Why Dark Matters

September 30 2010 — by Mark Major
In a world keen to limit environmental damage and conserve valuable resources, learning to use less light has become increasingly pressing. Darkness – in all its various forms – is something that we must once again learn to embrace, appreciate and conserve.

The way we live means that the need for visual function, security and safety persuade us to use light as a solution, but we increasingly need to consider light as the physical manifestation of a precious resource – energy. We should then ask ourselves more fundamental questions concerning how little we can get away with using, what the quality should be and how we should control it.

The need to illuminate our environment is part of the human condition. From the dawn of civilisation we have always tried to banish darkness as a way of extending activity, providing security and managing superstition. But we have now adapted to the idea of artificial light as a basic commodity rather than an exceptional resource. Entering any area where light is not available these days would be considered extremely unusual.

Trying to create total darkness in any given environment, particularly in an urban area, often proves a difficult task. And yet when we take the time to examine darkness we realise that it has its own unique and potentially positive qualities. While it is often associated with fear of crime and lack of security, it can also bring visual quietness, privacy and a sense of calm. Importantly, it also provides the means by which bio-diversity can be properly maintained – birds, insects, flora and fauna all benefit from being allowed to follow the natural cycle of the day.

From a lighting design point of view, darkness also provides a background against which any lighting intervention may be better seen, and is therefore a key component in revealing form and providing intelligible space. Also, like light, darkness may be appreciated on a scale that ranges from total absence to a subtle presence. Given that our eyes are naturally well adapted to the dark, the idea that we necessarily need very large quantities of light to function is anathema. You only need to spend a small amount of time living or working in a rural environment with no street lighting to understand that life goes on regardless.

Le Corbusier defined the role of light in buildings for a generation of architects. In so doing, he was simply expressing what we have understood down the ages – that light raises the experience of built form above mere function to create an emotional response. What is often underestimated, however, is the role that darkness plays as a counterpoint in the creation of atmosphere and space. In fact some of the high points of architecture are buildings in which the juxtaposition between light and dark is fundamental to the perception of space.

Buildings including the Pantheon in Rome, the Katsura Palace in Kyoto, Tadao Ando’s Chapel of Light and Peter Zumthor’s Spa in Vals, are all good examples of this phenomenon. Such projects clearly demonstrate that in allowing large areas of buildings to remain unlit can be the very basis of great architecture.

The ability to reveal light is perhaps one of the greatest qualities of darkness. For the lighting designer the canvas is always created from darkness against which form, space and surface are revealed through the careful application of light. In the same way in which a painter appreciates that the background on which they apply colour must allow light to shine through to create the greatest vibrancy, so too must the lighting designer allow the absorptive nature of darkness to play a key role in the visual scene. Lighting every surface flattens and destroys form. Selective application of light and the deliberate retention of degrees of darkness not only contributes to legibility but also creates expression.

Mark Major
September 2010