For Stanley McCandless in Lighting for Architects (1957), light can be considered a structural material much like brick, steel or concrete, having certain characteristics that determine its use and design. He believes that
the architect should design lighting as he designs the
use of these materials.
According to McCandless, the functions of lighting
– visibility, comfort, composition and atmosphere –
define it. Light gives visibility; without light, objects
cannot be seen. Bare lamps are functional, but can
make us uncomfortable. Good electric lighting can
actually create greater comfort than even daylight, since
daylight is not as easily controlled. With lighting, the
designer can create visual composition – reveal some
things, suppress others – and change the appearance of
otherwise static objects. He can create an appropriate
atmosphere, whatever that may be.
These functions are used as part of daily design
whether consciously or not. In our homes, we’ll
place a table or floor lamp of sufficient wattage in a
darkened room so that we can see. We’ll cover it with
a shade to shield the brightness from our eyes in order
to make it comfortable. We position it in the most
advantageous location in the room and choose a
particular shade colour so that it looks good. By doing
so, and in concert with other elements in the room,
we have created atmosphere.
Visibility, comfort, composition and atmosphere are
functions that give motive and critical objective to the
many uses of light for the benefit of people. Techniques
and equipment will constantly change and improve,
‘but the functions of lighting are the immutable
standards of physiological, psychological and aesthetic
reaction to the use of light. The approach to the mind
in terms of vision is through the eye. Thus the relation
of the qualities of light (the physiological aspects of
seeing) to each of the properties/functions is the key to
design of all uses of light,’ McCandless writes.
These functions extend the uses of lighting beyond that
of just giving visibility. To each function is attached the
four qualities of light: intensity, colour, distribution
and movement, clearly emphasising that lighting is not
about the equipment; it’s about the light. The fixtures
selected must be judged and evaluated in their context.
The personality of each lighting application is singular.
While McCandless offers a method, it is not the only
method. And it need not always be taken literally.
Guess, estimate, measure. Have the courage to think
for yourself. Say: if I could change one thing in this
space, what would that be – the lighting, the furniture,
the finishes? In that way, you really get to see the space
from different perspectives. It is a sifting through
process. Once you inject your philosophy, notions and
ideas, you can mould what you’ve learned empirically
into a wondrous new creation. No brainwashing by
rules or standards, but a melange of skill, experience
and the ability to see.
In his diminutive essay, In Praise of Shadows, published
in 1933, Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki names
darkness as an indispensable element of beauty.
When dining on soup under electric light in a famous
restaurant in Kyoto, a wonderful piece of black
lacquerware, flecked with silver and gold, appeared to
him ‘garish or vulgar. But render pitch black the void
in which they stand, and light them not with the rays
of the sun or electricity but rather a single lantern or
candle: Suddenly those garish objects turn sombre,
refined, dignified.’ This phenomenon came from a deep
understanding of the effect of a unique light source on
the layering of blacks, browns and reds – a candle’s
flame. Candlelight created the desired visibility,
familiar comfort, delicate composition and intimate
atmosphere that electric light could not provide to
this guest. The intensity: low; the distribution: uneven;
the colour: golden; the movement: flickering. Lighting
these simple bowls of soup to any prescribed standards
would have annihilated a moment of beauty and
sensitivity to the aesthetics of old Japanese culture. The
Japanese artisans centuries ago knew what they wished
to see and how they wished to see it.
Electric light is often referred to as ‘artificial’ light.
Never have I known anything but natural light,
whether daylight, firelight or man-made. All light is
real, no matter how fabricated. Nowhere is it written
that lighting design requires electric light or that any
design requires the expected. Knowing what you wish
to see – using whatever tools necessary to achieve it –
imparts your open mind, background and knowledge
to the experience.
Design for the depth of the response, not the
illuminated surface. We should all remember this
in the frenzy of our day to day. Close your eyes and
imagine, feel and then create.
l Learning to See: A Matter of Light, published in
2008, is available from the Illuminating Engineering
Society ( www.ies.org), price $65, and from Amazon
( www.amazon.co.uk) from £ 60
‘Light can be considered
a structural material’