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Louis Kahn – An Architect of Light – The Power of Light and Shadow

Light can give power in architecture that affects the interior space and atmosphere. There is an increasing amount of transparent buildings being constructed all over the world along with LED installations that enforce the impression that light eliminates all relevance of shadow. However, Louis Kahn, known as the master of light, designs architecture was shaped by light and shadow.

(National Assembly in Dhaka, Bangladesh)

Louis Kahn´s archetypical forms relate 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.” (Louis Kahn).

However, light was also a very important central element in Louis 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.” (Louis Kahn). For Kahn, light is the maker of material, and material’s purpose is to cast a shadow.

(Image property of ArchDaily)

And because Louis Kahn believed that the dark shadow is a natural part of light, Kahn never attempted a completely pure dark space for a formal effect. For Kahn, a glimpse of light elucidated the level of darkness: “A plan of a building should be read like a harmony of spaces in light. Even a space intended to be dark should have just enough light from some mysterious opening to tell us how dark it really is. Each space must be defined by its structure and the character of its natural light.” (Louis Kahn) As a result, the light as a source is often hidden well behind louvres or secondary walls, thus concentrating all attention on the effect of the light and not simply on its origin.

“Even a room which must be dark needs at least a crack of light to know how dark it is.” (Louis Kahn).

(Image property of ArchDaily)

“The “mysteriousness” of shadow was also closely linked to evoking silence and awe. For Kahn, while darkness evokes the uncertainty of not being able to see, of potential dangers, it also inspires deep mystery. It is in the hands of the architect to evoke silence, secret or drama with light and shadow – to create a “treasury of shadows,” a “Sanctuary of Art.”” (ArchDaily).

Therefore, walking through the sequence of openings at the portico of the Salk Institute brings to mind the dark silence of a cloister. Dark shadow lines and holes, from the precisely defined moulds, offer a fine texture on the large wall surfaces. “The white stone and the grey concrete walls present a monotone three-dimensional canvas for the play of shadows. Shade turns into an essential element to reveal the arrangement and the form of Kahn’s monolithic volumes.” (ArchDaily).

(Presidential Plaza)

Even though Louis Kahn designed and constructed many buildings in regions exposed to extreme sunlight, he did not design his buildings just to protect users from the sun, but rather to protect the sanctity of the shadow. He did not believe in artificial shade, “such as the ‘brise-soleils’, explains Ingeborg Flagge, the former director of the German Architecture Museum who curated the exhibition “The secret of the shadow”.” (ArchDaily).  Instead he used windows and doors in his double walls to direct and manipulate the light into the interior. As Kahn describes the large open windows and doors of the Indian Institute of Management: “The outside belongs to the sun and on the inside people live and work. In order to avoid protection from the sun I invented the idea of a deep intrados that protects the cool shadow.” (Louis Kahn).

(Phillips Exeter Academy Library)

Louis Kahn´s path of designing with shadow has attracted and influenced numerous followers, like Tadao Ando with his Church of Light, Peter Zumthor and his Therme Vals or Axel Schultes with his Crematorium. All of these buildings include shadow as a form giver for silent spaces. This perspective presents a pleasant counterpoint in the modern architecture of today that strives for dynamic and bright icons.

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