Material Light is a metaphysical event. It occurs at the instant light meets the surface of physical matter and reveals its phenomenological qualities. Our experience of space is shaped by material light. This text explores various ways material and light may be modified so this moment alters experience.
Fragment is an episodic publication of Studio Twenty Seven Architecture. Each issue is dedicated to a singular idea, project, or element associated with the Art of Architecture published to foster future dialogues on architecture.
“The light and heat of the sun; these are composed of minute atoms which, when they are shoved off, lose no time in shooting right across the interspace of air in the direction imparted by the shove.”
On the Nature of the Universe, Lucretius, 1st Century B.C.
Todd Ray, AIA; Principal
Studio Twenty Seven Architecture
This morning our coffee-colored cocker spaniel passed the time by following a length of sunlight around the cottage. The warmth of the sun soothes her sleep; every quarter hour she relocates, each time pawing at the rectangle of light as it moves and changes shape. Luminosity and warmth add depth to the small, lit surface area. The illuminated space is delineated; the boundaries distinguish it from adjacent cooler, darker areas. The light is tangible to her; material.
Light is a paradox. Seemingly ephemeral and intangible, light is the most malleable element in the design of space. Light illuminates, grazes, shimmers, and sparkles. Light reveals texture and depth, or by its absence, shade and shadow. Through subtle shifts of angle and intensity, light reveals the hardness of surface and crispness of edge. It is reflected, refracted, bent, captured, or in special conditions, passes through. When reflected, light rebounds from a surface in sharp, defined angles or is fractured into multiple rays. Light transforms. The moment light strikes the surface of a material is its transmigration into material light; it is the instant light rays and matter intertwine, making salient the phenomenal essences of the material.
During the architectural design process, we ask: What materials shall be used to construct a building? How are these materials brought together? Why these materials? Do they have inherent phenomenological essences which carry meaning?
How should this space be illuminated? What is the light source? Which directions will the sun cast light? Can these be meaningfully employed?
Lorenzo Bernini exploited the ethereal qualities of translucent alabaster and gilded angelio figures in the alter Cathedra Petri in the Basilica of St. Peter. The materials engage light and ultimately, the soul.
“The moon shines solely by virtue of its ability to reflect sunlight.”
Bill Williams, A History of Light and Lighting, (1999)
Fire Island Residence, 2006, New York
The angle at which light strikes a smooth surface is equal to the angle at which it reflects. The nature of reflected light, or sometimes a reflected image, then varies based on the location of the observer. A spectrum of beauty and aura exists in the geometry of the light source, a surface, and the points of observation.
Holding a reflective surface, we intuitively move the object to shift our angle of observation in an effort to understand the essence of the material. As our relationship to the object changes, the light source, the lighted surface, and our own reflection are as fleeting as they are exacting. The intertwining of the material and the light it reflects informs our understanding of the object. Reflection calls attention to a material’s surface quality — its visual depth, surface clarity, and consistency. We move into the reflection, our focus moves away from the reflected light or image and on to the essence of the material. It is shiny like glass, or it is course like sand; we try to understand it from what we know of other materials.
If a material’s surface does not create direct reflection of a light source and instead diffuses the light into multiple incidences, the intensity of the light is reduced; a glowing effect is created. Diffusion removes the exactness of the privileged positioning offered by the angles of reflection and instead illuminates the spatial dimension. A material’s reflectance — its shine or its roughness — can be modified to establish distinct instances of material light. Stone is flamed or sheared rather than polished; glass is sand blasted.
Materials have a capacity to mediate light along a progression from transparency, translucency to opacity. The spectrum extends from absence of material to absence of light. Within this spectrum, the middle ground is the mystical balance of translucency; a balanced material light. As a material’s capacity for transmitting light moves along the spectrum, the material trades its capacity for reflecting light or an image to the capacity for defining silhouette. Loss of transparency is perceived first as a loss of clarity, then as a loss of color, until only an outline remains. As a material loses transparency it gains the ability to shade and shadow, evoking the mystery of the obscured.
