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- Sculpting the Experience of Light-

Andy Marriott Design Research Unit 4th Year



- Introduction


- Carving from darkness


- To Praise the Shadow


- Reign of Modernism


- Usable Art


- Phenomenology and Delight


- Conclusion


- Methodology


- Bibliography


- Image References


- Acknowledgements


Figure 1: Light quality of auditorium in Kimbell Art Museum




"When sight came, the first moment of sight was the realization of beauty. I don't mean beautiful or very beautiful or extremely beautiful. Just simply beauty itself, which is stronger than any of the adjectives you might add to it" 1 "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." 2

. Vitruvius stated that the three fundamental characteristics of architecture are: Firmitas - Strength Utilitas - Utility Venustas - Beauty

Despite this, in many buildings, the discussion of Venustas is often avoided in favour of a debate of the function or structural integrity of the building resulting in a more quantifiable discussion which can more easily be justified. Why was this? Perhaps it is for the reason that beauty is too difficult to objectify in this way, and there is not necessarily a definitive right or wrong answer as to what is beautiful; it is largely subjective and difficult to quantify. This essay aims to investigate the subject of delight in architecture, in particular, the architect's use of light as a material, and the users’ attitudes towards this. The building chosen as reference is Zumthor’s Therme Vals, and this essay will look at three main sources of the delight felt by users: the use of light & darkness as a material to create emotive spaces; the beauty of the building, and also 1

Lobell, J. [1979] Between Silence and Light : Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, Shambhala. p8

2 2

Lobell, J. [1979] Between Silence and Light : Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, Shambhala. p5 Lobell, J. [1979] Between Silence and Light : Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, Shambhala. p5

Zumthor’s ethos to designing the building – his phenomenological approach. Each of the three sources have been well documented and analysed in previous literature, however this essay will summarise, and look at them from the aspect of delight. With reference to investigating the above, it is important to take into account the significance of the use of shadows whilst allowing light to enter a room; to create an emotive space which engages the user on all levels.


Figure 2: Main Bath Therme Vals, Peter Zumthor


-Carving from darkness-

"To plan the building as a pure mass of shadow then, afterwards, to put in light as if you were hollowing out the darkness, as if the light were a new mass sleeping in" 3

The starting point of this investigation was Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals, and the play with light and shadows in order to create a sensory experience were the key factors in creating these beautiful spaces. The building has a definite presence within its context, however is not overwhelming and outlandish, and the interior spaces within can be interpreted as places to retreat to - a sanctuary space. Zumthor's phenomenological approach to architecture ensures that the users truly experience the building with a heightened sense of their surrounding environment, rather than merely observe it. He encourages the public to attain a higher sensual experience within the building, to ask the users to engage with their surroundings using all their senses rather than just visual. "Sense emerges when I succeed in bringing out the specific meanings of certain materials in my buildings, meanings which can only be perceived in just this way in the one building" 4 The spaces he creates have a certain atmosphere that entices the users to manoeuvre their way through the building, which is important to his architecture. He uses the light effectively as a tool to draw people through : "But then something would be drawing me round the corner- it was the way the light falls, over here, over there and so I saunter on " 5. The building does not reveal itself completely during the initial encounter with the users and the shadows are a key tool in helping achieve an ambiguity to the space. By designing in such a way as carving light from darkness, he acknowledges the beauty of shadows. The unclearness of the shadows is synonymous with the idea of subjective beauty within the building- it makes each user's experience unique.


Zumthor, P. [1998] Thinking Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press. p59


Yoshida, N. [1998] Peter Zumthor, Tokyo: A & U Publishing. p8


Zumthor, P. [1998] Thinking Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press. p43

Figure 3: Traditional Japanese house showing variety of shadows

Figure 4: Living room at Villa Savoye showing the blurring of boundaries. Le Corbusier


-To Praise the Shadow-

Junichiro Tanizaki emphasises the importance of darkness in the everyday lives of Japanese society, and iterates that the subtlety of shadows is conducive to a beautiful way of living. His ethos has influenced Zumthor to design with regards to the importance, utility and versatility of shadows. Tanizaki states that Japanese architecture begins with covering the earth in shadow and allowing the building to be constructed underneath this, whereas the western society orientates itself around the premise of flooding the building with light, and that Tanizaki's opinion, it does not know about the beauty of shadows. Instead of enjoying the beauty within darkness itself and using light only when needed, the western society is described by Tanizaki as using light to engulf the darkness that plagues a room. Shadows have a significant impact on the variety of experiences one can have in a room as these shadows continually alter throughout the day and night, thereby altering the appearance, experience, and beauty of the room. The varying lighting conditions generate a connection to the external, and gives the users a chance to experience a sense of place.

