Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

We ran upon this nifty piece of good design this year in Curitiba, Brazil's Christmas City. It is made entirely of used soda bottles, some filled with red liquid to add color to the tree. Awesome!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Classic Toys Never Go Out of Style

In 1954, Modern designers Charles and Ray Eames created their famous House of Cards picture deck. In 2009, I introduced my 4 year old son to the classic toy.
It was an immediate hit, although I don't know whether it was me or him who enjoyed playtime more!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Museu Oscar Niemeyer

Kim and I have been in Curitiba, Brazil, since the beginning of November when we arrived to adopt our four beautiful children (visit our other blog, Perfect Provision, for details about this adventure). We have enjoyed a number of sites around the city during the month we have been here, but today was especially exciting for me as we went to the Museu Oscar Niemeyer, an art museum designed by and named in honor of Brazil's most famous architect. This was sort of an early birthday present for me, as my birthday is next week, and Kim was gracious enough to let me pick out my own birthday present from the museum store, a few books on Niemeyer that are only in Portuguese and not available in the United States!

If you know me personally or if you have read past entries on this blog, you are probably already aware that I am a big Niemeyer fan. Of course I was most excited to come to Brazil to meet my children, but a close second was the opportunity to see a few of Niemeyer's buildings in person. The Museu is Niemeyer's only work here in Curitiba, but I hope to have the opportunity to see a number of additional projects when we are in Rio de Janeiro for a week in December before returning home to the United States (don't worry, it's not all play--the kids have to pick up their visas from the US Consulate there). I even have this silly notion that I could meet Oscar Niemeyer himself while we are there, though I do not quite know how I am going to arrange this. He will be 102 years old in December, the last great living Modernist!

The Museu Oscar Niemeyer is also known as the "olho," or "eye." Just look at the pictures to see why! This distinctive piece of architecture was added by Niemeyer in the early 2000s to an 1960s era building, also by Niemeyer. The whole complex together is pretty impressive and features a number of Niemeyer trademarks, including the use of interesting geometric figures, reflecting pools, sinuous ramps, and artistic tile work (a Portuguese and Brazilian tradition).

Visitors to the museum first enter into the original building and tour the exhibits there. In the basement of that building, there is a tunnel that leads under the reflecting pool to the base of the eye. Elevators and stairs take the visitor up to the exhibition level, which is one huge, arced space. Unfortunately due to the exhibit inside, the eye had blackout shades installed, so it was really pretty dark. The ceiling was interesting though, made up of thousands and thousands of little metal rectangles. I really wish we could have seen the space in natural light because there is also an interesting sunshading screen along the glass faces of the eye.

As you might imagine, it is hard to find time to write a blog when four kids are keeping me busy enough! I have already written too much when I should be sleeping, so for now, I'll just let the pictures do the rest of the talking. Enjoy!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What To Do With a Seven Foot Flitch

"A tree is our most intimate contact with nature." (George Nakashima)
A few years ago, Kim's uncle, a woodworker, gave us a couple of large flitches of willow that had been stored in his garage for years but that he had never found a project to use. Being a designer myself and having a deep respect for the work of Japanese-American craftsman George Nakashima, my mind immediately started thinking of the wonderful things we could do with these beautiful pieces of wood. But once we got them home, they sat in our basement and then our shed for a few years, waiting for a "someday" project.

Well, "someday" finally came over Labor Day weekend this year when we went down to visit my parents in Pennsylvania. We decided to do the project in Pennsylvania because my Dad has taken over one-half of their garage as a shop, and with the car parked outside, he has a nice, spacious setup for working. He also has all the requisite tools I do not have room for at my own house in Connecticut: a table saw, a band saw, a jigsaw, and myriad other hand tools, both power- and hand-operated. Before this little project, I had almost forgotten how much I liked working with wood in a nice, clean, well-appointed shop! And how wonderful it was to do a project with my Dad! It has been a while for both of these.

Kim and I had imagined for some time making a table and benches for our backyard out of two of the flitches, so this past weekend we made great headway on the table, which is completed except for the finishing (multiple coats of exterior-grade polyurethane). The particular flitch we wanted to use for the table top had a few long cracks in it. (Don't worry! It's okay! They aren't flaws, they're character)! In the spirit of Nakashima's work, we decided to bridge the gaps with contrasting color walnut butterfly joints. Though butterflies are sometimes used to join two adjacent pieces of wood, in this case they are not designed to close the gap, which is the result of many years of seasoning, but instead to bridge the gap, strengthen it, and help prevent it from cracking further. We also did not attempt to cut down or shape the flitch in any way, allowing the rustic beauty of the original slab of wood to remain essentially as it was when it was cut.