Loss of opacity endows a material with the ability to capture light within its volume. As light is reverberated and refracted, the material acquires luminosity. A fraction of light enters the material, the same fraction of light cannot leave; the material glows. Luminosity is reverberating material light.
Transparency is used for a simple separation as spatial perception continues without interruption through to a background. Translucency — and measures thereof — delineate boundaries both subtle and distinct. It allows light to extend spatial perception beyond a physical edge. Translucency may create shadow. Opacity denies visual perception of the space beyond. Opacity creates shadow.
Shadow is achieved in the rich darkness of the opaque. Removing portions of an opaque mass or surface reveals the space beyond. Porosity introduces the magic of contrast. It reveals an alternate material light to the ones presented by the spectrum of opacity. Fissures, pores, or portals within an opaque material provide contrasting conditions of light, images, and spatial dimension. If a material is opaque, it defines a boundary and a single spatial dimension. Openings introduce a space of greater depth, divided perceptively by the contrast of spatial and material light conditions.
Can a single opening render a material porous? A single penetration is a portal. Multiple portals, however, create porosity. At what point does the elemental relationship between solid and void, between positive and negative, become a characteristic of the material itself? As a material is dematerialized, these distinct opposites become one indistinguishable entity. Solid and void become one. The material is an object in space — a veil — as much as it is a boundary. It may even embody space within itself.
Porosity enhances the capacity of a material to define space. More penetrations provide greater visual access to the space beyond. As the penetrations increase in number or size, fragmented views unite to form a single coherent image of the background. We acquire the ability to see both the material and the space beyond as if the foreground material were not there. The act of visual perception becomes an attribute of the space.
Making a material porous is a subtractive process; a solid is carved away to reveal. The precondition for porosity is a precedent solid into which penetrations are made. The foreground solid material is the dominant element. The thicker the material, the more variation is possible for the direction of the penetrations; the voids themselves become three-dimensional, introducing yet another level of spatial complexity.
Making a screen is an additive process: materials are gathered, layered or woven to reduce visual access to the space beyond. The precondition for screens is the background; the screen is added to the foreground. Either method — making a solid porous or weaving a screen — partly obscures the background to adjust the visual blending of foreground and background. Adding penetrations, versus adding elements, illustrates the inverse relationship between porosity and screening. A balance is achieved in the degree of openness.
Just as light transmission can be measured along a continuum from transparency to opacity, porosity and screening can be measured along a continuum of contrast. A blending of contrast into sameness — the flattening of foreground to background, or vice versa — may occur at any point along this continuum. The greater the visual difference between foreground and background the sharper the contrast.
Contrast can be achieved within porosity if the foreground material is no longer opaque, but translucent. A blending of silhouette and image alter the clear perception of the space so screens constructed of translucent or transparent elements lower contrast. The dialogue between porous or screened material, light, and background image creates eloquent interpretations of material light.
As Steven Holl observes, “Night light forms fluid luminous space. Fluid light has different viscosity; Tokyo night, Manhattan night, and Amsterdam night differ. Architecture is sometimes only a slow viscosity of fluid space in motion.”2 Light can be perceived as fluid; as thick or thin. Light is viscose, and its viscosity varies based on spatial conditions. Light within an immense space, elusive, intangible, yet perceptible, was defined by Aristotle as ether. Ether was conceived as pure energy; not simply space, but an admixture of space and particles of light in varied proportions. Light is a liquid that never solidifies, or particles that never gel; it is a material that remains continuously fluid.
2. Steven Holl, Intertwining (Princeton Architectural Press, 1996) pg. 13
Energy atoms traveling at 299,792,458 meters per second intertwining with material surface
As the viscosity of air thickens, light and time seem slower. The light acquires the ability to absorb and disseminate color. Leonardo da Vinci noted in his sketchbook that “The blueness we see in the atmosphere is not intrinsic colour, but is caused by warm vapour evaporated in minute and insensible atoms on which the solar rays fall, rendering them luminous.”3 The blueness of the air adds viscosity to distant space. The sky is at times a different blue, and the sunset varies each day based on the point of observation and the water and material content of the air.
