A New Humanism: Part 23

Light as an inescapable material of design

Because the enveloping presence of light energy transforms our levels of competence, security or moodsour essential well-being and survival – the effective control of daylight, flames, and their replacements, naturally has long been part of the expertise of designers and engineers. And it’s been obsession, too, of visual artists and poets.  In Le Corbusier’s familiar words, architecture is the “play of masses in light,” and its history, “a struggle for light.”  And for all of us, light energy is an inescapable “material” in design – both as a content and as a context.

Light invites action. The eyes are automatically drawn to – alerted by – the places that seem to offer the most important and readily available information – moving lights, sudden changes, or the brightest spots. In verbal language we even use “light” as a metaphor for knowledge. It’s a defining quality of any experience – orientation, exploration and peril – clarifying threats and opportunities, refuge and prospect, and unraveling “mysteries” in the shadows. And so we add skylights, build glass buildings, and open up entire land- and townscapes to become, in effect, larger and larger prospects – broader clearings in the forest – well-lighted by day and, by our ingenuity, at night.

The light we see is a mix of radiation from sources, diffusion in the atmosphere and reflections from a multitude of surfaces, including the shadows created by their forms and textures. At an intimate scale, it’s largely those reflections that tend to make plaster or concrete read as “neutral,” plants, fabrics or wood “alive,” and polished marble, “perfection,” before we touch them. And in larger forms, the artful shaping and detailing of places built in the brilliant sunlight of Greece, Italy, and deserts – now without their colors – the sculptural chiaroscuro illustrates the breadth of expressive potential, as light changes the geometry of space and masses through the seasons and through a day, both inside and out. In differing light, we live in a different environment.

More from Metropolis

The Acropolis in Athens – the “presence” of the gods, on a refuge and prospect high above the working city in the clarity and shadows of the brilliant Aegean sun


That is just the beginning, of course.  In the creation of sacred places or performing arts and commercial settings, essentially all of the operations and limitations of human vision are being exploited.  Toward one very effective extreme are such spectacles as the sparkling signs and saturated colors of entertainment places, or the scintillating light of a white ballroom or flashing disco mirrors, or the brilliant stained glass light in cathedrals.  By simultaneously exciting every point on a retina and overloading the visual system – dazzling the eyes – the mind is disoriented as it struggles to find order in the bewildering flow of sensations and information. 

Then, with senses on full-alert, but still confused, we seem to reach out – even if only for a short time – to imagine a new order – new rules – for a “new world” – one that does make coherent sense.  The cathedral builders saw that “other world” in light itself – light as a divine “substance,” a divine presence in super-natural soaring weightless space. For others, it’s in the body chemistry of an intoxicating party-mood and earthy, hyper-natural world of Las Vegas, with its own rules –“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Both create settings – environments – that invite experiences of rare pleasure – a release, an escape from habitual, imposed day-to-day patterns – in one case, a profound religious experience, and in the other, a new-found sense of wealth and uninhibited freedom of action.

The designers of theatrical and cinematic lighting do the same with great subtlety. First the audience is disoriented by darkness and then reoriented when combinations of lights “materialize” the new world. Then, the feeling of being for a time in a new reality is intensified by linking in the other senses: rhythmic sound that overflows the space – like an organ or drums that seem like the earth speaking, or the pulsating super-amplified sounds of a rock band – all given color and life in ritualized movement, secular or sacred dancing or touching.


As body chemistry evolved within the planet’s cycle of sunlight and darkness, it came to produce parallel rhythms of survival-based hormones. Melatonin, prompted by darkness and inhibited by light, especially sunlight, and responding to receptors on the retina, induces a daily rhythm of waking and sleeping – a time when other exhausted receptors, muscles, and neural connections are typically refreshed by disengaging, by hibernating. Sensing that transition in a secure setting seems to be one of the pleasures of sunrises and sunsets. In any case, sleep brings on a very real vulnerability, and we seek out, often urgently, places where protection and warmth provide refuge. Sheltered resting-sleeping places are probably half of our indoor built environment, and, no matter what other symbols they embody, in daily life we tend to approach them with a narrow, demanding, survival-based mental set – a defensible perimeter, elevated and secluded, with enough light indoors and out to feel the security of the place.

A similar body-chemistry tends to be produced when we find ourselves temporarily confined in an unchanging setting. As sense receptors are fatigued by concentration and repetition, the drowsy consequences frustrate everyone involved. It’s going to happen, but daylight alone can change the chemical mix – just as food and drink, coffee breaks and exercise do. Accordingly, in the otherwise handbook-perfected work places, conference centers, museums, and many new schools – places where people spend long hours staying alert – designers have been able to recharge a body-state within those spaces with exposure to natural light – to real sun, sky, and shadows and the refreshment inherent in the cycles of daylighting of the natural world.