Traditionally, the shape of the butterflies would have been carved out by hand with chisels in a bow-tie shape. Our attempt, however, was a little more modern: we made a template and used a router to carve out a slightly more rounded butterfly shape. I actually think the curved butterfly turned out really well, and it hints at the fact that it was made with a router instead of by hand. Talk about truth in design!

The design of the base of the table was inspired by a trestle table that my Dad built with his Dad a number of years ago. (That particular table was actually our dining room table for many years when I was growing up.) The real benefit of a trestle table is that it is easily disassembled for storage. This was one of my main criterion for the design of the table as I do not want to leave it outside over the Connecticut winter. Trestle tables are also generally simple, and they allow for the base to be set up and freestanding separately from the table top (i.e. the legs of the table are not attached to the top for their support).

The trestles are each made of two douglas fir 2x10s squared up along one side and edge-glued. To strengthen this joint, and to echo the design of the table top, we also used walnut butterflies here. The crossbeam is a douglas fir 2x6 which is held in place on the trestles with walnut edges. The end of the crossbeam and the bottom of the trestles were cut with a shallow curve to echo the curved side of the butterflies. Overall, I tried to keep the design of the base simple and elegant, so as not to compete with the beauty of the table top.

I am actually really pleased with the result, especially given that the whole project cost less than $100! The flitches were free, the walnut pieces were made from scraps my Dad had in his shop, and the base was made of framing lumber from Home Depot. The most expensive part of the table is the exterior grade polyurethane! Before we came back to Connecticut, we sanded the table like crazy, took it apart, and stored it in the storage room off of my parents' garage. I look forward to putting the finishing touches on some other weekend very soon. (My Dad is going to do some prep work with a few initial coats, but we will put at least one final coat together.) I also hope to get a start on the benches next time we are in Pennsylvania. These will be made out of one of the other remaining flitches split long-ways down the center. The third and last flitch is in my mind as the top of a sideboard for our dining room, but that project is not anywhere on the horizon. Right now I am just trying to finish this project before going to Brazil to meet our children!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

By the Numbers

Well, it has been a long time coming, but today I submitted my application for an architectural licensure. Yes, I am finally going to be a real "architect." (I have sometimes felt like Pinnochio as he wished to become a "real boy"!) With luck, the Massachusetts Board of Registration of Architects will review my application at their next meeting, and I will be licensed in the next month or so.

Becoming an architect takes passion, time, and perseverance. Let's take a look at some important numbers along the journey, shall we.

Number of professions I seriously considered before architecture. Growing up, I wanted to be either a marine biologist or a commercial airline pilot. To this day, I still enjoy the water (though I hate sand) and I love to fly!

Age at which my best friend wanted to be an architect. He had a book about Frank Lloyd Wright. He ended up becoming an engineer instead.

Grade in which I took a drafting class. We had to "design" a master bedroom addition to an existing house.

Number of colleges I attended. I was an undergraduate student at Georgia Tech and a graduate student at Yale.

Number of years I studied architecture in school. I studied four years at Georgia Tech and three years at Yale.

Age at which I started studying architecture.

Age at which I submitted my application to become licensed.

Number of years between starting my studies and becoming licensed.

Number of times in the past 11 years I have been asked whether Frank Lloyd Wright is my favorite architect.

Number of times I have had to answer the above mentioned question in the negative.

Number of professional exams I took to become licensed.

Number of months it took me to take above mentioned exams.

Number of hours of work experience required to become licensed.

Number of hours of work experience it took me to fulfill all categories.

Age at which I first worked in an architecture firm.

Number of architecture firms I have worked for.

Number of years I have worked for my current employer.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Satisfaction Guaranteed

"It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law." (Louis Sullivan)
At the beginning of August, Kim and I were out in northwestern Pennsylvania for the Limiar family reunion. (Limiar is the agency we are working with to adopt our four children from Brazil.) On the last day of the event, we woke up early to take our heros, Lino and Luciana, to the airport a couple of hours away in Buffalo. After dropping them off for their flight back home, we decided that, before driving back to Connecticut, we would see what was happening in downtown Buffalo on a lazy Sunday morning.

