Between Darkness and Light

Volume 49, Issue 3, by Michael J. Crosbie

Louis Kahn might be best remembered for talking to bricks and asking what they wanted to be, but for the creators of sacred space Kahn’s most prescient observations are about light, light of the natural variety. “Architecture appears for the first time when the sunlight hits a wall,” Kahn believed. Through his teaching and mentoring, the central importance of light in architecture for Kahn was reiterated over and over.

As the northern hemisphere is now on its journey into the darkest months of the year, I was reminded of Kahn’s insight that light is not just seen, but felt. “We are born of light,” he said. “The seasons are felt through light. We only know the world as it is evoked by light.” For Kahn, it was an article of faith in the creation of architecture to capture natural light. He had a disdain for relying too much on what he described as “the touch of a finger to a switch,” which produced a dead illumination, forgetting “the endlessly changing qualities of natural light, in which a room is a different room every second of the day.”

But natural light’s presence and power, particularly in the experience of sacred spaces, is enhanced by its opposite: darkness. The two work in tandem, like graceful dancers, circling a room. Kahn spoke about how his experience of ancient Greek architecture had taught him about the alternating presence of light and no light between the columns. To capture a slice of the sun was one of architecture’s greatest achievements, but even a thin sliver of light depended upon darkness for its power: “Even a room that must be dark needs at least a crack of light to know how dark it is,” Kahn observed.

I don’t know if Kahn ever read Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s slender book, In Praise of Shadows, but I suspect he must have (Charles Moore, in his foreword to an English translation of Tanizaki’s book, quotes Kahn). Tanizaki is Ying to Kahn’s Yang. Writing in the 1930s, he deplores what he perceives as the West’s over-abundant artificial illumination, driving out cobwebs of shadow in a room, and he laments the adoption of Western emphasis on bright interiors in his native Japan. In one passage, Tanizaki writes about how darkness in a temple allows the flickering of gold altar lamps to harmonize with the wrinkled skin of the old priest, “and how much it contributes to the solemnity of the occasion.”

Tanizaki observed that the interior darkness of traditional Japanese buildings cultivated an aesthetic sensitivity “…to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.” Similar to the way Kahn describes the presence of light in a room as a being, Tanizaki relates how darkness envelops him in an old ceremonial teahouse: “…the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall. It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow. I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.”

Kahn and Tanizaki, two sides of the same coin, would consider careful measures of light and darkness as essential atmospheres in creating sacred space, and the experience of the transcendent here on earth.

Michael J. Crosbie is the Editor-in-Chief of Faith & Form and can be reached by email at [email protected]

Back to editorials