“Elements of Architecture,” the Rem Koolhaas-curated exhibition at the 2014 Venice Biennale, delved into several remarkable structural as well as technical components of architecture, including floors, walls, doors, stairs and toilets. But why was light missing?
My manifesto for the inclusion of light as a fundamental element of architecture — after the break.
Koolhaas' focus on the historical retrospective and his interest in the theory of architecture could have offered enlightening perspectives and initiated a long neglected debate on the role of light in architecture. The neglect is especially odd considering Koolhaas’ thoughtful analysis of the influence of lighting in his 1978 work Delirious New York, where he clearly documented, for instance, the “Electrical bathing” of 1890 that extended the beach life at Coney Island or the 1916 Zoning Law that permitted more light to enter into the streets and buildings of Manhattan.
But Koolhaas is not the only famous architect and critical thinker who has placed light in a position of minor importance. Light is often overseen due to its invisible nature. After all, only when material reflects light can we detect it, as Louis Kahn poetically summarized: “The sun was not aware of its wonder until it struck the side of a building.”
The current Biennale could have explored where light is crucial — like the historical window exhibition by the Brooking National Collection or the ceiling section, with visual patterns of luminaires. However, these perspectives focus more on form than light. When illumination turns into an element to spy out privacy in the public space or when light pollution leads to a danger regarding health and wildlife, Koolhaas' critical view would have been extremely valuable.
Several museums in Germany have already started to draw more attention to the influence of light on architecture: for example, “The secret of the shadow – Light and shadow in architecture” at the German architecture museum in Frankfurt (2002), “Luminous buildings: Architecture of the night” at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart (2006), and the more recent presentation “Lightopia” at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein (2013). Moreover, light artists like Olafur Eliasson, who turned on an artificial sun in the giant Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern in London, remind us of how important light is in our daily lives. Even the United Nations has recognized the relevance of light, proclaiming 2015 as the “International Year of Light.”
Is daylight or lighting not an essential element of architecture? Has lighting not significantly shaped our public environment as well our private lives for the last 100 years? Has light not already influenced the wonders of the world — like the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Lighthouse of Alexandria or Stonehenge? Even if Koolhaas and his team missed the chance to recognize light as an essential element of architecture at the Venice Biennale, it is time for us to revitalize the debate about the historical as well as future role of light and lighting for architecture and urban design.
Light matters, a monthly column on light and space, is written by Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting, has published numerous articles and co-authored the book „Light Perspectives“. For more information check www.arclighting.de or follow him @arcspaces