The answer, as we suspected, was "not much" in the way of human activity. But it was clear to me after driving around a few minutes that Buffalo actually has some really interesting old architecture. And then it dawned on me. "Wait a minute, isn't there a Louis Sullivan building in Buffalo!?" I wracked my brain back to architectural history class oh those many years ago but could not for the life of me think of the name of the building. We looked around among the skyscrapers, knowing full well if there was indeed a Sullivan building in downtown Buffalo it would not possibly be one of the tallest any more. And then I spotted it: between two taller buildings, in the distance, a reddish midrise building with Sullivan's trademark terracotta ornamentation and round windows. Instant recognition. We were on our way.

It was Louis Sullivan, one of the "fathers" of Modern architecture, that coined the phrase, "form follows function" to indicate that a building's form should be based primarily on its purpose or function, and it should fulfill that role first and foremost. Actually the quote was, "form ever follows function," which he used several times in his 1896 essay "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered."

Sullivan was also one of the most notable early architects for a newfangled type of building that emerged at the end of the 19th century: the skyscraper! The skyscraper emerged in the late 19th century with the development of cheap steel production and therefore the use of steel frame construction over load-bearing masonry. Buildings with load-bearing masonry walls were limited in their height by the bearing capacity of the masonry and were characterized by massive bearing walls at the bottom of the building. For example, the Monadnock Building in Chicago, the tallest load-bearing masonry building in the world at 197 feet tall, has walls at the street level that are 6 feet thick!

In load-bearing masonry buildings, the structure and the enclosure are one and the same, carrying both the dead load of the walls themselves and the load of the rest of the building. However, as lighter steel structures developed, architects were able to separate the structure from the enclosure, leading to the development of the curtain wall, a non-load-bearing enclosure wall which allowed for more freedom (and more openness) in the design of the exterior wall. These days, curtain walls are commonly glass, but they can be stone, brick, terracotta, metal, or pretty much anything you can think of that will keep the weather at bay.

The building we found in Buffalo turned out to be the Guaranty Building from 1896. Along with his earlier Wainwright Building (St. Louis, 1891), the Guaranty Building is a prime example of Sullivan's theories on tall building design writ large. In "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," Sullivan says, "It must be every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation that from bottom to top it is a unit without a single dissenting line." The skyscraper was a new building type, one characterized by height, and Sullivan thought it should appear as such (its form ever following its function, after all). I work for an architecture firm that designs a lot of skyscrapers, and we frequently talk about using elements of design that will give the building a certain "vertical speed." I am reminded that I have Sullivan, progenitor of the modern skyscraper, to thank for this idea.

Both the Wainwright and the Guaranty Buildings feature Sullivan's typical three-part vertical composition. Like a classical column which has a base, shaft, and capital, these buildings show a similar arrangement of major components: a high public floor at ground level serving as the base, repetitive office floors of similar design serving as the shaft, and a terminating upper floor and cornice at the skyline serving as the capital. Each of these different zones of function were designed to be distinct elements in the composition of the building, and each is ornamented in different ways.

A note on architectural ornamentation. Though later Modern architects would take take "form follows function" to indicate that architecture should be stripped of all ornament (Adolf Loos' 1908 essay "Ornament & Crime" would scold true Modernists from using ornamentation of any kind), Sullivan was not so strictly literal on this point. Instead, he is quite famous for his beautiful architectural ornamentation. His buildings are elaborately and beautifully ornamented, the Guaranty Building's stunning terra cotta work being no exception. Instead of stripping architecture of all ornament, the idea of form following function for Sullivan meant that successful ornamentation was the be integrated into a form which was expressive of its function first and foremost, and that the fulfillment of this function was what generated the overall form, layout, or massing of the building.

For instance, in his skyscrapers, the office floors appear identical and repetitive because, by definition, the commercial office spaces they contained needed to be identical and repetitive. Why should these floors appear different on the facade of the building if they were identical inside? And the main, public floors, with lobbies, storefronts and other major functions of course looked different from the office floors because their functions were different. As for the the ultra-ornamented upper story and cornice at the top of the building, who says aesthetic beauty is not a valid function anyway!?

I suppose I should mention a couple other important things about Sullivan before I end leaving you to feel like he designed these buildings in a vacuum all by himself. In fact, he was influenced by and influenced a number of important architects. Before moving to Chicago, he worked for Frank Furness in Philadelphia. He then worked for William LeBaron Jenney, architect of the first steel-framed building, and Dankmar Adler in Chicago. It was at the firm of Adler & Sullivan that Sullivan would mentor one of the 20th century's most famous architects, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Sometimes You Just Get Lucky

Sometimes you have to plan an architectural pilgrimage well in advance. Like purchasing tickets for a tour of Philip Johnson's Glass House nine-and-a-half months ahead of time. But sometimes it is the unexpected architectural encounters that end up being the most interesting. Sometimes you just get lucky.

