Architectural Sunlight

“The sun never knew how great it was until it struck the side of a building.” – Louis Kahn

Just like everything in our solar system, buildings revolve around the sun.  However, buildings also revolve around the sun in more than just the literal sense.  They also rely on the sun and its sunlight to either be successful or fail.  A building that is designed well with the sunlight in mind will be more readily received and used.  Humans evolved outdoors, and need natural sunlight to be healthy and produce Vitamin D.  During the winter, in some northern countries such as Scandinavia, “approximately 5% of the population suffers from depression” due to the lack of natural sunlight (Mathiasen 115).  This shows the importance of sunlight in a humans daily life.  Recently , the newly designed San Francisco General Hospitalwas a LEED gold building designed with the intention of allowing the most possible natural light to enter the building; aiding in the speedy recovery of the patients.  The front facade is a curtain wall of glass, which lets the sun enter easily into the atrium and into the rooms beyond.


Design for the San Francisco General Hospital

The average american spends almost all of their day indoors, around 12 hours, not including the average 7 and a half hours of sleep.  If people need the sun in their life, and they can not spend enough time outside, then it is even more important that the buildings they spend their time are open to the outdoors or at least open to outdoor sunlight.  To do this designers need to focus on how the sun moves around the site and how it would enter the proposed building.  As Mathiasen says “Light is an important part of the internal climate and a prerequisite for many functions in the building” (Mathiasen 117).  The most important part about designing with light however is, how the light enters and brightens a room.  A designer can’t just fill a wall with windows and be done with it.  It is important to be able to control the amount and kind of light that enters buildings at different times of day for different purposes.  Adjustable louvers, like the ones on the UVA School of Architecture, are good ways to regulated the entering sunlight, and have different opacity glass depending on what they are covering.


Louvered Glass Window

The LIGHT part of sunlight is not the only part of that is important and valuable to architects.  The shadows that the sun casts when entering a building can be just as powerful and even more beautiful then the sunlight.  As Tanizaki outlines in his novel on Japanese Architecture, it is the simplicity of it that makes it so beautiful.  While I do agree that simplicity is good, and often beautiful, I also think there are many time when modern “western” architecture as Tanizaki calls it can be just as beautiful and use the sun and its shadows just as well.


This image form the University of Caracas in Venezuela is a wonderful example if how a porous structure can light a space, but can also create a field of light and shadow that is almost a work of art.

Designers are always thinking of new ways to allow sunlight to enter buildings and in some cases, even change lives.  A Liter of Light is an organization that is focused on providing natural light to poor areas and slums of third world countries.  The idea is that a used liter plastic  bottle is filled with filtered water and bleach to keep it clean and then poked through a piece of corrugated metal that is inserted on the roof.  This allows light to hit the top of the bottle that sticks out through the top of the roof and be reflected through the water into the the small dark home.  The effect is astounding and even life-changing.  The first hand accounts of these lights being installed in homes is warming and shows how far a ray of sunlight can shine.



Bureau of Labor Statistics. American Time Use Survey.

Liter of Light.

Mathiasen, Nanet; Voltenlen, Nina. Light and Shadow.

Tanizaki, Jun’ichirō. In Praise of Shadows. 1933.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s