Table of Contents
The Phenomenology of Light in Contemporary Religious Architecture
The significance of daylight in volumes of space exceeds its function of illumination. Light is a creative tool manipulated by architects to infuse a space with a metaphysical spirit, influencing the emotional states of its occupants. Having a phenomenological effect on the human psyche, light and shadow have been played with to invoke a sense of divinity and spirituality into the character of religious buildings. The interplay between architecture and light is a powerful one, 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 of people with the sun. Built space centered around sunlight, protecting its inherent role in the daily routines of ancient communities. As societies shifted away from symbolic and religious worldviews towards more rational cosmopolitan ones, communities’ relationship with the sun lost importance. Contemporary religious architecture, however, still maintains the dialogue between light and space for its phenomenological qualities.
Vision is the most dominant sense and strongly impacts how architectural space is perceived physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Through vision, light brings awareness. The ephemeral qualities of light – brightness, color, texture – create various 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 raising the human mind beyond material limitations. In sacred architecture, it often takes on facets of mysticism 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 intent of the space. While religions across the world revere light as a divine symbol, its articulation varies with cultural practices and spiritual metaphors in 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 the Mashrabiya (perforated screen) of 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 stained glass to alter the chromaticity of natural light penetrating the space. Light was used to sanctify architectural space and construct a sense of spirituality.
Contemporary spaces of worship follow suit by bringing in sunlight from near and above, although in more abstract expressions. Unlike its precedents that upheld a dominant identity, modern religious architecture combines postmodernism, minimalism, and futuristic styles to express spirituality in space. The typologies take inspiration from their roots and promote the cultural phenomenological relevance of light.
In Islamic religious architecture, light is used to make building materials seem transparent. It is used as a decorative element to diminish the solidness and coldness of the structure. Apart from 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 seep inside to create a sublime and mystical setting. In Australia, an oculus hovers over prayer galleries and a hall at the Punchbowl Mosque. Candalepas Associates designed the space to invite shafts of daylight through Muqarnas (honeycomb vaults), crafting a spiritual atmosphere that changes through the day.
At the dawn of Christianity – when it was illegal and without religious structures – devotees organized themselves in hidden locations in caves and hills. Their initial practice of carving out small holes as windows is said to have led to the practice of incorporating clerestory windows in churches. Oculi and stained glass windows soon found widespread use in alignment with Christian values of aesthetics. In church architecture, light has also been used to separate spaces.
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 its 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.
To 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. In Japan’s Kuhon-ji Buddhist Temple, reflections of sunlight are thrown onto the walls and floor for a spacious, metaphysical feel.
Ancient Hindu temples were orchestrations of movement from light to darkness, from the outer entry to the innermost sanctum. As one moves through the temple, sharp punctures of light will often interrupt less bright spaces, bringing in 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. As daylight is not as substantial to Hindu temple architecture, oil lamps, and another man-made lighting unavoidably light up the space 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 evolution of a recognized architectural style. Light has a cultural and metaphorical significance in Judaism and Synagogue by SeARCH in the Netherlands celebrates it through large openings and a cut in the roof for natural light. With 600 openings, Ulm Synagogue in Germany is illuminated at many points and a central focus at the shrine.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Light in Architecture, proudly presented by Vitrocsa the original minimalist windows since 1992.
Vitrocsa designed the original minimalist window systems, a unique range of solutions, dedicated to the frameless window boasting the narrowest sightline barriers in the world: Manufactured in line with the renowned Swiss Made tradition for 30 years, Vitrocsa’s systems “are the product of unrivaled expertise and a constant quest for innovation, enabling us to meet the most ambitious architectural visions.”
Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and architecture projects. We invite you to learn more about our ArchDaily Topics. And, as always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.