LET’S EMBRACE OUR DARK SIDE
It’s 50 years since the death of Japanese literary giant Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, and this month
we are reprinting a section of his masterpiece, In Praise of Shadows, with an introduction
by Mark Major of Speirs + Major. Tanizaki’s poetic and at times Shakespearean paean to
light’s daily play of shadow, light and half-light is as instructive as it is lyrical.
It sensitises us anew to natural light’s endless variants, especially the wan light of dawn
and evening. He notes that neutral walls in Japanese homes are favoured ‘so that the sad,
fragile, dying rays can sink into absolute repose’. The Japanese, forced to live in the dark
rooms dictated by climate and available building materials, ‘presently came to discover
beauty in shadows and ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends’.
In the West, by contrast, we have been keen to maximise light in our buildings and
enthusiastically embraced electric lighting. We have spent the past century chasing shadows.
Japan has a unique relationship with light in architecture from which we could learn.
To eschew uniformity in lighting would be a welcome start. But we could go further.
Innovative lighting design practices such as Speirs + Major have long consciously
deployed darkness in their schemes to both subtle and dramatic effect.
We instinctively understand that many great buildings – cathedrals such as Notre
Dame, for instance – would lose much of their allure and most of their contribution to
contemplation and reflection were every side chapel, alcove and crevice evenly illuminated.
‘Black box’ museums and retailers such as Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch use the
theatre of accent lighting punching through blackness to add drama and aid the sale.
But dark has got itself a bad name. From the Bible to Greek mythology and its Stygian
gloom, the metaphorical use of darkness throughout history as a symbol of evil is legion.
In today’s built environment, to that list of we can add health and safety considerations.
There are, apparently, practical benefits to dark. It can aid creativity, according to
researchers at the University of Stuttgart. ‘Darkness elicits a feeling of being free from
constraints and triggers a risky, explorative processing style,’ they concluded.
Next month’s lightspace dot london event will mark Tanizaki’s half-centenary with a
special keynote session on what’s been playfully termed ‘darkitecture’. Lighting designer
Rogier van der Heide will explore how we can (safely) deploy shadows and contrast in
So, 135 years after the invention of electric lighting and 50 years after the death of
Tanizaki, it would be a significant maturation of our professions if we were, finally, to
embrace our dark side.
17 COMMENT LIGHTING MAGAZINE
LIGHTING • OCTOBER2015
ING LIGHT ING
Ray Molony, Editor