Over 350 years later, Irish scientist John Tyndall developed the method of scattering light on suspensions within transparent fluids to identify types of mixtures. In thinning transparent fluid so rarefied that vapor droplets are poised in air, we find da Vinci’s blue spectrum held in Aristotle’s ether. da Vinci conceived of solutions, ether and paint, containing color, water, particulates and light. These admixtures give viscosity to particles of light and chroma.
3. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), “Of the Color of the Atmosphere” (The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci) pg300
When light strikes a surface, light rays of different colors — the prism encapsulated in white light — are reflected or absorbed based on the pigment of the surface itself. A spectrum of color reverberates at the thinness of the material surface. The light thus blends with the surface to reflect multispecular rays of color. In layered translucent surfaces, such as that of a film of oil on water, the scales of a fish, or the cellular surface of a butterfly wing, light modulates into a thin, iridescent surface, flexible and multifaceted. Surface assumes dominance over form as variegated light, masking the qualities of mass in favor of a diffused spectrum of color.
A simple aquatic mussel slowly builds layers to expand its protective enclosure and in the process creates a surface of amazing beauty. Could a building enclosure be designed to achieve the same ends? If an irritant slips within an oyster’s shell, a pearl is formed: bivalves layer saliva and mud to form mother of pearl. Every building eventually stains. Could a building be designed so that the layering patinas of age become one of its primary aesthetic attributes?
Can a building acquire the quality of iridescence? Can a building surface emulate the biological world or capture its essence?
The moiré effect is a kind of a pattern that occurs when sets of dots or lines of different size, angle or spacing are overlaid. The reverberation of light within and beyond a multi-dimensional moiré pattern employs a blend of reflectivity, screening, and porosity to approximate iridescence.
Light density is the intensity of the light in relation to the volume of the space it fills. The light intensity from natural light can be adjusted by modulating building orientation, roof monitors, skylights, windows, drapes, and shades; artificial lighting is modified with light bulb selection and wattage, shades, reflectors, and dimmers. Humans have primal relations to flames as light sources — candles and fires, as they change over time — flaming high and burning to a soft glow from the embers. The modulating light intensity changes the spatial dimension of architecture; conversely the intensity of the light is held constant and either the perceived or actual spatial volume is changed, then light density changes proportionally.
Material density, when considered phenomenologically, is the perceived mass relative to spatial volume. A reflection seems weightless, and a shadow weighty. Transparency has less material density than opacity, though their actual scientific density may be the same. Perceived spatial volume is derivative of the material light of a room.
Is color, or the absence of color, the true phenomenal essence of material? If a wall is yellow, is it actually yellow? The color of light a surface reflects is the only color perceived; all others are absorbed. So is the wall yellow, or all colors except yellow? What is the color of light millimeters before it hits the surface? Or millimeters after? Color is the most accessible medium with which to grasp the interplay between material and light. Reflection is the blending of material surface and light; true material light.
Color changes the viscosity of light. Color changes the hue of light. Color changes its crispness, tone, intensity, and temperature. The modified light alters the space within which it flows and within which we exist. Light mixes with surface and material to emanate color. When light reflects off a colored surface, it carries the color with it.
Pythagoras’s light traveled from the eye to gather sensation from a visual ‘touch’.
Aristotle’s light travels in waves flowing through space and around objects.
Hero of Alexandria’s light started to be reflected and refracted off materials.
Ptolemy’s light bent as it move through water.
Alhazen, Roger Bacon and Giovanni Porta sent their light through a small hole to invert a world image and create Camera Obsura.
When did light become less manipulable? Leonardo da Vinci began dissecting human eyes to find the source of light or to see how it was captured. Light was removed from our emanation and began to fall upon us. Light was removed from our internal being and notions of illumination were relegated as a phenomenal intelligence within our minds. As the God-centered universe began to dissipate, so the mysteries of light faded yet.