" We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates" 6

For Tanizaki, it is shadows themselves which invite beauty to a space, as opposed to the objects and physical attributes within the room or building. He describes this view as being typical of Japanese culture and architecture, and although Tanizaki has a nationalist approach to his essay, there is some truth to his statements regarding Western attitudes to design, especially in regards to modernist architecture, which places importance on the use of light, artificial or natural. "The artificial lights with which people illuminate the night have a soothing effect. We illuminate our buildings and streets, we illuminate our planet , ward off little pieces of darkness and create islands of light on which we can see ourselves and the things that we have accumulated around us" 7


Tanizaki, J. [2001] In praise of shadows, Vintage. p46


Zumthor, P. [1998] Thinking Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press. p90

Figure 5: Sainte Marie de La Tourette. Le Corbusier

Figure 6: Sainte Marie de La Tourette, light cannons. Le Corbusier


-Reign of Modernism-

"In the wake of the horrors of World War I, many young architects shared a general disillusionment, indeed a sense the European culture had failed and would have to be replaced by a transformed society; they believed that architecture could and should become an instrument of this transformation. They also believed in the power of rational thought, and ultimately in its handmaidens, economy and functionality, and they believed that their rational designs could best be produced through mechanization, yielding efficient, somehow machine-made buildings." 8

The modernist movement gave a chance for Architects to design a new utopian society devoid of the problems of the past. Gone were the days of constant iterations of past architectural styles, which were built with solid wall construction and superfluous over-decorated detailing. Founders of the modernist approach believed that these techniques were not the way forward for architecture- instead of small openings with dark, internalised rooms , it was considered more important to push structure to the limits of its technical ability and create functional spaces which could blur the boundaries between external and internal. Striving for a nihilistic approach to the design of clean unblemished architecture, largely their designs would achieve an almost sterile aesthetic . The perceptions of beauty had changed and the idea of trying to design a decorative building had been substituted by machine like design.

This mechanical aesthetic and way of living would become the new idea beauty that the modernists tried to instill in the public mindset as the way to progress. Louis Sullivan's mantra "form follows function" reiterates this, he implies the aesthetics are derived from the functionality and be the most important part of the architecture. Philip Johnson's Glass House is a perfect example of this forward-thinking nihilistic approach, with the main emphasis of flooding the full footprint of the glass building with natural light. Johnson makes no conscious decision to create shadows within the spaces and the boundaries of the building are blurred with the surrounding landscape and was once quoted as saying "I have very expensive wallpaper".9 He had created a light space both during the day and acts as a light sculpture within the landscape at night. Zumthor also emphasises this point:


Fazio, M. W., Moffett, M., Wodehouse, L., [2003] A world history of architecture, Laurence King. p475


Pierce, L. [2010] "Through the Looking Glass", The Advocate of Stamford, Connecticut . p1

Figure 7: 2001: A space odyssey light room


"Shadows do not seem to loom large in these architectural compositions. But brightness does, light and air and the outdoor view, the sensation of living in the landscape, of having the landscape flow into or through the rooms inside- the landscape with all its lights and shadows." 10

Le Corbusier was one of the innovators within the modern movement, and in fact he developed his five points towards a new architecture: Pilotis; roof garden; free designing of the ground plan; the horizontal window and free design of the facade. Despite his support of the modern movement, there was a point in the 1950's when Corbusier realised whilst in the strive for a functional machine-like building, this movement had somewhat neglected and forgotten about the emotions that spaces can and should generate, and the importance for users to have this emotional connection.

"Architecture is a thing of art, a phenomenon of the emotions, lying outside questions of construction and beyond them. The purpose of construction is TO MAKE THINGS HOLD TOGETHER; of architecture TO MOVE US. Architectural emotion exists when the work rings within us in tune with a universe whose laws we obey, recognize and respect." 11

As such, he made a conscious effort to take more notice of the emotional rather than focusing solely on the physical needs of his users. This can be clearly seen by the development of his architectural style in the designs of Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut Ronchamp, Chandigarh and especially Couvent Sainte-Marie de La Tourette.


