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Light Research @ MMU

James Turrell’s wonderful Skyspace, Kielder Forest, Northumbria

With Ulisses, Julie and JSkyspace cloudsan from the IAS at Durham, I headed out on a bright but chilly February day to visit James Turrell’s Skyspace at Kielder Forest, situated a mile and a half from the nearest metalled road, amidst a coniferous plantation. It takes the form of a broad, low tower built from local stone, with a passageway leading into a circular chamber. A concrete bench surrounds its inner circumference, painted grey like the lower wall, which is detached like a thick skin and rises at an outward angle to about 8 feet. A higher wall, painted white, extends to the ceiling, at an angle leaning towards the perpendicular. It joins the ceiling which covers an area of some three feet, at which point a perfectly circular aperture with a very sharp edge has been cut, open to the sky. Sitting on a bench, in daylight, all attention focuses upon the intense, radiant circle of sky that contrasts with the lower light levels that it disperses in the interior like a haze. This light is the interface between internal and external space.  Skyspace fading afternoon

The light of the sky continually reveals its temporality, shifting according to the time of day, the season and the prevailing weather. Whether flecked or thick with cloud, full of stars or midday blue, a succession of intense colours dazzles the eye and conditions the glow or gloom of the interior. The bench invites visitors to sit and look at the circular aperture, and while at first they may seek to glean particular features within the sky, or to situate the experience within a conceptual framework, after a while, as we sink into the work, the intensity of the light absorbs our attention.  The sky garners a focused attention in a way uncommon when outside, and acquires solidity because of the brilliance of its colour and luminosity. As dusk descends, the sky seems to become closer as the gloom of the interior blurs details within, and sunset and moonbeams tint particular sides.Skyspace dusk (2)

We are seeing light in a pure form here, not as it refracts off the textures and features of the landscape. Isolated from the everyday surroundings with which we usually perceive it, light is revealed as integral to the experience of the world. But more than this, the depth, angles and height of the inside walls and ceiling seem to change according to the shifting qualities of light. Turrell’s work thus makes us aware of the ways in which we perceive light. We can’t be sure what we are seeing is there, or whether our eyes are being tricked. In addition, attention is drawn to the sky, which is usually sensed as a sort of neutral background above and around us. Here, it is the central focus and with its changing light and colour it seems to take on a solid, material form. This work does not only make us aware of light: far from any roads or houses, the interior also rings with the echoes of sounds made by visitors or amplifies birdsong, wind or the buzz of an aeroplane from outside, but at other times encloses an unfamiliar and complete silence.Skyspace Moon

February 8th, 2014 - 17:12pm

Solar Mirror Lights Gloomy Norwegian Valley

From Lars Frers: The town of Rjukan was established about 100 years ago to harness the energy of the Rjukan waterfall by what  then was the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant. Rjukan lies at the bottom of a deep valley between Gaustatoppen, Southern Norway’s highest mountain, and the Hardangervidda mountain plateau. While this location grants exceptional access to hydroelectric power (and is the basis for a nomination as UNESCO World Heritage Site), it shuts out the sun from September to March. The town’s population has long struggled with the dark side of industrialization, even though the town’s founder, industrialist and head of Norsk Hydro Sam Eyde, has built an aerial tramway to lift people up into the surroundings of the sunny mountain plateau – to keep them happy, healthy and productive. Before the construction of this tramway, an employee proposed the idea of installing mirrors to reflect the sunlight from the sunlit mountainside into the town. This idea was considered by Eyde but set aside in favor of the tramway.