Say for instance you are visiting Switzerland on a whim on a free day after some business meetings in Italy, you have enjoyed a couple of hours of James Bond-like driving on narrow, guardrail-less, switchback Alpine roads, and you come around a bend toward Simplon Pass on the way back to your hotel in Italy, and, wham, there it is...

I happened upon the Ganter River Bridge between Brig, Switzerland, and Simplon Pass, which leads back down to Italy. The stunning concrete structure was designed by the Swiss engineer Christian Menn and completed in 1980. At 2,224 feet total length and a main span of 571 feet, it is the longest bridge in Switzerland. A sort of hybrid concrete girder and cable-stayed bridge, Wikipedia says it could be an example of a type of bridge known as an "extradosed bridge."

I do not recall where, but I have actually seen photographs of this bridge in the past. But I definitely never expected to see it on this particular drive! What is not evident in any of the photographs I had seen before but is clearly evident when you drive across the bridge is that it does not span straight across the valley. Instead, the approaches from either side form a kind of S-curve with the main span in the center, making for a more dynamic and delightful drive through the mountains. Unfortunately, the light was fading and it was getting late in the day with a long drive back to my hotel or I would have tried to spend some more time exploring the bridge and its environs. I really wanted to walk across it, but there were no sidewalks or shoulders on it, even though there were places to pull-off at the end of each approach.

There is something amazing to me about the integration of the natural and the man-made, especially in "extreme" environments such as the Swiss Alps. I suppose that there is something romantic about idea of unspoiled nature, but I almost wonder if to see nature is to, by definition, defile it. On the other hand, I have always enjoyed those natural places where man has touched down and shown his hand lightly, respectfully, gently.

This bridge is an example of that gentle hand amidst stunning natural settings or phenomena, but there are many examples in the world, and a few spectacular ones that I have had the privilege of visiting myself: Machu Picchu, impossibly perched atop the Andes in Peru, with its exquisite stone buildings echoing the profiles of the mountains themselves; or the Pantheon in Rome, which turns a beam of light into a real, physical entity as it streams through the mighty oculus to illuminate architectural details almost two millennia old.

I am sure this is the designer speaking in me, but I do believe that architecture and design have an opportunity to frame the natural world in an important way. By doing so, the respectful man-made work acts as a foil by which to reflect on the natural in a new light. After all, saying what something is is only one way of defining it. Another way is to show something in opposition so as to definite it by what it is not, in order to call the defined out as something different, special, set apart.

Monday, July 6, 2009

My First Niemeyer

I never imagined that my first opportunity to see an Oscar Niemeyer building would not be in his native Brazil, but instead about 5000 miles away in Europe. But as many times as I have tried to get there, I have not yet had the opportunity to visit Brazil. However, I was recently on a business trip to Italy and had the chance to visit a Niemeyer project outside Milan.

After two days of meetings near Forte dei Marmi, Italy, a colleague and I drove about two hours north to Milan on our free day. After visiting the Duomo, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, and the Pirelli Tower downtown, I asked my friend if he would mind taking a small detour to see Niemeyer's Mondadori publishing house headquarters east of the city. After all, I said, "I am a total architecture dork"--and Niemeyer is one of my favorites.

Unfortunately, the building is situated in a sort of suburban highway neverland where it was impossible for us to stop and get out to photograph the building. But we drove around the building twice and tried to look as close as possible. The building, which dates from the early 1970s, seemed to be in pretty good shape from what I could see. The building is notable in part due to its massive concrete arcade which conceals a glass-enclosed office block behind. Adjacent to the office block are the auditorium and support spaces. The entire composition sits on large lake, surrounded by parking and landscape.

Although I was disappointed not to be able to stop and contemplate the building in depth, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the concrete work, even while driving past. The concrete arcades were really impressive, seeming quite light and airy, and the black-glass of the office block did not distract from the composition as I had expected. The massive arcades provided the real poetry to the project, much like Niemeyer's earlier work in Brasilia, such as the Alvorada Palace, Planalto Palace, and Supreme Court buildings. All of these project express a sort of structural heroism and playfulness, but in the vocabulary of Modern architecture, which I love.

