Light defines our perception of time and
space and, therefore, of architecture.
Its nature was misunderstood for
millennia. We might know more about
light now, but do we understand its use?
WORDS: Elisa Valero Ramos
PICTURE: Elisa Valero Ramos
This article is an extract from Light in Architecture
Opposite: Elisa Valero Ramos pictured at Cerillo de Maracena, Spain,
which she designed
Space holds the key to the meaning of architecture. And talking about architecture means talking about space – space delimited by tangible material. We perceive this space through the interplay of light and
shadows, to such an extent that Proclus, the fifth-century Neoplatonist thinker, declared that space and
light were one and the same thing.
From ancient times, space had been seen as an abstract
idea, discussed in philosophy and metaphysics, or
else the subject of the experimental and natural
sciences. Exploration of concepts of space developed
in parallel with humans’ knowledge of the natural
world. However, until the 19th century, space itself
was not thought of in fine-art terms, and so it was not
discussed in architectural books and treatises.
Light, too, has been studied and theorised upon
from the earliest times. By the time of the Greek
mathematician Euclid in the third century BCE,
knowledge of its properties included the laws of
reflection and refraction and the fact that light travels
in straight lines. However, ancient scholars committed
the basic error of thinking that light was an ‘effluence’
issuing forth from a person’s eyes, like tentacles
touching and feeling objects, and that it was this that
enabled the person to see those objects.
Subsequently, Plato’s belief was, by contrast, that rays
of light came from the viewed object and informed us
of its qualities, mainly its surface and foreshortening.
These visible aspects were what his contemporary
Democritus called, respectively, an object’s ‘shell’ and
its ‘profile’. The Renaissance architect Leon Battista ▼