The light remains constant to our simple manipulations.
List of Images:
Cover image: Detail of Window Screen, Kids Smiles Dental Clinic, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture; image credit: Anice Hoachlander Hoachlander Davis Photography
Photo credit: All photographs are by Anice Hoachlander, Hoachlander Davis Photography
unless noted otherwise.
2-3: +2edison7, Stair Rail Detail, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2010
5: Lorenzo Bernini, Altar of Cathedra Petri in St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1966
6-7: Solar Eclipse, October 3rd, 2005; Wikipedia Commons
8: Fire Island Residence, Pool Elevation, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2008; image credit: Judy Davis, Hoachlander Davis Photography
9: Formation of Retinal Image, René Descartes, La Dioptique, 1637
10: Formation of Retinal Image, René Descartes, La Dioptique, 1637
11: Watershack, Flamed flagstone Entry, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2008; image credit: Todd Ray
12: O’Conner Residence, Stairwell, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2007
14-15: O’Conner Residence, Stair Detail, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2007
16-17: Moon Setting; Unknown
18: Watershack, Living Room, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2008
20-21 Kids Smiles Dental Clinic, Detail of Window Screen, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2011
22-23: Watershack, Detail at Entry Stair, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2008
24-25: Fish Sculpture, Barcelona, Frank O Gehry; image credit: Todd Ray
26: Watershack, Entry, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2008
28-29: Yale Steam Laundry Competition, Perspective of Bridge Entry; image credit: Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2005
30-31: Yale Steam Laundry Competition, Concept sketches of light through water and air; image credit: Todd Ray 2005
33: top: Leonardo da Vinci, Ginevra de’Benci, 1474-8, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; bottom: the Tyndell Effect, Wikipedia Commons
34: Microscopic images of (top) nacreous layers of mollusk shells, (middle) the spine of a purple sea urchin, and (bottom) the ligament of a bivalve; image credit: Kogure Laboratory, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Graduate School of Science, The University of Tokyo
36-37: left: Monarc Construction Inc. Headquarters, Solar Veil Detail; image credit: Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2006; right: Blue Morpho butterfly, found in northern South America; image credit: Gregory Phillips
38: Monarc Construction Inc. Headquarters, Elevation of Solar Veil; image credit: Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2006
39: Monarc Construction Inc. Headquarters; image credit: Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2006
40: Kids Smiles Dental Clinic, Entry, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2011
42: Kids Smiles Dental Clinic, Color Reflector Detail, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2011; image credit: Hoachlander Davis Photography
45: Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – The Morning After the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis, Joseph Mallor William Turner, 1843
46: (from top) The sun, NASA Atmospheric Imaging Assembly; Into The Clearing, Hunting Valley, Ohio; Johannes Vermeer, The Astronomer, 1668, Museé de Louvre, Paris; Salvaggio Residence, Studio Twenty Seven Architecture 2006
Contractor: Phelps & Phelps
Consulting Engineers: Ehlert/Bryan, Inc. (Structural)
Metropolitan Consulting Engineers (MEP)
Fire Island Residence:
Contractor: Crellory Property Management, Inc.
Engineers: Ehlert/Bryan, Inc. (Structural)
Contractor: Greenwald Cassell
Engineers: Ehlert/Bryan, Inc. (Structural)
Contractor: Tobin Construction, Inc.
Engineers: Ehlert/Bryan, Inc. (Structural)
Kids Smiles Dental Clinic:
Contractor: Forrester Construction Inc.
Engineers: Ehlert/Bryan, Inc. (Structural)
Meta Engineers (MEP)
Delon Hampton & Associates (Civil)
John K. Burke, AIA
Todd Ray, FAIA
Enrique de Solo
Sarah Beth McKay
Studio Twenty Seven Architecture is a collaborative design and research practice based in Washington DC. For more information and to stay up to date with Studio Twenty Seven, please visit our website at
Point of Contact:
John Burke, AIA
First published 2013 by STUDIOTWENTYSEVENARCHITECTURE
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