The role of daylight in architecture is of utmost significance regardless of building typology. This is because of the simple fact that humans rely on sensory feedback to experience life and what we see is defined by the light in a space. Despite the invention of fire and all other ingenious contraptions that followed, allowing us to see in the absence of daylight, there’s nothing like a sliver of sunshine slanted against your floor. The warmth and vibrance of natural light are incomparable.
Specifically, in places of worship, daylight is often associated with spirituality in the metaphorical as well as literal senses. Perhaps this is a consequence of human dependence on natural light since prehistoric times or maybe it is just the simple balance of your visual aesthetic. When harnessed the right way, light and shadow become like notes of harmony. To successfully conquer the art of daylighting as an element of spirituality, you must first understand the relationship of daylight with faith and belief systems.
Although most religions consider light as a form of divine providence, the nature of their expression varies with time.
Daylight in sacred spaces goes back as far as ancient Egyptian architecture. In ancient Egypt, the sun (and by extension sunlight) represented the sun god Ra. Ancient Egyptians created mystical spaces by harnessing light and shadow into their temples. Their religious and funerary projects integrated sun rays to depict significant days of the year through astronomical alignments.
The Pantheon has been an architectural marvel for its opulent architecture and celestial geometry for thousands of years now. The structure consists of a rectangular drum-like structure capped by a dome.
On the intrados of the dome is a nine-meter-wide oculus that spills light into the expansive area it encloses. The dome itself is a symbolic representation of the heavens and the oculus represents the highest point of the heavens where the sun shines.
Early Christianity was not widespread. It was in fact considered a punishable sin. Therefore, early Christians worshipped in secret, often in below ground structures and catacombs with punctures along the edges of the roof of these structures. Clerestory lights were most probably evolved from these early structures.
The clerestory light is used to emphasize the presence of God by transforming the space to provide a mystical and mysterious experience. To showcase God as a celestial being beyond human understanding.
In traditional Hindu temple architecture, the planning principles are derived from the Hindu faith. Temple plans are developed from basic square shapes. The central chamber of a temple can be envisioned as a black square at the core of the complex. This chamber is shrouded in complete darkness so that the devotee is not distracted by any of their senses and is solely focused on god.
In Ottoman mosque architecture, apart from the central dome, windows open up to the dominant interior space. Praying is done from every point in a mosque making it necessary to provide natural light throughout. Windows on higher levels ensure uniform distribution of light suitable for reading. Since Muslim prayer times are based on the position of the sun, the mosque must receive sufficient daylight for both noon and afternoon prayers.
Modern, Post Modern and Contemporary Architecture are a lot more experimental with the role of light as an element of spirituality. There have been variations in its exposition with respect to context, trends and architectural ideologies.
Pilgrimage Church of Nevijes or Neviges Mariendom in Germany designed by Gottfried Böhm is a brutalist structure defined by angled planes and exposed concrete finishes. It encloses the visitor in a dark environment with light entering the space through skylights or stained-glass windows placed high up, only slightly highlighting the altar. The concept is an adaptation of the human eye to changes in light intensity.
Bruder Klaus Field Chapel, Germany, designed by Peter Zumthor, boasts of a sinuous form that is an analogy for the fact that there isn’t a straight answer to everything in life. The interior is made from a charred black wooden frame with small bottle glass portholes that are reminiscent of stars in the night sky.
The Church of Light by Tadao Ando is one of the most well-known religious buildings. The church is made of concrete, adding to the dark, void interior effect broken by a cut out of the Christian cross on the east-facing wall which is the only source of light.
The Bahá’í Temple in South America allows for light to fall inside with beautiful silhouettes from the space above. The building was cast in nine symmetrical wings that close at a central oculus
The Al-Irsyad Mosque in Indonesia is designed by Urbane. Its structural columns are arranged such that the mosque looks like it has an unsupported facade. The mosque is surrounded by water to maintain ambient temperatures and seems to blend in with nature.
The Cymbalista Synagogue by Mario Botta consists of a rectangular base with two matching towers. The towers catch and release daylight into the interior space.
The exterior of the Sancaklar Mosque is designed to blend in with the surrounding topography which is in contrast to the calm interiors of the mosque. The praying area is enhanced through slits and fractures in the wall that let in sunlight.
All these projects may differ in terms of function, ideologies and the belief systems they represent but it is the human experience of simple things like light and architecture that connect us.