Friday, May 22, 2009

One Year Later

One year ago today, inspired by a trip to Italy and a visit to the Pantheon, I wrote my first post on Through the Oculus. If you have been following my architectural musings all along, thank you for your diligence and your readership. If you are visiting for the first time, I hope you will continue to follow along. Either way, please do not be shy to leave me your thoughts or comments.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Kim and I have been "nesting" at home over the past few weeks as we prepare to adopt four children from Brazil. (Read about that adventure here.)  We have been painting, rearranging furniture, getting rid of things we do not need, and acquiring things we do need (apparently you need a lot of beds when you have four children).  We made a "Blitz List" last month of all the things we wanted to accomplish in May to prepare our house to be a proper home for our kids.

Last week, we started cleaning, organizing, and purging the basement, and last night as we continued to work, we came to the corner of the basement with two huge boxes of architectural models from school:  seven years of models, from both Georgia Tech and Yale.  Every time we have moved since coming to New Haven, I have thrown away a couple of architectural models--but we have lived in our house for four-and-a-half years now, and so they have been relatively safe for a time.

If there is anything that the prospect of adopting four kids does, it puts into perspective the things in life that really matter:  my faith and my family.  Kim and I have a hard time with "stuff" in general, and we do actually purge our house from time to time of extraneous items--it is a spiritual exercise as well as a practical one.  But our house has also conveniently afforded us the luxury of storage space over the past few years, though I expect this commodity will be in severe shortage by the end of the summer.

Even so, through moves and "purging," there was always something about my architectural models that kept them hanging around.  Perhaps it was all the care, work, hours, and debt that went into their creation.

One of the definitions that Merriam-Webster gives for "catharsis" is "a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension."  It was a challenge to throw the models away, but I have a feeling it will end up being cathartic.  (To be honest with you, I saved a couple of models:  my first model from Georgia Tech and my last model from Yale.  Call them "bookends" to my academic career if you will.)  They are just things, stuff, objects--and as Kim's Mom frequently reminds us, "people are more important than things."

I suppose it will come as no great surprise, but the kids have been causing me to be distracted lately.  I have been daydreaming a lot and I frequently picture playing with my kids, watching them grow, teaching them, learning from them, piling together in one bed on Saturday mornings with them--and loving them above all else.  In each and every one of these daydreams, however, my architectural models are nowhere to be found...

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

What's That Thing Up on Stilts? A Tea House!?

"Terunobu Fujimori has thrown a punch of a kind no one has ever seen before at 'modernism.'" (Kengo Kuma)
He spent most of his life as an architectural historian.  He did not design his first building until the age of 45. He uses traditional charred wood siding and plants pine trees and other odd vegetation on the roofs of his buildings.  His friends help him do things that no contractor would touch.  He has built a tea house situated precariously atop two rough-hewn stilt made of tree trunks and a study room, accessible only by ladder, cantilevered daringly off the peak of a small, rustic house.  He loves nature and traditional construction techniques and he constantly tries to straddle the line between the natural and the man-made.  He is funny and self-deprecating.  He has a pronounced respect for Le Corbusier's ideas.  He speaks English only through an interpreter.

Who is this guy!?

Last night, Kim and I went to a lecture at the Yale School of Architecture.  Though we had dinner plans at Ibiza to celebrate our 7th anniversary (a bit early) and the news that our petition to adopt four siblings from Brazil is most likely going to be approved (check out Perfect Provision for this story), we were able to catch most of Dr. Terunobu Fujimori's lecture.  

Though not well-known in the United States, Dr. Fujimori is apparently quite popular and well-known in Japan.  As an effort to remedy this disparity, perhaps, Dwell magazine actually just published a nice article about Dr. Fujimori in their May 2009 issue.

An eclectic mix of forms and materials, Dr. Fujimori's architecture is quite interesting to me on a number of levels:
  1. It tries to strike a balance between the Modern and the traditional.
  2. It is well-crafted, with a focused use of interesting, yet innovative, materials and forms.
  3. It attempts to respond to the genius loci, or "spirit of the place" by using traditional materials or techniques in new and innovative ways.
  4. It does not seem to take itself too seriously.  It is not overly self-conscious.  It is playful.
Like Dr. Fujimori's architecture, his lecture, too, was interesting and lively.  Dr. Fujimori himself was quite funny--even through his interpreter!  Regarding one of his buildings, a museum, he related that, "when I thought about how one would want to view the paintings, I felt that to be naked would be the best way.  But if everyone was naked, people would not necessarily be looking at the paintings, so people just take off their shoes."  (General laughter.)

