With all the meanings and all the qualities it can be attributed to, vernacular architecture simplest of definitions is the following: the architecture minus the architect. From what we can tell of that particular sentence, since the beginning of time, vernacular houses were built by the locals themselves, using local materials, resources and techniques.

The goal? Fulfilling their society’s foremost and basic needs. The challenge? Adapting to the climatic and natural challenges with a lack of architectural knowledge. Aside from being one great example of sustainable design, and despite the limitations these populations would face, one important resource was at their disposal: light. Keep on reading to learn more about the importance of lighting in traditional vernacular architecture and how it makes today’s architects reconsider its necessity and consequences in the built environment.

Light and the Definition of Space

Light is considered the purest and one of the most powerful tools. Having always been there, it is sometimes taken for granted. Yet, imagine living in total darkness! In vernacular architecture times, people did not have access to lamps and artificial light as we do today. Therefore, their main and primary source of lighting was natural sunlight. Living with a limitation as such, locals would analyze the most efficient way to let natural light in and prioritize the spaces that would benefit the most out of it, like the main living areas. 

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Lebanese Courtyard House_Deir el Qamar_©Irene Suzdaltseva

One of light’s main roles is the definition of the space itself, through qualities such as centrality, balance, and symmetry. For this example, it is adequate to analyze two vernacular architectures, specifically Mediterranean: the Lebanese traditional courtyard house and the Iranian traditional courtyard house.

In these two examples, and as their names recall, the primary way to filter the light inside while linking the spaces and highlighting the living areas was done through the introduction of central courtyards. This architectural design provided a rather introverted character to the Mediterranean traditional houses, whose users prioritized privacy and intimacy as important values of their day-to-day life, while still being able to get the desired outdoor space. 

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Iranian Courtyard Plan_©sciencedirect.com

With its “O” shaped plan, and the genius study of orientation and proportions, the courtyards would form a microclimate of their own. Moreover, a study performed on this specific vernacular design has, in fact, proven the positive impact related to climate and lighting of the traditional central courtyard houses on the indoor and semi-open spaces.

Today, many architects, such as Looklen Architects in “the Roof House” are inspired by this architectural element, and implement it in their modern projects, as ways of creating introverted outdoor spaces that not only helps reduce the reliability of the users on artificial light and their consumption of electrical energy but also as a way of turning their approaches into more sustainable ones, while fulfilling the users’ demands and adapting to their needs.

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The Roof House_©Looklen Architects

Light, Spirituality, and Aesthetics

Aside from its quality of defining the spaces and their functions, light has also a quite symbolic representation. Being the first creation according to the Bible and the Quran, it represents the Creator himself. Therefore, it has been integrated into figurative and deep thought-of ways in the traditional vernacular religious architectures. The spiritual function of the light can be seen in the “Jaalis” that was commonly used in Hindu temples and Islamic Architecture. 

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The Jaalis_©sites.psu.edu

Carved into the stone, in delicate and repetitive geometric patterns, Jaalis have been proven as functional as aesthetic. They cut down the direct sun, controlling the amount of light and heat that filters through the space while allowing efficient ventilation and cross ventilation of the indoor space. This perforated façade is considered as a work of art itself, as it maintains the view across and lets the light in, consistent and mesmerizing patterns, without disturbing the calm and relatively darker praying spaces. This smart usage of light, not too overwhelming yet present, helps the users sense a feeling of serenity and connection with the spiritual world. 

Nowadays, the same concept is being used in modern residential and public architecture, through systems of perforated shades, usually metallic ones, proving its efficiency in terms of light control, ventilation, and aesthetic altogether.

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Shading Screens – Perforated Facade Panels_©Bruag

Light, Psychology, and Behaviour

As the last example of lighting’s importance in vernacular architecture, it would be interesting to take a look at the “Youth Center” in Niafourang, Senegal, elaborated in 2011 by the inhabitants themselves, who put their hand in the stages of planning and building. The center, which includes a library and multi-purpose room was built with hand-pressed cement and sand, using solely vernacular and traditional techniques. 

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Youth Center In Niafourang_©Project Niafourang

Considering the complete absence of electricity in the village, great importance was given to lighting management. Many windows were positioned on a rather low level to allow for a small sitting area and angled wood planks and shades were added to control the rain and the direct sunlight. In an intellectual space such as this, where no artificial light can be added, providing an important amount of sunlight during the day affects with no doubt the performance of the users, their mental state, and therefore their behaviour. 

Youth Center In Niafourang_©Project Niafourang

The natural light invading the interior not only makes the space feel more spacious, and more comfortable, but it also affects the children’s perception and health positively, despite the modest conditions they are living in, making their learning experience easier and more effective. In conclusion, ensuring enough provision of this necessary source is the way to mental and physical wellbeing.

References

Michael, C. H. (2015, December 10). Lighting performance of urban vernacular architecture in the East-Mediterranean area: Field study and simulation analysis. Retrieved from Journal: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1420326X15621613

Ahani, F. (2011). Natural Light In Traditional Architecture Of Iran: Lessons To Remember. Retrieved from WitPress: https://www.witpress.com/elibrary/wit-transactions-on-the-built-environment/121/22052

Aithal, H. (n.d.). 8 Elements of Vernacular Architecture Influenced by Religion. Retrieved from Rethinking the Future: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/rtf-fresh-perspectives/a867-8-elements-of-vernacular-architecture-influenced-by-religion/

Niafourang, P. (2012, March 16). Youth Center In Niafourang / Project Niafourang. Retrieved from Arch Daily: https://www.archdaily.com/217208/youth-center-in-niafourang-project-niafourang

Suzdaltseva, I. (2019, April 1). Lebanese Architectural Identity: The Classical Residence. Retrieved from World Architecture: https://worldarchitecture.org

Author

Angela Hanna is a senior architecture student at the university of USEK, Lebanon. Having always been passionate about reading, she states that words have a wicked and powerful way to change our perception and therefore our reality. She believes that through the creation of spaces, we create emotions and enhance mindsets, thus which will work in favor of building a better world.

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