Light in Architecture

Light is the most important factor in the appreciation and understanding of Architecture. The relationship between light and architecture is grounded in the principles of physics; it is about energy and matter but in this particular case it also implies an emotional effect on people.

Credits: Victor Palacio

Credits: Victor Palacio

The quality of lighting in a space defines its character and creates impressions. The human eye perceives its form through the incidence and reflection of light and in that way acquires information about the ambiance in a given place. Visual impressions are interpreted in our brains and put in context to create emotions that move us to take particular actions.

Lighting in a living room will be warm and dimmed, there will be no brilliant points and instead the distribution of light reveals textures, color and balances the dark and clear areas. This atmosphere, when read by our visual system, creates a comfortable impression that helps us to relax and enjoy the moment.

In opposition, lighting in a working place, for example a laboratory, will be cool in appearance, brilliant and focused on the specific places of work. All the room will be evenly lit, it will be perceived as wide and clean; this impression creates a dynamic mood in which different tasks are developed with more energy – mental and physical.

In public spaces, light provides a safe environment where people can meet and have a great diversity of activities.   Historic districts, squares, parks, pedestrian streets are all appreciated and become useful thanks to good lighting.

Credits: Victor Palacio

Credits: Victor Palacio

How can we add value to our homes, institutions, public spaces, commercial areas, cultural facilities, working spaces and practically all spaces by the use of light?

It is important to first understand the visual needs of the users of a space. Lighting is ultimately the energy that let us develop visual tasks like reading, identifying colors, perceiving volumes, measuring distances and more!

Secondly, it is really relevant to analyze the space: its form and function. As it was said before, lighting will be different depending on the use given to a place. Surface finishes, materials, shape, color, form, physical dimensions are key elements in the way that light will react and then provide information and impressions.

Credits: Victor Palacio

Credits: Victor Palacio

Next, there is no good solution of lighting without the use of the correct light source. It is not a matter of using always the most technologically advanced fixture, not at all!   It is about selecting the right lamp for the place and moment that you need to illuminate.  A candle is a great solution for the lighting of a table in a terrace of a quiet restaurant while a ultrahigh efficient optics luminaire is needed to illuminate a soccer stadium. There is no good or bad solution in itself, it always depends upon the visual needs and the characteristics of the spaces.

Finally, light as a form of energy used in architecture requires electricity. This means that the use of light has an impact in the environment and therefore it is also essential to plan and design the lighting in the most energy efficient way in order to preserve our planet.

One of the pioneers of the use of light as part of the architectural concept was Richard Kelly. He established three basic visual effects in order to design the lighting of any space:

  • Focal Glow, understood as the light that an object, a surface or a detail, the light that attracts attention
  • Ambient Luminescence, is the continuous light like that of a foggy sky, it is completely even and uniform without shadows
  • Play of Brilliants, the shinning effect of light reflected on a brilliant surface, like the sun on a water spot or the glass drops of a chandelier

The balance of these three elements will create a visually appropriate light scene accordingly to the character and use of a space.

Light defines the architectural space; it contributes to its perception and understanding while adding value to its function and bringing an emotional component for its users.

Light is magic!


DSC03431Víctor Palacio is the founder of ideas en luz independent lighting design practice in Mexico City. Victor’s personal philosophy of design consists in creating unique lighting atmospheres to transform spaces in the benefit of people. His work of 19 years in lighting design includes a broad range of projects in the cultural field, museums, residences, corporate, urban and retail projects. In the professional field, Victor has volunteered for the Illuminating Engineering Society – IES and currently is the President Elect of the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD). He is a frequent lecturer at lighting courses and international Architectural Lighting events.

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6 thoughts on “Light in Architecture

  1. In creating such illuminated spaces we must consider light pollution as well. No more direct light should be sent to the sky. We need to have back our wonderful starry night sky.

  2. I dont necessarily agree with Richard Kelly on this, regarding
    “completely even and uniform without shadows” lighting of internal spaces. What you don’t light makes the things you do light better all round. The dark areas are what puts a space onto the human scale and has psychological value for human happiness. Obviously this does not apply to industrial processes where shadow free lighting is essential!

    • I think this one wasn’t explained well. Mr. Palacio just use this example, but in fact Richard Kelly thought that Ambient luminescence is just level and form of the ambient light in some space. Like in the hotel reception – a desk will be under-lit with white light to take attention (focal glow), there will be dimmed warm light around the whole space (ambient luminescence) and some purple lighting object down from the ceiling (play of brilliance). Better?

  3. I am sorry to reply with such delay, frankly speaking I had not seen the comments section before.

    I agree about the need to reduce light pollution from the sometimes excesive lights in many cities and buildings. It is not always caused by direct lights to the sky but also from reflected unnecesary lighting in other places, for example, the flood lights on an open parking lot that reflect a lot of light from the pavement when they stay turned on all night.

    In the process of designing the light of facades and open areas, there is now a lot of care about the power of the fixtures and more important, its optics that will keep the light beams on the right angles to illuminate precise surfaces.

    Thanks for bringing attention to this important factor!! and thanks also to Jakub for explaining more about the concepts of Richard Kelly

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