Zumthor, P. [1998] Thinking Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press. p92


Corbusier, L. [1931] Towards a new architecture, John Rodker Publisher. p23

Figure 8: Le sommeil de l'enfant JĂŠsus. Francesco Trevisani

Figure 9: The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio


"Here is liquid space with an undulating inclined wall. As a metaphorical journey towards a personal revelations, it shows the dimension of an inner discovery in its unexpectedness. While the architecture appears for the exterior as a convent-square, it yields an interior of astonishing curvilinear experiences." 12

Through the design of La Tourette, it was clear to see Corbusier's concept of ineffable space, a space which cannot be expressed, and he uses light to help achieve these sanctuary spaces. He creates light cannons above the sacristy that engage the users to the space and these act like an ethereal light guiding them through the building. They are similar to the religious paintings of Trevesani or Caravaggio, where an unknown ethereal light source illuminates key parts of the painting to create a strong emotional response and a connection to the scene the viewer is witnessing. Like Zumthor, he uses a variety of lighting methods to carve out the spaces within and vary the amount of shadows in each space. This variety of light in each space helped to create a hierarchy of emotions in the building. The form is rational, but the real beauty is within the building and the emotive spaces that are revealed.

"In other words- where you don't just take a ground plan and say : these are the walls, twelve centimetres thick, and that division means inside and outside, but where you have this feeling as a hidden mass you don't recognise"



Holl, S. [2000] Parallax, Princeton Architectural Press. p33


Zumthor, P. [2006] Atmospheres, Birkhäuser. p51

Figure 10: First Light. James Turrell


-Usable Art-

The use of light and shadow as a tool to emotionally engage with the user, and allow them to truly experience each space is one which Zumthor uses to full effect, most notably in Therme Vals, the design which inspired this investigation. This use of light to create strong emotional experiences is not linked only to architecture, and in fact many examples can be found throughout the art world. One such artist who recognises the power of this tool is James Turell, whose dark space installations (Pleiades) consists of a dark room, with one or more light sources creating a pre-determined shape. This use of light as a material within a space is synonymous with what architects such as Zumthor seek to realise. Turell's focus is to create art which happens right before the viewer's eyes, which they can truly experience, and he uses the power of light and darkness to achieve this. His attitudes to how one experiences light is like that of Zumthor's phenomenological approach: "Light is a powerful substance, We have a primal connection to it. But, for something so powerful, situations for its felt presence are fragile. I form it much as the material allows. I like to work with it so that you feel it physically, so you feel the presence of light inhabiting the space" 14

14 Brown, J. [1985] interview with JT by Julia Brown, Occluded Front, Lapis press, 1985, p22

Figure 11: Blind Light. Antony Gormley In a similar vein, the artist Antony Gormley also uses light to his advantage, in works such as his famous blind light installation. He reiterates the close link between architecture and art, that architecture can be seen as functional sculpture. The parallel with architects such as Zumthor and sculptors are closely related in regards to the fact that both are trying to achieve beauty but it cannot necessarily be planned or predicted. The essence of the building was the driving force of Therme Vals and the rest of the building was created around the experiences of each space which is key to the beauty.

"Zumthor advocated a piety of building: trying to develop a design in a way which lets it be what it wants to be, configuring physical fabric around real or imagined experiences,"


15 Sharr, A. [2007] Heidegger for Architects, Routledge. p98


Figure 12: T Space. Steven Holl

Figure 13: Kiasma museum of contemporary art showing variety of light. Steven Holl


-Phenomenology and Delight-

"Light that is not seen with the eyes can be felt. Light's psychological effects can lead to extremes of feeling with direct repercussions. Or we can speak of light in a dream" 16

Steven Holl also realises the importance of light whilst designing, not only for the beauty aspect it provides but also for the psychological effects it evokes in humans. He learned a lot from Le Corbusier's architecture - he too uses light cannons in the Reid building at the Glasgow School or Art and varies the emotive and spatial quality by using colour in the church of Saint Ignatius. As does Zumthor, he also plays with light and shadows to create the sense of ineffable space. It is clear that Architects such as Corbusier, Holl, Kahn and Zumthor were strongly influenced by the Heidegger's theory of Phenomenology.

Definition of Phenomenology the movement founded by Husserl that concentrates on the detailed description of conscious experience, without recourse to explanation, metaphysical assumptions, and traditional philosophical questions 17

All design in such a way to achieve a humanist building that engages the users at a higher sensory level, whilst also attempting to encapture the poetic emotion of the space. The atmospheres they create reinforces the essence of the place where they are building, the Genius Loci. Shadows are used to add an air of mystery to the spaces and the architects create punctures in the enclosing envelope to allow light to stream in, in order to enjoy the psychological effects of the light.