At the same time that one might characterize Dr. Fujimori's architecture as playful, it is clear that he is trying to push the boundaries of architecture while remaining relevant within an overall architectural discourse.  I though it was interesting that his work seemed to straddle the line between architecture and nature, architecture and play, architecture and...and...I don't even know!  While showing one project in which he had planted both the walls and the roof with vegetation, he said, “you have to be very careful of that delicate line. If you go beyond that line, regular people like your buildings but architects just make fun of you.”  (More laughter.)  I just love his distinction between "regular people" and "architects" in that one!

But I feel his sentiment.  It is true that architects can be the harshest critics--quick to dismiss something that they do not understand.  And architects are sometimes especially quick to criticize something that "non-architects" might quickly embrace for one reason or another--as if "we" know better and "they" do not.

After seeing his lecture, it is clear that Dr. Fujimori is a different kind of architect.  Humble, funny, interesting, un-famous...

Who wants to be a starchitect anyway!?

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I passed “Construction Documents & Services”!

I received the score report in the mail today with a nice “PASS” on the top. This leaves only one unknown score for my seventh exam, “Programming, Planning & Practice,” which I took back on March 23rd. NCARB seem to be getting quicker with their score processing, so I hope to see this report within the next couple of weeks.

Now that I have pushed through and completed all of my exams (pending that last “PASS” of course), I am trying desperately to finish my last IDP hours in a timely manner. One of the benefits of requesting licensing in Massachusetts is that they allowed me to take my AREs while still completing my IDP—but now I am in this funny situation where I have finished my exams but not my IDP!

At my performance review last summer I challenged myself to complete all of the licensing requirements by this year’s performance review mid-summer. I called it “the year of professional development.” This was a tough goal to begin with and it has taken some work and perseverance to complete so quickly (I became a LEED AP last fall and started my AREs in October), but I think the goal is still tenable.

It would also be nice to have completed all this stuff before travelling to Brazil, which could be as early as this summer. Ah, but that is another story! For that, please visit Kim’s and my adoption blog, Perfect Provision.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Seven Down, Zero to Go

Today I took my seventh (and last!) ARE: Programming, Planning & Practice.  I felt pretty comfortable with the material covered so I hope I did well on the exam.  As always, though, I just have to wait for the score.

And speaking of scores, when I got home from the testing center, I was happy to see a letter from NCARB informing me I had passed my fifth exam (Building Systems), which I took back in mid-February!  This leaves only my score for the final two exams up in the air.

Pending a passing score for these last two exams, I expect to be able to finish all of my IDP requirements in the next month or two, at which point I will be able to apply for my license!  It definitely feels good to be in the home stretch for this particular step in my professional development.  After all, I have only been studying and practicing architecture for the past 11 years of my life!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Light in Islamic Architecture

Light is an important element in all architecture. Le Corbusier said, “Architecture is the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light.” Louis Kahn said, “I sense Light as the giver of all presences, and material as spent light. What Light makes casts a shadow and the shadow belongs to Light.” Without light, we cannot see form, color, or texture. Light—natural light—is what gives character to architecture.

In Islam, light symbolizes God. The Qur’an states, “God is the light of the heavens and the earth.” Light in Islamic architecture, then, is used to symbolically represent God’s presence in a space while emphasizing the color and texture of decorative elements, materials, and architectural articulation.

One particularly intriguing mediator of light and space in Islamic architecture is the screen. The screen in traditional Islamic architecture is used to filter harsh sunlight, and it was developed out of necessity in the hot, harsh-sun climates of the Middle East and Asia. Thought sometimes they are made of wood, many times these intricately patterned screens are carved out of stone. Some of the most beautiful examples of the type of Islamic stone screen can be found at Fetehpur Sikri in Agra, India.

In architecture, screens tend to blur the distinction between interior and exterior space. In Islamic architecture, they are used to mediate the direct sunlight by casting intricate shadow patterns in the interior space. These patterns, which I will talk about in my next post, are very important in the art and architecture of Islam.

The use of screens in Islamic architecture is not confined to the past. Architects have continued to reinterpret the concept of “screen” in new and innovative ways through the 20th century and even today. For example, Jean Nouvel’s Arab World Institute (1987) in Paris uses an operable screen of camera-type apertures to control sunlight. Other interesting recent examples of Islamic screens can be seen on the National Mosque (1965) in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and the Museum of Islamic Art (2008) in Doha, Qatar.