“I make spaces that apprehend light for our perception, and in some ways gather it, or seem to hold it…my work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing.”
— James Turrell
There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the fact that humans, in the 21st century, have become disengaged and almost numb to their surroundings or the environment. Technology overstimulates us with films and advertising and moving pictures too fast for us to react, and cottles us in flourescently lit buildings kept at a steady 72 degrees Fahrenheit. The fundamental beauty of our sensory experience is in a lot of ways redirected and overwhelmed in the realm of the artificial.
Sitting in the dark cave of a lecture room sans overhead lights or handheld technology was a jolt back into reality, a jolt back into my own existence as a living, breathing, human being. As shapes and patterns emerged from the murk of blackness, I became acutely aware of everything that was happening around me–despite my ability to fully see it–from the softly whistling lungs of a person four seats to my right, to a rubber shoe tapping faintly in the back left corner of the room. Dim lighting, I realized, forced me to come to my senses and realize the beauty in small details that I would have otherwise only seen through a computer screen or beneath harsh fluorescent bulbs. This demonstration reaffirmed the importance of light, how an architecture that is self-consciously aware of the light it manipulates can bring detached people back to their senses.
There was an exhibit at the Hirshhorn Art Museum a few years ago that I was greatly impacted by, and it follows the same principle of the magic of perception. James Turrell is an artist that uses light as a medium, experimenting with light in spaces and blurring the lines between architecture, sculpture, and fine art.
(^the work I saw was a “wedgework”)
The exhibit was an interactive installation, where you entered into a pitch black room and sat on a bench, staring at a sea of nothing. The longer I sat still, the more aware I became of the empty void stretching in front of me. I heard my own breathing, felt my own heartbeat. Felt the silence of the people sitting around me, felt my connection to the room itself. Slowly, a spectrum emerged on the wall across from me, as my eyes opened themselves up and adjusted to darkness. Turrell’s artwork relies on our bodies’ ability to respond to the world around us, changing light in particular. As the muscles in our eyes expand our pupils, different colors emerge as neon lights from the darkness, a once-invisible rainbow now in clear view. The installation pointed at the clear fact that the world that we surround ourselves in is a direct product of our own perception of it.
Architects can create this world or awareness and contemplation. There is a certain moment in Nau Hall in the morning as the sun rises, when the entire interior atrium fills with golden light. In the Zumthor Baths, the visitors are surrounded by a still and contemplative space of calm, guided by slivers of overhead daylight. In the Hagia Sophia, light enters in and dematerializes into an ambient golden glow. Humans are knocked to their senses, and their breaths are taken away.
The way light quality changes and interacts with spaces has an impact on our self-awareness and spirituality. Pierre Wittman talks about the ability of art to engage our senses, how qualities of light edge on the “realm of formlessness” which awakens within us feelings of joy or contemplation or peace (Wittman). Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation is similar to the work of Turrell, leading people through rooms saturated in different colors of light as spaces of silence, spaces for them to return to themselves.
Darkness itself, as Wayne Gonzales discusses on the Hirshhorn’s Dark Matters exhibition, is a thing of magic. “Darkness is a lack, the absence of light. It evokes notions of mortality, silence, solitude, and loss. Violence may also lurk in the dark, and we dread the unexpected encounter in an unlit space. But darkness can equally symbolize the wiping clean of the slate, a renewal. As darkness absorbs light, it absorbs our gaze, engendering feelings of timelessness and infinity.”
Yesterday, I attended a Native American storytelling on the lawn. A woman talked about how much we have forgotten our histories, how much we have forgotten that we come from the Earth. In a way, the importance of light forces us to return to the place we came from. If more focus in architecture is brought upon the quality of light, surely people will put down their cellphones and return to themselves, rely on their gaze, notice a certain beauty that comes naturally. Poet Buddy Wakefield says in his poem, “The Information Man”, that
“you ARE the center of the universe. If you weren’t you wouldn’t be here.”
We create the world that we live in because of our perception of it. All we need to do now is open our eyes.