16 17

Sharr, A. [2007] Heidegger for Architects, Routledge. p112 Collins W.,Sons & Co. Ltd. [2009] Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition

There is a great sense of delight for the users to have an emotional relationship to their surroundings and experience the beauty of the changing lighting conditions. As Adam Sharr enforces this idea by stating that the main thing an architect designs is human experiences, so is this true with Peter Zumthor as he starts with an emotion and envisions the architectural scheme around this. Again, this is synonymous with the idea of carving light from darkness as it is as though if the emotion is hidden within his designs and he carves the building around it. Grafton Architects summarises this point clearly:

“Buildings tell the stories of our lives in built form… We walk through and feel spaces with our whole bodies and our senses, not just with our eyes and with our minds. We are fully involved in the experience; this is what makes us human.”18

18 Goodwin, K. [2013] Meet the Architects: Grafton, Available at: [Aceessed April 2014]



The aim of this essay was to study the subject of delight in Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals, with a focus on his use of light and shadows to create beautiful and emotive spaces. Having investigated the above, it was clear to see that light is an important source of delight not only from an aesthetic point of view but also from a psychological aspect. With the use of shadows, Zumthor could create a new presence to the space and generate an ambiguity to enrich the experience for the users. It is important to note that the atmosphere he creates at Therme Vals would not be suitable for all forms of architecture, in fact there are very few buildings that can function with such low lux levels- for example churches, spas and archives. Parallels were drawn with the use of light in art and architecture with regards to the techniques used by both artists and architects to instil an emotional response from the users/viewers. To gain a real sense of beauty of the built environment, Zumthor used phenomenology to try and allow his users to attain a heightened sense of their surrounds. In conclusion, it is Zumthor's phenomenological approach which is the main source of delight within his architecture; he realises how tangible light is as a material and uses it as an effective tool in his designs. However he understands that it is more important to design from experiences to create these emotive spaces.



Peter Zumthor's Therme Vals is a building that causes the users delight and was the starting point for the investigation. The aim was to investigate his methodology of carving light out of darkness, to use light as a material, and creating an architecture of the senses. Initial drawings were constructed -floor plans, sections, 1:20 detail drawings- to fully understand the building whilst trying to encapture the essence of the space. Through the investigation of the spaces, mainly the central swimming space, the question was how did this building carve light out of darkness to cause delight? Cast models and experiential drawings were then created to investigate the idea of allowing light to carve from the solid of the plaster to create the space hidden within and were also used to see the play with shadows in the building.

Start with an emotion/exprience/feeling

Design the room around that

This is how Zumthor designs his architecture and it was a sensible approach to try to represent the beauty of light and shadow in the object. The emotional connection to the surrounding environment could best be imagined by planning an installation rather than trying to represent it purely on paper. This gives people an opportunity to experience the light being allowed to enter and define the space, to interact with the space as it is changing and feel the space being defined.

"Fragments, like ruins, allow space for the imagination to enter into play – you don’t give the whole story, so you provide space for the spectator to try to imagine what you are wanting to do, what might be intended." 19

19 Goodwin, K. [2013] Meet the Architects: Graftony, Available at: [Aceessed April 2014]




-How the installation is intended to be used-

- The 16 openings are randomly numbered and the group of users select 4 numbers this ensures that the experience created is randomly generated, giving a different outcome each time.

- The group of users enter the pitch black installation and are given 3 - 4 minutes to allow their eyes to adjust to the dark

- Individually, the openings are slowly revealed by removing the roller blinds and light now starts to enter the space

- The experience and atmosphere of the room will change as the light streams in

- This carves out the space within and constantly changes the space as more openings are revealed

- In essence, the users experience the change of atmosphere in the room and they, in turn, become the objects within.


