The Architecture of Sunlight

By late summer, you may have found an understanding for the sun, or you may be longing for winter’s clouds to return. August, with its grass brown from heat and sun, leads much of the world to rediscover their porches, the cooler spaces in their homes, and the welcome cross-breeze that can be created by opened windows. An ever-present force that guides lives by its presence or lack there of, the sun has played a role in architecture for thousands of years. Perhaps the first thing you think of is a place like Stonehenge: a monument rumored to capture certain angles of the sun. But the sun goes much further than this. The sun has been a construction aid in places like the southwest United States, it has necessitated front porches and breeze ways in places like the South, and in countries like Norway its varying presence has influenced design to maximize light.

Flickr photo by jefg99

Adobe is a sun-dried block that was used so widely in the southwest United States that today many buildings in states like Arizona and New Mexico are built to imitate its stuccoed exterior appearance. Sun dried-earth building techniques can be seen from West Asia to Eastern Europe and South America. To make adobe, a mixture of sand, clay, water, and straw (or a similar material) is shaped into bricks or blocks using wooden frames (or, in the case of the Pueblo people, baskets and hands) and left out to dry under the hot desert sun. The relationship with the sun does not stop there: adobe is beneficial because it soaks in the heat and keeps the interior rooms cool in hot climates.

Dogtrot house, Dubach, LA (Wikimedia Commons photo by Billy Hathorn)

In hot regions, too, the design of buildings reveals the desire for shade and breezes. Native Americans in the Southwest created ramadas – open air spaces with roofs of branches to provide shade – which provided a more pleasant environment for work or leisure. In the southern United States, broad porches provide a similar comfortable environment on hot summer days. Porches can be seen in varying styles from India to California. More unique to the South is the dogtrot or breeze-way house, a construction type which offers a central open-air hallway. Most dogtrots also have porches, maximizing outdoor livable space.

Even in the far-reaches on the northern end of the globe, the sun affects architecture. In places like Norway and Iceland buildings are designed to maximize the sunlight inside, especially at times of year when there is very little sun.

Flickr photo by thelebaron

The light colors and large windows that are representative of Modern architecture were taken above and beyond in these northern climes: the Icelandic Opera (Islenska Operan), for example, looks like a building made of giant ice cubes, and maximizes sunlight while providing breath-taking views of Reykjavik and the ocean beyond. Want to see a building that makes the best use of sunlight, but don’t live so far north? Take a look at Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs, as well as buildings like Oregon’s Mount Angel Abbey Library, designed by the Norwegian architect Alvar Aalto.

A built form doesn’t have to be soaking up solar energy or reflecting equinoxes to demonstrate the sun’s influences on architecture. Start looking around you: evidence of the sun is everywhere. It’s why we have repaired shutters in New York and farms to visit in Slovenia. No matter how much or how little you see the sun, it’s always there, reflected in life-ways and, by extension, architecture.

About Susie

I am an architectural historian by trade and an architecture admirer by passion. I am a resident of the Pacific Northwest and (of course!) enjoy the outdoors and a good cup of coffee.
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One Response to The Architecture of Sunlight

  1. Pingback: This Week | Bricks + Mortar

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