Light Matters: Louis Kahn and the Power of Shadow

Light Matters: Louis Kahn and the Power of Shadow

Kahn Looking at his Tetrahedral Ceiling in the Yale University Art Gallery – image by Lionel Freedman

Does shadow have the power to give form to architecture? The increasing number of transparent buildings and LED installations would enforce the impression that light has eliminated the relevance of shadow. But to answer that question, let’s look back to a master of light whose architecture was shaped by shadow: Louis Kahn.

As identified by Leonardo da Vinci, we often encounter three types of shadows: Attached shadow, shading and cast shadow. The attached shadow falls on the body itself – like a cantilever roof causing a shadow on the façade. The second type belongs to bright and dark contrasts, which are inherent to the form and depend only on the source of light, e.g. a ball shaped pavilion, which even under a cast sky shows a darker zone in the lower part. The third, cast shadow, could be the result of a high house generating shadow on the street due to the projection of the building outline.

Kahn´s archetypical forms go back to Greek architecture, which he studied in the 1950s: “Greek architecture taught me that the column is where the light is not, and the space between is where the light is. It is a matter of no-light, light, no-light, light. A column and a column brings light between them. To make a column which grows out of the wall and which makes its own rhythm of no-light, light, no-light, light: that is the marvel of the artist.”

However, light was also a central element in Kahn´s philosophy because he regarded it as a “giver of all presences”: “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.” For him, light is the maker of material, and material’s purpose is to cast a shadow.

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Written By: Thomas Schielke

Image Courtesy of: Lionel Freedman

Source: ArchDaily