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Capturing the Sun

The Villa Pisani in Lonigo is the most celebrated of the works of sixteenth century architect Vincenzo Scamozzi.  Among its remarkable qualities, natural light is repeatedly cited for its primary role in shaping the experience of its interior spaces. While published photographs give a certain kind of vivid evidence of the truth of this, I became increasingly curious to know more about the changing nature of light in the villa throughout the day and year.

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After a certain amount of daydreaming about the possibility of a systematic program of photography to track the light, I took my question to Chris Meek in the Integrated Design Lab.  Would it be possible to use daylight modeling technologies to get a better understanding of the light in the villa?

We embarked on an experiment to see what we could find out. The bulk of the work involved the construction of a 3D digital model of the main spaces of the villa: a central rotunda with an oculus in the dome, a south-facing loggia, and three axially disposed halls terminated by full-width serliana windows. Using Ecotect software, Chris and his research assistants created images of the movement of light in the rotunda throughout the day at high summer, the equinox, and the winter solstice. The views that they created revealed a kind of drama that could otherwise only be known by inhabitants of the spaces.

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I found it fascinating to track the light entering through the oculus on June 21. Our view of the rotunda is facing east, so the spot of light only becomes visible at 11 am as it is tracking over the northern portion of the circumference.  It stays in view until 6 pm, when it ends up on the southeast perimeter of the oculus. In the meantime, it has filled the north-facing hall with direct light and traced a diagonal path from the floor back up to the dome, crossing the springline at 3 pm.

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At the solstice, the sunspot from the oculus is present only from 8 am to 4 pm and never strays below the springline of the dome. But direct sunlight stretches across the floor of the rotunda for three to four hours in the morning and late afternoon as the sun shines through the serlianas to the east and west.  Not only does the direct sun penetrate to the opposite side of the 30 foot diameter rotunda, but the shadow of the Ionic columns are also projected across the floor.

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At mid-winter, only a very small spot of direct sunlight from the oculus plays around the very top of the dome for a few hours at mid-day, but it is complemented by a low mid-day sun that can penetrate the full depth of the loggia.

The discovery of wonderful moments as well as the full understanding of how sunlight interacts with Scamozzi’s villa opened up a whole new appreciation for a building I had already studied in depth. And I greatly enjoyed collaborating with Chris, who shared my excitement at seeing the results of our experiment.

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Thanks to Christopher Meek, the IDL, and all of the students who assisted in this project: Philip Syvertsen, Kesinee Trakulpattanakorn, Aaron Allen.

Written by Ann Marie Borys, Associate Professor 

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