Aman Aggarwal, Principal Architect, Charged Voids
“The history of architecture is the history of the struggle for light” –Le Corbusier. Light is an ephemeral yet crucial ingredient that shapes architecture. It holds the power to drastically change perceptions based on its source and quality, among other characteristics. The apertures in a building can be manipulated to modulate natural light in order to highlight material texture, animate the interiors and affect moods. We can understand the correlation between natural light and architecture through the following five channels.
Light Builds Time
The size, direction, and positioning of the fenestrations in a building determine when and how we receive ‘solid light’, or direct natural light. If entering through a regular 5-feet high glazed window, it will look quite different than through a patterned jaali. The way in which these light patterns move within a space is in tune with the time of day, helping us perceive the passage of time. For instance, the oculus at the centre of the dome of the Pantheon in Rome hits a distinct recess of the many recesses carved into the interior walls as the day progresses and the sun moves in the sky.
Daylight in winter has a different quality than that of the summer sun. Similarly, natural light in one corner of the world will feel different than the other, pertaining to the specific atmospheric conditions that it passes through.
Light Defies Scale
Architecture has a peculiar quality of being perceived differently under varying lighting conditions. Designers can use this to their advantage, as flooding a space with diffused natural light while controlling the inlet of direct light from all directions can make it look significantly bigger. Conversely, the absence of light will make the same space seem smaller in scale. Imagine standing inside a life-sized frosted glass box placed directly under the sun. While most people can gauge the approximate size of a space they are in, under these conditions, surrounded solely and completely by diffused light, one would find it difficult to determine its exact scale. This is how light defies scale.
Light Becomes Material
When we are working with light in architecture, we have the opportunity to mould it to our liking using building materials and apertures. However, light itself becomes material in certain cases. A ray of sunlight passing through a crack in the door of a silent, dark room turns into an ethereal curtain as well as a dynamic flooring pattern. In the inner sanctum of the Matri Mandir in Auroville, which is closed on all sides except for a small circular opening in the ceiling, a column of solid light falls through to the crystal globe standing directly beneath, serving as the singular source of light in the entire chamber.
The decision-making for introducing natural light to any space should vary according to the function, the interior materials, and the experience the architect wants to create for its occupants. All of this is ultimately determined by an analysis of light within its context.
Light Defines Form
The light that falls directly on a curved wall tells us that it is, in fact, curved. Shadows are what tell us that a dome is a dome. How shadows fall on or inside a building can affect our perception of the shape of the built mass. For example, the Indian Parliament building in New Delhi is a cylindrical form, yet the lay person viewing it from a distance knows that this not because he or she has seen its architectural floor plan, but due to the building’s own rhythmically receding shadows. Another great example is that of Japanese architect Tadao Ando’s architecture, which speaks volumes of the power of light and shadow through its minimal materiality.
Light Creates Experiences
Our spatial experiences are influenced strongly by the kind of light that is allowed to enter the space. Bearing this in mind, experiential lighting can be designed based on the requirements or mood that we wish to create. A skylight is an effective tool: Its depth-to-width proportions determine how much indirect light can be received indoors. More solid, direct light will enter if it is too wide and more diffused light will enter if not. Le Corbusier’s buildings use sun breakers and a lot of openings that are deep enough to create this kind of effect.
The edges of a fenestration refract sharp rays into softer, more diffused daylight, while smooth, white surfaces reflect that light around the room. Direct light is able to enter only around noon every day. This effect is enhanced further if the light punctures through the roof instead of the walls, as refraction is made easier, and the roof can be made to appear floating.
In the Student Hostel at the Chandigarh Group of Colleges, we designed a very simple triangular layout with criss-crossing bridges running across its central atrium. The daylight filtering from the skylights penetrates almost four floors into the eight-storeyed structure. The lower floors are lit through the double-height glazing surrounding them, which then reflect the light back up through the courtyard. The juxtaposition of these two light sources, and of light and darkness, lends the Hostel a dramatic visual effect.
The function of any given space determines what factor of light is more important. For instance, in a house, we don’t always want light to become a material. A beam of ‘solid’ light coming down on one’s head in the living room—a space meant for relaxation—can be quite uncomfortable.
In a residence located in an urban environment, a double-height window and a horizontal window with a skylight will create completely different relations to the exterior. Similarly, light from a verandah will have a different effect on the interiors than that coming directly through a window that has no sunshade or is bounded by vertical louvres.
Aman Aggarwal’s design philosophy has been shaped by his training under the late Pritzker Prize-winner BV Doshi and Le Corbusier’s modernist principles. He seeks to infuse a spiritual character in built forms through knowledge of the elements and response to climate.