The Sheltering Sky

Last century, mechanical services and artificial lighting enabled environmental control to levels previously unimaginable. Eliminating windows from non-habitable rooms enabled deep office floor plans. Apartment buildings such as Mies van der Rohe’s Lake Shore Drive clustered non-habitable rooms for ease of servicing. [c.f. The Big Brush] With office buildings, reduced surface area allowed volume to be enclosed more efficiently and, with apartment buildings, the proportionally more surface area for value-adding views enabled higher returns on investment. All this was known as the International Style.

Prior to mechanical services, trompe l’oeil artificially fulfilled one of the functions of windows by simulating the appearance of windows and sky. It made no difference to daylight or ventilation but provided the sensation of a landscape more desirable beyond.

Techniques and preferences have changed over the centuries but our current preference is for floor-to-ceiling photographs in which idyllic landscapes feature bigly.

Murals and wraps do the same for building exteriors. Here’s something you don’t see very often: a photograph of a building, distressed to make it look like a mural and not the photograph it is, applied as a wrap to a building to make it not look like the building it is.

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The last time we saw internal trompe l’oeil variants however, was the realtime virtual windows adding value amidships on cruise liners. [c.f. Machine for Living]

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Doing without windows through choice as with the home cinemas of Australian suburban houses, is something different. When present at all, windows face boundary fences, guaranteeing the real window is kept curtained so as to not distract from the more appealing virtual experiences onscreen.

Modern electronics stores have arrays of enormous screens displaying various drone flyovers, tropical birds, fish, flowers, flashy graphics and hairy monsters all competing to impress us with real black, vibrant colours and the illusion of depth. This modern trompe l’oeil offers us windows to virtual realities more entertaining than the real ones we have.

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If it’s only a matter of illumination and not view, ventilation or entertainment, then light tubes (a.k.a. solar tubes) can be employed to bring daylight into deep plans and internal rooms. They are popular in Australia.

The desire to have additional illumination entering a space from above is usually satisfied by skylights but not everyone is lucky enough to live beneath a roof having the sky directly above.

Skylights therefore indicate that you don’t live in an apartment building or, if you do, that you live in the penthouse. If skylights are sufficiently large then indoors becomes virtual outdoors as suggested by this next slightly surreal photograph shot as part of an advertisement. Sharp shadows suggest it was set up and taken outdoors so as to convey the effect of being outside.

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[What follows is not a paid advertisement btw. GM]

The Italian company CoeLux now produces “artificial windows” that reproduce the effect of daylight and, going by these photographs, are very convincing. All images are from their website.

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I don’t have technical details and I doubt too many will be forthcoming, but “nanotechnology is employed to create the effect of  a realistic sun perceived at infinite distance and surrounded by a clear deep blue sky”. We’re told it’s the result of “comprehensive work carried on by an interdisciplinary team of researchers in the fields of optical physics, numerical modelling, chemistry, material science, architecture and design.” I’m sure it is and well done everybody! Installation requires a certain but not unreasonable depth of ceiling, but these fittings aren’t conventional light boxes. I’m intrigued by how parallel the rays are. I’m guessing that’s nanoparticles on the reflector at work.

It seems like the best way we have so far to bring light to windowless rooms. Cruise liners will be a large market, but there might be real health and/or psychological benefits to be gained in crew quarters and workspaces of not just cruise liners but of seagoing vessels in general and submarines in particular.

We really shouldn’t be calling them artificial windows but light fittings, for that’s what they are. As with the real sky, the familiar blue results from other wavelengths being absorbed so that’s no cheat. CoeLux deserve credit for producing solar elevation and colour temperature variations. It may not be possible to dim the light source but it will be someday. A timer-controlled dimmer simulating the diurnal cycle might provide further benefits for well-being. This would need syncing with the solar angle for, in the lower latitudes, the sun dives down into the horizon almost vertically and the transition between day and night is fast. The photograph below is from Dubai (at 25.2°N). I took it at 1858 on July 30. Sunset was at 1905. Forty minutes later it was night.

