The phenomenology of light in modern religious architecture
The importance of daylight in room volumes exceeds its function of lighting. Light is a creative tool, manipulated by architects to infuse a space with a metaphysical spirit that affects the emotional states of its occupants. With a phenomenological effect on the human psyche, light and shadow have been played with to invoke a sense of divinity and spirituality in the character of religious buildings. The interaction between architecture and light is powerful, shaping a deeper experience of spirituality.
The cross-cultural commonality of associating light with divinity has been reflected in sacred spaces from time immemorial. From Stonehenge to pyramids, sun temples to ziggurats, the architectural quality of ancient structures emphasized the significant relationship between humans and the sun. Built space centers around sunlight and protects its inherent role in the daily routines of ancient societies. As societies shifted away from symbolic and religious worldviews to more rational cosmopolitan ones, society’s relationship to the sun lost importance. However, contemporary religious architecture still maintains the dialogue between light and space for its phenomenological qualities.
Sight is the most dominant sense and has a great influence on how the architectural space is perceived physically, emotionally and spiritually. Through vision, light brings awareness. The ephemeral qualities of light – brightness, color, texture – create different psychological and physiological effects in combination with its shadow counterpart. A symbol of illumination, wisdom, goodness and purity, the dynamism of natural light in places of worship is capable of elevating the human mind beyond material limitations. In sacred architecture, it often assumes facets of mystery and sanctity while emphasizing other elements of the space.
Light Matters: Sacred Spaces
Light is inseparable from space. Architecture not only hosts natural light, but is organized to make the best use of it. The rhythm of light qualities reflects areas of pause, movement and emphasis in most religious spaces. The design of light penetration changes according to the purpose of the room. While religions around the world revere light as a divine symbol, its articulation with cultural practices and spiritual metaphors varies across space. Light is unanimously used as a tool for the phenomenological experience.
Built forms of antiquity shaped daylight through many culturally derived elements such as the oculi of the Roman Empire and Mashrabiya (perforated screen) from the Ottoman period. Light was primarily brought in through roofs, domes and the upper ends of walls as a way to symbolize the Almighty above. Some cultures adopted the use of colored glass to change the chromaticity of natural light entering the room. Light was used to sanctify the architectural space and create a sense of spirituality.
Contemporary worship spaces follow suit by bringing in sunlight from near and above, albeit in more abstract expressions. Unlike its predecessors, which maintained a dominant identity, modern religious architecture combines postmodernism, minimalism, and futuristic styles to express spirituality in space. The typologies draw inspiration from their roots and promote the cultural phenomenological relevance of light.
In Islamic religious architecture, light is used to make building materials appear transparent. It is used as a decorative element to reduce the solidity and coldness of the structure. Besides symbolizing spiritual illumination, light and shadow patterns from perforated screens engage the mind.
Nakshabid Architects’ Aman Mosque in Bangladesh features a single concrete mass pierced with small triangular openings reminiscent of the traditional Mashrabiya. The perforations allow sunlight to penetrate to create a sublime and mysterious setting. In Australia, an oculus hovers over prayer galleries and a hall at the Punchbowl Mosque. Candalepas Associates designed the space to invite daylight through Muqarna’s (honeycomb vaults) that create a spiritual atmosphere that changes throughout the day.
At the beginning of Christianity – when it was illegal and without religious structures – devotees organized themselves in hidden places in caves and hills. Their original practice of cutting out small holes as windows is said to have led to the practice of incorporating rectory windows into churches. Oculi and stained glass windows quickly found widespread use in accordance with Christian values of aesthetics. In the architecture of the church, light has also been used to separate rooms.
China-based Church of Seed by O Studio Architects subtly communicates a dreamy atmosphere through the play of light and shadow. Light transforms the indoor space and reflects the message of the region’s religious culture. Tezuka Architects’ Bancho Church pays homage to the colorful openings of traditional churches with perforations in the roof designed based on the direction of light.
For Buddhists, light symbolizes the attainment of Lord Buddha’s “enlightenment”. In Buddhist architecture, light is primarily used to illuminate the statue of a deity rather than the architecture itself. At Japan’s Buddhist temple Kuhon-ji, reflections of sunlight are cast on the walls and floor for a spacious, metaphysical feel.
Ancient Hindu temples were orchestrations of movement from light to darkness, from the outer entrance to the inner sanctum. As one moves through the temple, bright points of light will often interrupt less bright spaces, bringing a sense of wonder. As in Shiv Temple by Sameep Padora & Associates, many Hindu temples orient the light to fall on the idol of the main deity. Since daylight is not so essential to Hindu temple architecture, oil lamps and other man-made lighting inevitably illuminate the room at night, as seen in SpaceMatters’ Temple in Stone and Light.
The widespread existence of the Jewish community and the unstable relationship between Judaism and other religions have hindered the development of a recognized architectural style. Light has a cultural and metaphorical meaning in Judaism and the Synagogue by SeARCH in the Netherlands celebrates this through large openings and a cut in the roof for natural light. With 600 openings, the Ulm Synagogue in Germany is illuminated at many points and a central focus of the sanctuary.
This article is part of ArchDaily Topics: Light in architecture, proudly presented by Vitrocsa the original minimalist windows since 1992.
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