Of Tactile Light and Landscapes

Volume 46, Issue 4

The interrelationship between building and perception is one of the most powerful and enduring concepts in architecture. Beyond a metaphor, the idea that architecture functions as a “window” through which one “sees” to the outside world remains a paradigm open to rich interpretation. A cut made through a wall that shapes an exterior view, a longitudinal window through which one perceives a distant horizon, an oculus that opens to the sky and lights the interior —all these architectural devices establish a visual continuum that shapes our mode of apprehending the world.

This past summer in New York City, my architecture students and I had the opportunity to consider the contours of the relationship between architecture and perception anew through two major museum exhibitions –James Turrell at the Guggenheim Museum and “Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes” at the Museum of Modern Art. In “Aten Reign,” an ethereal atmospheric installation at the centerpiece of Turrell’s show, shifting light from along the color spectrum illumined Frank Lloyd Wright’s great spiraling rotunda core, sculpted with six thin and translucently layered rings rising from the bottom to the skylight above. Turrell’s investigation in this work into perception and modes of seeing reflected his larger concern with questions of eyesight, of light and space, and of what has been called the “haptic” experience of light rather than of physical objects. Using light’s “seemingly intangible” essence, Turrell often evokes the symbolism of his Quaker roots, yet his concern for the symbolism of light has also been linked to Abbot Suger and Dionysius before him. The goal, as Turrell puts it in Craig Adcock’s book on the artist, is to “create an experience of wordless thought, to make the quality and sensation of light itself something really quite tactile.”

The Le Corbusier retrospective was likewise informed by examining architecture’s relationship to vision. The curators set out to explore afresh the ways in which Le Corbusier looked at the world and the manner in which his perception and methods of notating environments altered over time. Tracking observational strategies across the span of Le Corbusier’s life—including his travels across the Balkans, to Greece, and Turkey, as well as his architectural work in Europe, the Soviet Union, Tunisia, and in North and South America—the exhibition aimed to assert the deep relationship between practice and place which informed his life and work.

Curiously, the influence of the airplane was felt in both exhibits. For Turrell, the experience of flight is integral to his interest in perception; he has described time in the air as equivalent to time in the studio. In the mid 1970s, Turrell famously used a Guggenheim Fellowship to search with an airplane for an untouched landscape in the desert of the southwestern US—what is now the Roden Crater project—where he could make use of his strategies both over decades of time and expanses of land and sky. For Le Corbusier, the airplane was an extension of his means of beholding a territory and his way of crafting relationships both optically and bodily to the topography below.

Although the exhibitions themselves recalled forms of secular spirituality, the work itself often spoke of a meditative solitude induced by light. It is this solitude, characteristic of the most subtle of sacred architecture, that is constructed by the framing of light’s substantive potential—evocative of a “pure brightness” not unlike that of the evening Phos Hilaron.

The writer is a lecturer at Yale’s School of Architecture and the Institute of Sacred Music.