“Light, open and airy” feels like a refreshing release, but the night has other pleasures. Darkness, when eyes are disabled, sharpens both the other senses and the “mind’s eye” – inviting fantasy and imagination. And the presence of darkness and dimly lit places tends to arouse other predilections and stir other mixes of hormones – producing other priorities – that compete with, and can overwhelm the melatonin in a bloodstream.  Both the fear-of-the-dark – the uncertainty about mysteries and hidden dangers – and a consuming ambition to extend the time we can work, move, and play in daylight, have resulted in brightly lit twenty-four hour habitats. But, at the same time, we build places with low light levels where we can “hide” ourselves from observation and distractions but without feeling confined. By “losing” the ceiling and walls of a larger space in darkness, and introducing a small, soft, warm source that lights up a foreground of faces – in candlelight, at a campfire, around a card table – designers create feelings of seclusion and a private intimacy with the accompanying body states that favor confidentiality and trust, daring and risk-taking, persuasion, and seduction.  In other words, with changing light, sleep is overruled by more immediate challenges to survive, win, and prosper.

Breaking through constraints

Limits on seeing feel like limits on life, and we have a long history of technology designed to light up the dark or to deal with too much “blinding” light. Because the pupils adapt to the brightest light, they necessarily edit out whatever is dimly lit. Then unlighted colorful foregrounds become featureless silhouettes and signs, clues to orientation, work surfaces, food, and faces can be frustratingly – or intentionally – obscured by glare. In response, we have developed vocabularies of built environments to compensate for the pupils’ natural limitations: selective shading and reflections, task lighting, balanced multiple sources and the focused highlights that signal “destinations” – the human purposes within a space, indoors and out. And we are continually exploring new forms that resolve conflicts – like those between functional night lighting and seeing stars in a dark sky, or between the desire for both daylighting and big-window panoramic views, but without glare and heat-gain. In a parallel way, too, we invent lenses that supplement our own, extending the range of focused vision.

The important point here is that, year by year, our ambition – our innate predilection – to keep extending our reach, brings into being more sophisticated science, design, engineering, and industries to manage light. We can – and many do – measure, model, control and predict human responses – emotions, associations, intellectual performance – to the light and color content of essentially any habitat we are building. Yet much more is known than is put to use.  And that’s what a new broader humanism is about: breaking through convention and out-dated “intuitions” and adopting more systematically than we do today, the advancing arts and sciences – in this case of vision and optics – into the everyday practice of architecture, landscaping, and urban design.

The presence of divinity in the dazzling light and color that fill the soaring space – once everyday practice in a gothic cathedral – this one in Mallorca.


We live wrapped in feelings aroused by colors. In a sense, they all – including black and white – tend to produce a range of moods – body states – and associations that prime responses to whatever we encounter. As raw color sensations follow paths into different parts of a brain, the meaning to us, the significance, is, as always, shaped by contexts; it can change as we’re competing or courting, problem-solving or facing a moral judgment. And while often learned from our culture and experience our responses are naturally grounded in some basic, common physiology.  

The red effect

In the retina, and concentrated within the central fovea three types of cone cells are sensitive to, and report on, light energy frequencies. The greater number by far senses reds and oranges, giving them more clarity and impact. Naturally, then, they draw the most attention, and seem to advance. They feel aggressive – possibly threatening – and tend to increase heart rates and blood pressure and thus a sense of warmth and impulse for action. We’ve all seen how that’s exploited as the “red effect” in fashion and uniforms, or in a built environment, signs, signals and all kinds of eye-catching.

Blues and greens

…and especially violets, activating fewer cells tend to be perceived as less so, receding not advancing, leaving sensations of calm and cool. And blue, like yellow forms tend to become indistinct and immaterial, especially seen against the sky or water.

Essentially all tones of green tend to be associated with the natural settings they dominate, and beyond that, research is showing that, in a problem-solving context, greens can be refreshing, reduce stress and foster creativity – in a sense like the presence of nature itself. And along the same lines, in almost all contexts we respond to green as a symbol – a positive sign of approval and “go ahead.”

When the question is asked, blues are typically selected as a “favorite” color. And research is showing that responses to blue – what seem to be innate associations – in social contexts are feelings of friendly or approachable, and in work situations open-minded, unconfined. At the same time, though in another part of a brain – in another context – we tend to respond to blue light – unless balanced by other colors – as “cold” and in another, it’s the symbolic color of melancholy or in another, it’s the UN and EU color of peace. Again, the context shapes the meaning.

