Related Posts

Share This

Light & Dark

Light and lighting are often considered technology driven building systems, engineered to solve basic problems related to visual tasks.  The engineered solutions are primarily focused on providing a specified quantity of light onto a horizontal 30” high “work plane”.  Whether the light source is daylight or electric lighting, this utilitarian understanding of light is what is taught in most architecture programs and then practiced throughout the profession.  Far too many architects only think of light as engineered illumination.

Computational Classroom Lighting Study

Yet what is missing is a basic understanding of how we see and feel.   Steen Eiler Rasmussen’s book “Experiencing Architecture” (Rasmussen, 1992) was one of the first to assert that architecture lies in the senses.  In his book he concludes that even natural light can be artistically controlled.  This is possible due to the adaptability of the human eye which makes variation in the quantity of light insignificant, but the quality of light is of paramount importance.  “Light’s value is diminished by uniform illumination, becoming shadowless and dead…”  Architect and phenomenologist Juhani Pallasmaa has written extensively about how architecture is experienced and decries the “ocular-centric” nature of today’s architecture.  In his essay “Hapacity and Time” he writes: “… architecture has turned into an art form of instant visual image…Flatness of surfaces and materials, uniformity of illumination,…Our buildings have lost their opacity and depth, sensory invitation and discovery, mystery and shadow.“ (Pallasmaa, Hapticity and Time, 2008)

University of Washington, Henry Art Museum, Turrell Light Space, James Turrell

A holistic approach to the design of our visual environment is needed, one that is based not just on technology but on human visual perception.   A dualistic model for how the human visual system captures and processes information was confirmed in 1992 by psychology researchers Goodale and Milner who proposed a “What and Where” division of labor in the visual pathways of the primate cerebral cortex. (Goodale & Westwood, 2004)  James Gibson also describes this dualistic understanding of vision in his breakthrough book “The Perception of the Visual World”.  Gibson distinguishes between conscious (what) vision and unconscious (where) vision.    Gibson articulates conscious “what” vision as primarily focused on identifying and taking action on things in the targeted visual field.  He describes unconscious “where” vision as a way to determine how we orientate ourselves to our surroundings.

The significance of this dualistic model for human visual perception is that architectural lighting design should address the entire conscious and unconscious visual system.  This requires an understanding of the qualities of light, dark and contrast, as a full visual spectrum.  When light, dark and contrast are detached from the service of the “what” of conscious vision; they have a greater influence on the “where” of unconscious perception. This requires that we design lighting to not only meet a localized task metric, but purposely incorporate contrast, shade and shadow in order to have a greater impact on how a space is globally perceived.

SeaTac Airport Concourse A, Seattle, WA. nbbj

A way to enrich architectural spaces is to allow darkness and variability to occur naturally.  In this way spaces gain visual and temporal depth and richness.  This requires that we design not just lighting but the entire visual experience, including darkness.  Yet the planned use of darkness in our visual environment has been a missed opportunity.  This is due to a lack of knowledge in how to utilize darkness to improve visual clarity while creating safe, restorative spaces.  Understanding the perceptual dimensions of darkness would allow designers to begin to craft spaces that express the full range of visual experience.    By not lighting a space to meet a localized task metric (illumination), darkness in the form of contrast, shade and shadow can have a greater impact on how a space is globally perceived.

Fry Art Gallery –Lobby Oculus, Seattle, WA. Miller/Hull

It is not the engineered illuminance of space, but the creative manipulation of architectural forms, materials and finishes that liberate light, dark and contrast into rich compositional elements, representing the full spectrum of visual experience.  The renowned Japanese architect Tadao Ando describes how he invites both light and dark into his architectural spaces:

“It is necessary to return to the point where the interplay of light and dark reveals forms, and in this way to bring richness back into architectural space.  Yet, the richness and depth of darkness has disappeared from our consciousness, and the subtle nuances that light and darkness engender, their spatial resonance – these are almost forgotten. Today, when all is cast in homogeneous light, I am committed to pursuing the interrelationship of light and darkness. Light, whose beauty within darkness is as of jewels that one might cup in one’s hands; light that, hollowing out darkness and piercing our bodies, blows life into ‘place’.“

-Tadao Ando, Architect (Ando, 1993)

Church of Light, Osaka, Japan, Tadao Ando

Works Cited:

Ando, T. (1993). ‘Tadao Ando 1989-1992: special issue’ . El Croquis , vol.12 ( no.1 (58) ), 4-183.

Goodale, M. A., & Westwood, D. A. (2004, Issue 14). An evolving view of duplex vision: separate but interacting cortical pathways for perception and action. Current Opinion in Neurobiology , pp. 203-211.

Pallasmaa, J. (2008). Hapticity and Time. Notes on fragile architecture .

Rasmussen, S. E. (1992). Experiencing Architecture. MIT Press.


Edward Bartholomew IALD, LC, LEED AP, IES
Research Assistant Professor, Architectural Lighting
Department of Architecture
College of Built Environments
University of Washington


Edward Bartholomew has over twenty years experience designing architectural lighting for which he has won numerous lighting design awards while exploring evidence-based sustainable lighting strategies. He is committed to research, teach and advocate for the design of efficient, sustainable and visually inspiring environments through the strategic application of daylight, electric light and visual perception. Edward has served as a lighting specialist at the Lighting Design Lab and as a researcher for the Integrated Design Lab where he assisted architects and engineers with research based, integrated electric lighting and daylighting strategies.

Edward has a MFA in Architectural Lighting Design from the Parsons School of Design, and a BFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from San Francisco State University. Edward teaches Architectural Lighting as a vital building system whose purpose is to reveal, inspire and clarify visual environments using the most sustainable strategies possible. Edward has written many articles on lighting and perception and is the Lighting Education columnist for the trade magazine Lighting Design and Application (LD&A). Edward has his own firm, Bartholomew Lighting a full-service lighting design studio that consults on a range of architectural projects. He also serves on several lighting industry boards and committees including the IESNA Sustainable Lighting Committee. Edward is an invited speaker at international conferences and for organizations including the Seattle AIA, and Cascadia.

pixelstats trackingpixel