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Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: The Architecture of Light

The Architecture of Light: Recent Approaches to Designing with Natural Light by Mary Ann Steane
Routledge, 2011
Paperback/Hardcover, 246 pages



Gracing the cover of Mary Ann Steane's examination of a number of 20th-century projects "whose architects have a particular interest in light and window design" is the Music Room in the Open City in Rotique, Chile. This project is not as well known as a number of other case studies that Steane presents -- Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp, Carlo Scarpa's Quirini Foundation, Daniel Libeskind's Jewis Museum, Herzog and de Meuron's Tate Modern -- but it dramatically encompasses the ideas on natural light that she attempts to convey in this book. First and foremost is how designers respond to natural light in the ways they shape space, yet this is always questioned in relation to meaning. It is not enough that light be considered in architecture, it must convey something special about the place and the insertion of the building into its larger context.

The Music Room is a strong example for Steane's book because it does not have a similar authorship than the other projects in the book, be it the ones listed above or not. Open City is just that, an open environment for collaboration where buildings are not the product of one guiding hand. Increasingly architecture is moving away from the supposed ideal of a conceptual master designer, but Open City is a large-scale canvas where architecture, building, and school combine to create a new environment. Attributed to Godofredo Iommi, Alberto Cruz, Miguel Eyquam, and Juan Purcell, the Music Room follows the tenets of the Open City and is a space of various uses, open to interpretation. Being used for lecture, community meetings, and the occasional recital, light becomes the heart of the space otherwise free of apertures. By varying the locations of the windows that travel up and down, the space can be made physically open or demarcated into different zones. It's a small and simple project where light is the key to its existence.

So in relation to the other projects in the book the Music Room illustrates how natural light can infuse projects of various sizes and types in different parts of the world, not just high-profile projects in, say, Western Europe. Steane admirably tackles a broad range of projects and takes the patience to examine each building on its own terms; Ronchamp and the Jewish Museum both have points of dramatic light, for example, but they are of different times, places, and ideologies. While not all of Steane's text is highly readable, owing to an academic and theoretical take on light and architecture, the division of the book into case studies means they can be read in any order and at leisure. The photos in this book may not reach the beauty conveyed in Henry Plummer's various books, but it is a welcome addition to literature on natural light in architecture, a topic as important as artificial lighting.


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