White and black

This mix of all color wavelengths is rare in nature – except in the sky. And we tend to perceive it in ways parallel to geometric forms – as a distinctly human order – or a divine one – imposed on a less perfect natural world. Seeing pure, reflective white Carrara marble against the darker stones of Florence or bricks of Rome, or a white plantation house in the green/blue/brown of a wilderness, tends to lead toward sensing personal mastery, a place released from outside threats or aging, and as the most visible, these symbolic white human civilizing victories singled out as the most important, privileged places.

In a built environment, black, like darkness, is used to hide or minimize a presence. And in a social context, used sparingly, tends to be associated, like white at the opposite pole, the ultimate in formal authority.


Because it is the intensity of the impacts – of excitement of the receptor cells – caused by brightness, lighter values, sharp contrasts, and saturated colors, we give a high priority to finding and focusing on them as “first impressions.” They structure the sequence of perceptions. And contrast is the key. Repeated, bright look-at-me light – and vivid colors – along a confined corridor like highway strip or in a carnival setting, can be energizing to exhaustion until the significant information in each individual “first impression” is communicated. Then it’s absorbed in the identity of a larger district, a destination clearly set off from its surroundings.


When light energy reflects off surfaces, their physical textures and variations, creating changing shadows, naturally add a dimension to what we see. The reflections from natural irregularities in building materials, or weathered pigmentation, a patina of human use, or colors seen in firelight become flickering images on the retina. Unconsciously we tend to sense that as motion and, in turn, almost human life. Landscapes, especially in a breeze or dappled sunlight, or in the sparkle – and sound – of moving water can do the same.

As a language   

With these few basics as a start, cultures – and individuals – have elaborated out of their own experience and associations, a range of “languages” of color that have been most effective for them. Like verbal languages they appear to evolve over time, becoming enormously complex and powerful. And sensitive, trained designers, artists and colorists, have used the historic color vocabularies of a culture together with the science behind them to develop an impressive fluency. In a sense, they’ve organized the visible spectrum into a vocabulary of hues, values, and uncounted distinct tones that we are readily able to perceive. And then, in a parallel with composing music, they can hold in their minds, and foresee colors in relationships with each other and with the other senses. And they can use combinations of mixes, textures, layering, lighting, harmonies and contrasts to evoke hundreds of predictable feelings – except, of course, in that +/- 10 percent of the population that the rest of us call color-blind. 

In a built environment, colors are, of course, only one factor in a scene, but again experience has proven colorists in our culture able – on their own – to stimulate, or set the stage for such imagined sensations as: warm or cool; soft, smooth or harsh; excitement or serenity; harmony or confusion; formal or casual; refined or rustic; dignity or flamboyance; solidarity or conflict; natural or crisp and machine-like; old and prestigious or new and prestigious; and varying political and religious values. In other words, they have identified workable translations from colors to body states, and the expressive languages of color – from the cool white-black-gray of the Bauhaus to the intense rainbow of a Caribbean village – are as inevitable and forceful in a built environment as they are in love and in battle.

Local color

Alongside the clear, bright white pride in mastering an uncivilized place, often not far away are other settlements where color is not a choice but a given. The practical, cost-effective materials of architecture and landscapes are at hand in the earth itself – the warm sandstones of Bath and the Cotswold hills, red clays, the redwoods of California, the fields of lavender or tulips and native associations of plants everywhere. Then at all scales – in buildings, landscapes, cities, and regions –  powerful, memorable color identities are valued because they tell stories of home, stable societies, roots in the land, and the larger, longer history of surviving and prospering here. In today’s mixed national/global markets, color rarely plays that role except in places deliberately branded by their occupants or developers. Our lowest-cost, vernacular materials are as likely to have the colors of recycled plywood, plastic tarps, and corrugated metal sheets, and they tell their own stories of settlement and survival in an industrializing culture.

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Next: An overview of how the sensations of hearing, tastes, and smell are integral to experiencing the places we build. 

This is the twenty third in a series of posts that spell out a set of ideas called A New Humanism: in architecture, landscapes, and urban design. They’re about enlarging the way we think about design by applying, in day to day practice, a broader range of insights into the cutting edge sciences of nature and human nature — using them to understand how our evolved mind-and-body actually experience the places we design, and why people respond the ways they do.

Robert Lamb Hart is a practicing architect and planner educated at Harvard GSD and the University of Pennsylvania. He is a founder and a principal in Hart Howerton, a planning, architecture, and landscape design firm with an international practice out of offices in New York, San Francisco, London, Shanghai, Park City, and Boston. He believes that the design professions have been falling behind in their understanding of one of the defining enterprises of the Modern revolution, the application of the maturing, fast-moving sciences of ecology and human behavior — and the compromised results are showing. 

Read more posts from Robert Lamb Hart here.

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