The appeal of the idea never faded completely, and a couple of years ago a local artist gathered new support for the project. Although the project faced stiff opposition because of its high cost ($851,000), it was finally completed in 2013 with a public inauguration on October 30th – 100 years after the employee’s idea was published in the local newspaper. The mirror consists of three electronically adjusted 17 square metre panels, which together light an area of about 600 square metres in the town square. That might sound like too large an area, but as the photographs show, it does make quite a difference. When the sun finally came through the clouds on the day of the opening ceremony, the crowd was cheering and you could witness the odd native shedding a tear of joy. (The warming effect however, is only just noticeable – even for sensitive cheeks.)Rjukan4Rjukan2


November 7th, 2013 - 08:56am

Bottle lamp: lighting solution for the poor

Alfredo bottle light


Thumbs up to the heroic inventor Alfredo Moser, who has developed a source of light that simply requires plastic bottles filled with water and a tiny bit of bleach. Like the gravity lamp featured on this blog, this offers a very low cost lighting solution for the poor.

August 16th, 2013 - 14:48pm

The Grumble Point

Perusing the 1945 City of Manchester Plan, which sets out the post-war reconstruction of the city, I came across a detailed appendix outlining a daylighting masterplan for the city. Daylighting is the practice of controlling the admission of natural light, such as direct sunlight and diffuse skylight—into a building, through the positioning of apertures and materials to redirect natural light into interior space.  In the 21st century, daylighting has been rediscovered following concerns about sustainability and energy efficiency.  Clearly if we can light buildings naturally it will reduce the need for artifical light sources (Ander, 2012).  It is interesting, therefore, to find that that daylighting was also rediscovered in 1945.

Manchester’s daylighting plans draws on the technical expertise of  T.Smith of the National Physical Laboratory Light Division and contains detailed calculations and daylight graphs for commercial buildings, assessing the amount of natural light penetrating building interiors using a formula based on building length, depth and height.

Light Factors

The Plan draws on The Ministry of Works (1944) guidance on lighting,defining the daylight factor as:

a percentage of total light available outdoors under the unobstructed sky.  Thus a daylight factor of one per cent signifies that at the point in question in which illumination is one per cent of that which would be obtained if from that point the whole hemisphere of the sky could be seen (247)

In the Manchester plan, for example, the following guidance is explained:

In living-rooms and rooms where activities such as reading, writing and sewing are carried on … 1.0 per cent

In kitchens, or rooms where cleanliness of utensils and subtle differences of colour have to be judged … 2.0 per cent

In bedrooms … 0.5 per cent

The plan adopts 1.0 per cent as the norm. This overt concern with daylight penetration masks a deep underlying planning philosophy which underpins The City of Manchester Plan.  Throughout this document is an uncritical appreciation of Le Corbusian principles of modernist planning. Le Corbusier writes:

Light and illumination are inseparable components of form, space and light. These are the things that create ambiance and feel of a place, as well as the expression of a structure that houses the functions within it and around it. Light renders texture, illuminates surface, and provides sparkle and life.

A great example of these ideas in practice is his design for The Chapel of Notre Dame at Ronchamps.  Le Corbusier’s broader intention, however, was to both metaphorically and literally bring the masses into the light, arguing that bodily and spiritual health were connected to exposure to natural light, ideas perhaps expressed in The Radiant City in which he calls for greater use glass walls and facades, together with the spacing apart of tall buildings as practical ways in which to maximise daylight peneratation. Through “slum” clearance and mass redevelopment, Manchester therefore, attempted to put these ideas into practice.

 Grumble Point

According to the Manchester plan the Grumble Point is a level “at which complaints are that visibility is difficult … reached when the light factor sinks to 0.2 per cent”. This exact scientific rationalisation of the availability of lighting is perhaps only to be expected from modernist urban planning.  The document doesn’t mention the qualities of light nor the affordances of darkness and gloom.  The assumption that the more light, the better, is perhaps challenged by contemporary understandings of lighting and architectural design.


Bullock, N (2002) Building the Postwar. Routledge, London

Chynoweth, P 2005, ‘Progressing the Rights to Light Debate Part 2: The Grumble Point Revisited ‘ , Structural Survey, 23 (4) , pp. 251-264

The Ministryof Works (1944) The Lighting of Buildings Post-war Building Studies No.12. HMSO.


April 19th, 2013 - 10:56am