2019 - Daylight Symposium
"Daylight and the Experience of Landscape" by Martin Schwartz
It is not true, as Robert Venturi wrote, that Alvar Aalto “didn’t write about architecture.” In the book, In His Own Words, Aalto’s writings and transcribed lectures, the Finnish architect discusses architecture, culture, technology, housing, and town planning. What seems remarkable is that Aalto had little to say about daylight, considering that light is a persistent, motivating force and nearly tangible presence in his architecture, and that he is considered a master of daylighting. Hence, these questions remain: How did Aalto develop his understanding of light and how did this understanding generate his architecture? This paper suggests that Aalto’s ideas about light are tied to his understanding of the Finnish landscape.
Daylight is not typically considered a critical element of the landscape and is seldom discussed in that context, but as Louekari and Edensor suggest, daylight cannot be excised from a consideration of the land. Sky and landscape are intertwined and, in any specific place in the world, one is an influence on the appearance and performance of the other. The reciprocal influence of land and light is particularly discernible in the Nordic countries where the landscape reflects the sky, where there is often too much or too little light, and where low sun angles easily translate into glare. Raised in the early 20th century, Aalto learned to hunt and fish in an evolving Finnish landscape of lakes, snow, and forest.
His ability to quantify the character of landscape was learned from his father, a master surveyor for whom he worked. Experiential knowledge combined with technical ability enabled Aalto to design architecture as interior landscapes, with shifting levels, spaces that meandered to encourage movement, varying ceiling heights, suffused with changing daylight. In this way, Aalto developed subtly varying degrees of enclosure, from great rooms to small clearings, vivified by direct sun and skylight gathered and diffused from sky-like, sculpted white surfaces. In Aalto’s work, daylight and space are inseparable, as they are in the landscape.
Martin Schwartz is an architect and teacher with a special interest in daylight in architecture. He has taught at the University of Plymouth, the University of Michigan, Cranbrook Academy of Art, the University of Oregon as the Frederick Charles Baker Distinguished Professor in Lighting, and since 2005 at Lawrence Technological University in Detroit. His book, Gunnar Birkerts, Metaphoric Modernist, was published in 2009 by Edition Axel Menges. He is currently working on two books, one on daylight in architecture, and Those Who Love the World Don’t Mind Being Reminded of It, on the work of Charles W. Moore. Martin’s blog and writings on daylight may be found at martinschwartz.net.