Figure 14: Roof plan of openings [installation model]

Figure 15: Roller blind system for openings [installation model]

Figure 16: Initial experience of opening being slowly revealed [installation model]

Figure 17: Long exposure with one opening [installation model]


Figure 18: Light Study with 6 open roof lights [installation model]

Figure 19: Render of 4 openings unveiled in installation [3DS Max]

Figure 20: Cast investigation openings between joints of Therme Vals [Plaster]

Figure 21: Cast investigation rhythm of roof lights in main pool and the effect on the experience of Therme Vals [Plaster]


Figure 22: Experiential painting of openings main pool of Therme Vals [charcoal]

Figure 23: Experiential painting of streams of light in main pool of Therme Vals [Tipex and chalk]


Figure 24: Abstract experiential painting of light in main pool of Therme Vals [Tipex and Ink]

Figure 25: Showing cast experiment in carving the space within


-BibliographyBrown, J. [1985] interview with JT by Julia Brown, Occluded Front, Lapis press, 1985, p22

Collins W.,Sons & Co. Ltd. [2009] Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition

Corbusier, L. [1931] Towards a new architecture, John Rodker Publisher

Fazio, M. W., Moffett, M., Wodehouse, L., [2003] A world history of architecture, Laurence King

Goodwin, K. [2013] Meet the Architects: Graftony, Available at: [Aceessed April 2014] Gormley, A. [2007] Blind Light, Hayward Publishing Holl, S. [2000] Parallax, Princeton Architectural Press

Holl, S,[1999] The chapel of St. Ignatius, New York : Princeton Architectural Press

Lobell, J. [1979] Between Silence and Light : Spirit in the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, Shambhala

Norberg-Schulz, C. [1980] Genius loci towards a phenomenology of architecture, New York Rizzoli

Pallasmaa, J. [2005] The Eyes of the skin : Architecture and the senses, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Pierce, L. [2010] Through the Looking Glass, The Advocate of Stamford, Connecticut

Sharr, A. [2007] Heidegger for Architects, Routledge

Tanizaki, J. [2001] In praise of shadows, Vintage

Tschumi, B. [1990] Questions of space, E.G. Bond. Ltd

Turell. J. [2006] A life in light.Sogomy

Yoshida, N. [1998] Peter Zumthor, Tokyo: A & U Publishing

Zumthor, P. [2006] Atmospheres, Birkhäuser

Zumthor, P. [2007] Peter Zumthor : Therme Vals, Scheidegger & Spiess. Zumthor, P. [1998] Thinking Architecture, Princeton Architectural Press


-Image ReferencesAuthor's own unless stated otherwise Cover Peter Zumthor - Detail of shadow in Therme Vals [ online] Available at: [Accessed April 2014] Figure 1 Wharton, R.[1975] Louis Kahn in Auditorium, [image]in Kahn, L. I.,[1975] Light is the theme : Louis I. Kahn and the Kimball Art Museum, Kimball Art Foundation, p39. Figure 2 Main bath Therme Vals [ online] Available at: [accessed March 2014] Figure 3 Overlapping shadows [online] Available at: [accessed April 2014] Figure 4 Guillemette, M, [1998] Living room [image] in Guillemette, M, [1998] Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye. Paris: Centre des monuments nationaux. Monum, Éditions du Patrimoine, Figure 5 Sainte Marie de La Tourette [online] Available at : [ accessed March 2014] Figure 6 Sainte Marie de La Tourette [online] Available at : iZXD4BO1M50eg=s85 [ accessed March 2014] Figure 7 2001 space odyssey light room [online] Available at : [accessed April 2014]

Figure 8 Trevisani, F. [1705]Le sommeil de l'enfant JĂŠsus, [online] Available at:ĂŠsus__FRANCESCO_TREVISANI.JPG [ accessed March 2014] Figure 9 Caravaggio, M.[ 1602] The Incredulity of saint Thomas, [online] Available at: [accessed April 2014] Figure 10 Catso [1989] First Light [image] in Turell. J. [2006] A life in light.Sogomy . p 50 Figure 11Gormley, A. [2007] Blind Light [image]in Gormley, A. [2007] Blind Light, Hayward Publishing. p33 Figure 12 Wides, S. [2010] "T Space / Steven Holl Architects" [online] Available at : [accessed April 2014] Figure 13 Kiasma museum of contemporary art [online] Available at : [ accessed March 2014]



I would like to thank my tutor Helen O'Connor for guiding me through my research unit and for motivating me to challenge my understanding every week. It was fantastic to open my research to a much broader area and discover new ideologies I hope to achieve with my architecture. I would also like to thank my amazing girlfriend, Francesca, who helped me in every aspect of my research but more importantly for keeping me relaxed when I was stressing out. Without your support I would not have been able to finish this. Finally I would like to thank my dad for his constant words of wisdom throughout my architectural education.

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Sculpting the experience of light  

Andy Marriott 4th year Design Research Unit

Sculpting the experience of light  

Andy Marriott 4th year Design Research Unit