As Important as Bricks and Sticks

When we think of Architecture it is usually in context of form and materials.  The form and materials work together to provide the desired effects and spaces that inspire feelings within the viewer or user much like a work of art might.  Natural light is the element that reveals the effects and as such, is an integral building element in the Architect’s palette.  All forms are revealed in natural light and are ever changing as the shadows and light move through the sky. Interior spaces likewise are made more beautiful and stimulating to sight by the careful control of how natural light enters the building, and how it interacts with textures and materials of the interior.


Here, we will only scratch the surface of the subject, but will inform the reader of some of the ways the Architect uses natural sunlight.  We will discuss direct light, indirect light, shadows and silhouettes, material hues and textures, and finally filters.  Architects use both virtual and actual models to understand the effects of light.  The study of these effects is most important when trying to set the desired ambiance for interior spaces such as places of worship.  For the purposes of this article, we limit our focus to the natural lighting of building interiors.

Using Indirect Sunlight

Indirect sunlight, which is the diffusion of direct light by filter, or controlled reflections, can be used to brighten the overall space. By careful design, indirect light can also create a strong contrast between dark and light and become a focusing element such as a light scoop over a chapel altar (as in Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp). Another example is the light scoop over the crucifix at Philip Johnson’s Chapel of Saint Basil at University of St. Thomas in Houston.

Enhancing Architecture

Direct sun-lighting of spaces can be very beautiful if controlled correctly to avoid unwanted glare and direct sun into the eyes, both of which make performing desired tasks uncomfortable.  The sun’s rays are perfectly parallel and can create distinct and sharp shadows, revealing patterns that can move across floor and wall surfaces.  Rays can also interact with dust particles in the air to create a heavenly volume of light as if it were extruded through a form.

Illuminating Art

Another, more modern, example using indirect lighting – this time from both sides – reveals the form of Christ, in the Sacred Heart statue, while grazing the  sculpted back wall.  The net effect is the seemingly floating of Christ, all achieved with natural light.

Sacred Heart Statue | Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart | Houston, TX

Creating Contrast

Two fascinating by-products of strong direct sunlight are Silhouettes and Shadows. This is the juxtaposition of light and dark to reveal shapes and form, much like the Renaissance masters’ use of Chiaroscuro in painting does.  The high contrast can create a sense of volume and focus. 

Frank Lloyd Wright's Johnson Wax Administration Building

Natural light is the gold standard for color rendition. Therefore, in its indirect form, natural light is the choice of museums because of its ability to fill up a space with perfect white light.  However, it must not be allowed to damage the art, so UV filters are used which are laminated into the glass.  Natural light can also be put to use in the workplace to uplift the human spirit and support physical health as well.  It is well known that natural lighting is essential for life and promotes healing and wellness.  The Johnson Wax Administration Building by Frank Lloyd Wright broke the mold of industrial working conditions and brought employees into an uplifting space supported by dendriform columns resembling lily pads.  The light between the columns was made indirect or diffused by the use of plastic tubing. This creates a truly amazing space, especially for being built in 1939.

Colors in Light

Colors, textures and filters round out our discussion.  Colors desired for interplay with light can be applied directly on or created within the material being illuminated, or they can be created with the use of colored glass, or by bouncing light off of concealed colored walls, achieving a perceived change in the light from white to a color. The wonderful Chapel of St. Ignatius by Steven Holl that sits on the University of Seattle Campus uses colored glass in the irregular shapes and volumes that emerge from the roof to create the symbolic vessels or bottles of Light.  Of course, no discussion of natural light and colored glass can exist without recognizing stained glass.  There are many different methods employed and styles represented in stained glass, including modern.  The old masters hand painted on the colored glass in order to attain the truly emotional connections their work creates. These colored light options are a sort of filter, as is the use of grillage. Direct natural light passing through a grillage can provide very interesting effects that will continually change, reaching a drama when the sun is in a particular location. 

Resurrected Christ Stained Glass Window

Mellini Art Glass & Mosaics

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About the Author

Chris Petrash, AIA

Chris has more than 36 years of design experience on diverse and complex project types including high-rise, mixed use, commercial office and high-density, urban residential developments. His high level of design contribution in architecture has been recognized by the receipt of numerous awards.


As a key member of the project leadership team in the Urban Architecture Studio, Chris is versatile and gifted in a variety of project types. He plays a valuable role in this highly collaborative and integrated studio; working with multifamily residential developers, commercial and corporate office clients, and providing a bridge for teams in the mix of buildings typical in urban infill projects.

Chris Petrash, AIA

Design Principal


Chris Petrash