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But how real does a window simulator need to be?

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We don’t yet know what the architectural implications will turn out to be. Daylighting to habitable rooms is already covered by building regulations and, for that reason, it is important this invention remain classified a light fitting and not a window. Nonetheless:

  1. It might be less jarring and more psychologically comfortable to have transition zones between internal spaces that are sunny mediterranean and perimeter ones that most likely are not. Seeing both at once doesn’t seem like a good idea.
  2. The purpose of these devices is not to show us realtime video of the sky for doing so would involve a trade-off between environmental simulation and effectiveness as a light fitting. (There’s no point entering a room and switching on the sky only to find it black with realtime rain – or night.)
  3. Similarly, there’s little point switching on the sky when all you want to do is use the bathroom and get back to sleep. We’re now used to electronic devices having night-shift so our sleep patterns are disturbed less but the real sun and sky don’t have night-shift and there’s probably a reason for that. We’ll need to learn when to use this new technology and when artificial light is sufficient. We probably won’t. 

We also need to remember that these artificial windows are designed to deliver light having an incident angle and colour temperate characteristics similar to what we’re used to. They’re not trying to be beautiful and they’re not trying to be Art – unlike James Turrell’s real hyper-real windows that are. Their knife-edge thin frames make us see the sky as a surreal high-definition projection and, counter-intuitive as that sounds, make us appreciate it anew as the stunningly changeable three-dimensional event it is.

If only all windows could be like that.

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Still on the subject of windows, it’s big thanks and hats off to Alex Hummel Lee [PhD. Fellow of the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture] for alerting me to the orientation of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda [c.f. Architecture Myths #24: Beauty vs. Everything Else]. Contrary to what I’d unthinkingly assumed from every plan I’d ever seen, the four porticos do not face the cardinal points.

Villa Rotonda

What this means is that daylighting to all rooms is as equalized as much as it’s ever going to be. My point about Palladio using the same window size for all windows of a floor regardless of their orientation still holds, but the differences are less. Orienting the building in this manner is the right thing to do but we shouldn’t forget this is a problem Palladio made for himself – probably because of the site.

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Since Palladio thought it relevant to mention “The most beautiful vistas on every side,” I imagine that’s where the idea of having four sides identical came from.

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The room on the due-north corner is unlikely to have been a kitchen but, if the principal daytime room is the room on the corner facing due south, then we can probably say Palladio had an awareness of solar orientation. I say probably because the direction of approach and the direction of the views from the major rooms would still have been considerations.

We know the main approach was from the north-west but, without a north point and information on room allocation, it’s anyone’s guess how the plan was oriented. We know Palladio knew some rooms would be more comfortable than others at certain times and seasons [c.f. Architecture Myths #224: Beauty vs. Everything Else] so it’s possible the usage of the various rooms was never defined. [There’s no point if you have servants to set food and relevant furniture wherever you wish to eat, for example.] The villa was lived in full-time by Paolo Almerico [Vicenza, 1514–1589] so it was no decadent folly for summer weekends only. More information about what went on inside might tell us more about how skilled Palladio was at enabling it but, rather than lurk around dim and fusty libraries, here’s a better way of finding out.

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2 thoughts on “The Sheltering Sky

  1. Chuck Choi

    Hi Graham–Have you seen the series Black Mirror on Netflix? There is an episode called “Fifteen Million Merits” where architecture has become completely virtual. People live inside rooms surrounded by screens that project different environments…and alerts. It’s not far off.

    Reply
    1. Graham McKay Post author

      Hi Chuck and thanks! Years ago I saw some an advertisement for a kind of value-added sauna that was a 100% programmable environmental system. It would give keep you warm and dry while you topped up your tan, followed by a steam and then a gentle shower etc. before drying you with warm breezes, etc. It’s another of those virtual reality technologies that’s simply waiting to join up with the ones we have for sight and sound. It will probably take a bit more time to generate smell on demand as accompaniment to a narrative. In the meantime, I will search out Black Mirror.

      Reply

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