On light and dematerialization in architecture

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On Light and Dematerialization in Architecture

Final Report for the John K. Branner Travelling Fellowship

For best image quality, view on-screen at 100% or smaller. This report was meant to be viewed as facing pages. © 2000 by John C. Klopf

On Light and Dematerialization in Architecture John C. Klopf

“Light has no intellectual meaning even though it touches the depths of our beingin every way.” – Henry Plummer, Light in Japanese Architecture

Dematerialization in architecture is a perception, a belief. An observer may believe that materials have lost their solidity, that patterns of light are blending with and altering physical surfaces, or that light has become more present than the physical construction it has entered. Dematerialization convinces people they haveentered an alternate reality in which familiar rules such as the laws of gravity can be bent. The apparently floating dome in a renaissance church is a familiar and readily explicable example of dematerialization. Daylight entering Alberti’s Sant’Andrea through windows below the dome and through an oculus in its center make its underside brighter than the surfaces around it and draw our eyes upward.Since we are used to overhead surfaces appearing darker than their surroundings, Sant’Andrea’s dome appears to defy gravity. Christian worshippers may especially appreciate this metaphor for divine light as part of their religion, but anyone can experience dematerialization any time that light strikes a surface (or even when light draws our attention away from surfaces). There are many morepossibilities than the typical example of a massive material that appears to float. Effects vary depending on: material transparency, color, texture, and orientation to the light; the quality and quantity of light that hits a material; and the overall arrangement of the space and the viewer’s position in it. By manipulating several of these variables, architects have designed spaces with quite a variety ofdematerializing effects. If one looks carefully, he/she will notice that dematerialization happens frequently. This study discusses four different ways in which light dematerializes materials, fooling the eye and sparking the imagination. It is based on observations and measurements the author made during ten months of international travel in 1999. The author expresses gratitude to the family ofJohn K. Branner, whose travelling fellowship grant made this project possible. Gothic Glimmerings Imagine yourself living in the Middle Ages. People were generally expected to live until their mid-thirties, but they probably looked like they were in their fifties. And even if someone out-lived the odds, chances are he/she would have lost all of his/her teeth anyway. Mass entertainment was rare;life consisted of a daily routine of back-breaking labor accompanied by a poor diet and uncomfortable housing. In northern Europe during the medieval period, cool clammy weather, disease, human and animal wastes, and suffering characterized villages and towns. Reality was harsh and the future held no promise. The most visually exciting things people had ever seen were the sun, the night sky, andfire. If you were living in those times, I imagine you would seek an escape from reality whenever possible. I also imagine you would be interested in associating

1. Pantheon, Rome - Roman: Light becomes a solid object, supporting the heavy concrete dome.

2. Sant’Andrea, Mantua - Alberti: Side lighting and an oculus brighten the underside of the dome, allowing it to float visually.Dematerialization draws the eye upward over the altar.

with ideas that out-lasted your short, miserable life. Perhaps that’s why pilgrims set out to visit the impressive and apparently timeless gothic cathedrals. The pointed stone arch and flying buttresses that characterize gothic cathedrals make it possible to enclose larger, higher spaces with less material than round arch construction does. Several...
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