Light Leaps

Volume 45, Issue 2 :: by Susan Jones, FAIA

The theologians state that God shines forth to us more clearly in the symbolism of light, since we ascend to intelligible things by means of perceptible things. Surely, Light itself, which is God, is prior to any other light, howsoever nameable, and is prior to any other at all….Indeed it is not ever necessary to look for light, which shows itself in what is visible. Therefore, light is sought in what-is-visible, where it is perceived; thus, in this way it is seen at least gropingly.¹
Nicholas of Cusa, On God as Not Other, 1461

Singularity is in the movement from Silence, which is the seat of the unmeasurable and the desire to be, to express, moving towards the means to express, which is material made of Light. Light comes to you because actually it is not divided; it is simply that which desires to be manifest, coming together with that which has become manifest. That movement meets at a point which may be called your singularity.²
Louis Kahn, Between Silence and Light, 1973 

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Photo: jean-louis zimmerman/flickr

Whether Nicholas of Cusa would have wished his theological meditations to be paired with those of a 20-century Estonian Jew, or whether it is worth speculating on Louis Kahn’s reaction upon seeing his words written alongside those of a late Catholic mystic, nevertheless seeing the parallels between this spiritual writer and this architect is instructive. However, in thinking about the proliferation of churches since the Second World War, and the corresponding large body of written works during this fertile time that attempt to define the nature of a house of God, perhaps these thinkers have something very important to tell us.

Light is used by each of them to express the sense of the infinite – God – or the immeasurable. From the sphere of the infinite, light, “is not seen or known in any other way than it reveals itself, since it is invisible, because it is higher than and antecedent to, everything visible.” The relation between light and perceptible things is exactly echoed by Louis Kahn when he writes that all material in nature, “…the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of Light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to Light. So Light is really the source of all being.”³

This profound feeling and respect for that which is not visible and is manifested only through a less perfect medium of material is ultimately what makes Louis Kahn’s architecture so revered today. Clearly, this sensibility is manifested in every inch of the hallowed stone of the Gothic cathedrals. It exists in a less exalted but equally profound form in the Cistercian monasteries; the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp and the monastery of La Tourette in France; in the tiny nondenominational chapel in rural Arkansas by Fay Jones; and in the round chapel at MIT, designed by Eero Saarinen.

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Photo: Stefg1971/flickr

What is often disappointing and only naively surprising, was that out of the hundreds of churches constructed in this fertile post-Vatican II period, few are able to express, with like force, a similar expression of the transcendent. Perhaps not so surprisingly. For upon examination, much of the Vatican II literature focuses on the programmatic needs of the new religious spaces, the users, the communities the structures would house. While revolutionary in its focus on the great communities of faith–the people–the literature seems in retrospect, silent, too silent, on the most primordial function of sacred spaces. In response, it was a rare thinker or designer who attempted to acknowledge that a religious structure should aim to embody the sense of that which is beyond human grasp, beyond human reason, and beyond human will. Too many of these churches seemed weak and ineffectual and sometimes ill-suited to their larger purpose, and could only be explained in terms of what was left out, for the most part, by the writers of the Vatican II literature – the sense of transcendent humility endemic in the relation between our imperfect humanity and God, at least the Judeo-Christian God.

By broadly calling for a church to attempt to give “formal expression to the force of mystery and also something of the sense of wonder of the old cathedrals,”4 we are admitting to the potential of architecture to symbolize meaning through its form. But different levels of symbolism exist, making it the task of the contemporary architect to approach the problem carefully. One of the most often repeated arguments against the use of symbolism in Modern churches is that its imagery is outdated and no longer speaks to us. Perhaps these criticisms are pertinent to many of today’s religious communities. But it is a jump from this criticism to say that a work of art, to be Modern, must leave the expression of meaning-through-form to other artistic and cultural expressions.

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Photo: Dominique Sanchez/flickr

One approach to symbolism in early post-Vatican II churches was to rely on the power of structural and material expressionism, especially in the use of concrete, in the case of Nervi, or brick, in the case of Eladio Dieste, to create churches which have inherently powerful forms of plasticity and sculpture. At times, in the hands of lesser masters than these, this symbolism is no less literal than traditional religious imagery – from praying hands to tents, to churches in the shape of a cross. The danger, of course, is that, like any art form that exploits merely the literal agency of a graphic symbol, they run the risk of being perceived as simple caricature. But when brought to life by Dieste or Nervi, these churches evoke the most profound feelings of the sacred. One of the most essential attributes of architecture is its ability to express a quality of light. In the 19th century, Schopenhauer characterized the special relation that exists between light and architecture:

I am of the opinion that architecture is destined to reveal…the nature of light….The light is intercepted, impeded and reflected by the large, opaque, sharply contoured and variously formed masses of stone, and thus unfolds its nature and qualities in the purest and clearest way, to the great delight of the beholder; for light is the most agreeable to things as the condition and objective correlative of the most perfect kind of knowledge through perception.5

The divinization of light is an ancient theme, one that reaches back far beyond Christianity, far beyond Hellenistic art and philosophy. The symbiotic relationship between architecture, the divinities, and light persist today, and continue to be seen in the most moving of our Modern sacred spaces. Within the Western tradition, the words of certain medieval thinkers resonate, even today. The great Cistercian abbot of the 12th century, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, was very influential in prescribing the form of the Cistercian monasteries and churches constructed during his lifetime, even of those constructed for several centuries afterwards. He held numerous strict injunctions against the use or ornamentation and decoration in his churches, and at times his dogmatic writings echo Modernist exhortations against the same. But his purpose was entirely different, though it relates in a far diluted form to our questions at hand. St. Bernard writes, “Remove what is superfluous, and thou shalt see an increase of what is good and necessary. What thou subtracted from superfluity, is added to utility.”6

