The geometric shapes are abstracted from forms found in traditional Bangla culture, and add a dramatic flair to the façade. The prayer hall in the National Assembly consists of a soaring space with light pouring in from semi-circular openings from four corners in the room. The filtered light infuses the space with the spirit of the divine.

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet7
Prayer hall in the National Assembly ©
The Pursuit of Light - Sheet8
Parabolic Shell of the Parliamentary Chamber ©

The parliamentary chamber, sitting at the heart of the assembly, houses a parabolic shell roof covering the height of an entire floor. Parabolic semi-circles perforate the ceiling that fills the soaring space with daylight. The combination and contrast of the heavy concrete and light create an atmosphere of solemnity and silence within the National Assembly, fitting to the monumental stature of the building as a symbol of democracy for Bangladesh.  

The Church Of Light, Japan – Tadao Ando

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet9
Church of Light ©

Tadao Ando – iconic Japanese architect, whose unorthodox approach to art and architecture has won him international acclaim, said in an interview with EFE, that he has continuously sought to find light that transmits hope. “I choose simple geometries to draw delicate yet dramatic plays of light and shadow in space.” – Ando. While this guiding philosophy can be found across his breadth of works, the Church of Light is one such project that encapsulates the key principles Ando has tried to explore throughout his career. Not to mention, it is also the one that has gathered him the most acclaim, and is widely recognized across the world. 

The Church is located in a typical Japanese suburb, Ibaraki, on the outskirts of Osaka, Japan. The chapel is composed of three cubes to form a rectangular volume of 18 x 6 x 6 meters, punctured by an independent wall at 15 degrees, that does not touch the other walls or ceiling. The entire chapel is made of smooth reinforced concrete, a material that has been crucial for Ando’s explorations and experimentations with light in all his projects.

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet10
Cross puncturing in the Chapel wall ©

The movement and lighting while entering the chapel has been choreographed meticulously; the entrance is from the open, airy outside environment, through a darkened and cramped space, suddenly into a large, dark volume, illuminated by a singular cross punctured through the wall behind the altar. One is automatically drawn towards the piercing light of the Cross. The cleft between the wall and the ceiling lets in soft glowing light, adding to the spiritual aura of the space. The light cast through the apertures changes continuously during the course of the day, resulting in a dynamic spatial environment, and a unique experience each hour for the visitors.

The Pursuit of Light - Sheet11
Cleft between the roof and walls brings in soft glowing light ©
The Pursuit of Light - Sheet12
Ando’s work utilizes concrete heavily due to its versatile materiality ©

It is inside the Chapel that the inherent special qualities of the concrete come through. The materiality of the concrete allows the light from the Cross to diffuse and dissolve seamlessly into the interior space. The ethereality brought about by the light is contrasted by the darkness of the shadows cast by the concrete. The darkness is emphasized by the glowing light from the openings, creating a sober atmosphere for reflection and prayer. Cut off from all distractions of the outside world, Ando has created a space for contemplation and worship where the sacred is palpable, and one feels linked to a greater entity. 

The abovementioned architects are, but a few of the many today, who considered natural light to be a vital building block of their projects. They have influenced generations of architects about how light is not just a necessity, but the very soul of a building. We see this reflected in the work of Peter Zumthor’s Kunsthaus, Steven Holl’s Kiasma Museum, SANAA’s Rolex Learning Center, and Juha Leiviska’s The Church of the Good Shepherd.


Vidhi Agarwal is a practicing architect and designer, striving to be a better person and architect every day. She loves reading fiction, exploring new cities, finding the next best spot for brunch, and drinking coffee. For her, architecture is about resilience and optimism, capable of limitless positive change.