His desire to create a holy place of purity was to aid the monk along his struggle to contemplate his God, and this struggle was often illuminated using the analogy of light: “The approach [to God] is not by a physical progression, but by flashes of succeeding light, and these are not corporal but spiritual….The soul must seek the light by following the light.” 7

In François Cali’s very beautiful book, Architecture of Truth, the above quote is paired with a photo by Lucien Hervé, which shows one wing of the medieval cloister of Le Thoronet, its heavy stone piers illuminated with bright stripes of light, the rhythm between shadow and light almost hypnotic against the rough grained porosity of the stone. The medieval cloister of Le Thoronet (images of which are shown in this article) commands a powerful unity of its materiality. The sense of the three-dimensional space as defined by a collection of two-dimensional planes is lost here. The stone of the floor, walls, piers and steps combine to create the impression that the place is a single vessel, a container for light. Light illuminates this container, and, one senses, changes the entire nature of it, as it moves throughout the day. But as light shapes our perception of the space, there is the sense that the purpose of the container is to hold that light and bring us to notice it. The sense that light is a physical presence whose existence is to be pondered is heightened by the fact that the source of light is concealed from us. It enters the space through the thick spatial barrier of the outer stone colonnade, and as it moves through space as it softly illuminates the texture of the piers, then almost blindingly flashes on the pavement, practically erasing the delicate tracing of the ceramic tiles. It strikes the instep of the stairs, still differently, asking the observer to note yet another quality of itself as it again meets stone.

The interaction between light and texture point out another quality of the cloisters: within the unity of the hall there is great variety in the ways that stone and light reveal the nature of one another. This quality is also seen in the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp as well. There Le Corbusier has used two materials: light and stucco over concrete, and has captured the nature of each, by varying the interaction between the two, from the sharp blinding slit between roof and wall, to the softened glow against the cavity of the windows. The connection between the spirit of Le Corbusier and of Le Thoronet is well known. The preface of Cali’s book was written by Le Corbusier, and the monastery of Le Thoronet was suggested to him by his client as a precedent during the design process of the monastery of La Tourette. Corbusier’s very short preface echoes some of the above thoughts on the qualities of material and light: “The way stone is dressed takes into account every fragment of the quarry’s yield; economy coupled with skill; its form is always new and always different…. Light and shade are the loudspeakers of this architecture of truth, tranquility and strength. Nothing further could add to it.”8

No verbal description of the qualities of a beautiful and holy place is ever adequate enough to inform the creation of such a place, but the above thought calls to mind two smaller, American chapels, the MIT chapel designed by Eero Saarinen, and in the hills of Arkansas, the nondenominational chapel designed by E. Fay Jones. Both of these churches have qualities similar to the above examples, though interpreted through entirely different materials. Saarinen’s chapel is introverted, with no direct reference to the source of light; it is mysteriously emanating from beneath the brick walls. The light is received softly here, and the interactions between light and brick are very subtle, and are interpreted brick by brick by brick. Each brick as a unit participates in the playing out of the theme as texture and light unite to create a perfect whole.

The quality of the enclosure is not duplicated in Jones’s Thorncrown Chapel. The structure is completely open and airy, and seems to merge invisibly with the young hardwood forest it is situated within. Here, the light is not calm, but perpetually moving from one thin strand of structure to the next. The light is not contained in the building, but is contained in the forest; the verticality of the structure pulls one’s view out beyond its walls, out through the trees and higher to the sky. There is the same quality of unity within the structure that we see in the stone cloister, the building is a three-dimensional volume, though this time it does not capture light in order to contain it, but instead, intensifies it through almost vibrational motion. The interaction between light and structure is equally unique, for the thinness of the many pieces of the structure intensify the feeling of light in motion, and that play of light seems to accentuate the thin, tensile qualities of the structure.

These two very different examples of powerful Modernist sacred spaces, especially in their interaction between light, materiality, and structure, point to the complexity of drawing specific functionalist conclusions. However, the symbolic power of a work of architecture, its power to evoke emotional responses through rendering light and materiality to create beauty, remain one of the most primal human experiences. For as the essential orientation of the sacred belief structure is to express what lies beyond finite understanding, then more than words, or figurative images, there is no better medium to employ than the very abstract and yet very concrete language of architecture.

  1. Nicholas of Cusa, On God as not Other, trans., Jasper Hopkins, (Arthur J. Banning Press, Minneapolis), 1983.
  2. Lobell, John, Between Silence and Light, Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, (Shambala Press, Boulder), 1979, p. xx.
  3. Op cit., p. xx.
  4. Turner, Harold, W., From Temple to Meeting House: The Phenomenlogy and Theology of Places of Worship, (Mouton Publishers, The Hague), 1979, p. 337.
  5. Schopenhauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Representation, Vol. 1, trans. E.F.J. Payne, (Dover Publications, New York), 1969, p. 216.
  6. Melczer, Elisabeth and Soldwedel, Eileen, “Monastic Goals in the Aesthetics of Saint Bernard”, in Lillich, Meredith Parsons, Studies in Cistercian Art and Architecture, Vol. 1, (Cistercian Publications, Michigan) 1984, p. 34.
  7. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, as quoted in Cali, François, Architecture of Truth: The Cistercian Abbey of Le Thoronet, (George Braziller, Inc., New York) 1957, p. 21.
  8. Le Corbusier, preface to Cali, ibid. p. v.

Susan Jones, FAIA, is a principal of atelierjones in Seattle, Washington