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Daylight has been the primary source of light for human activity until the last hundred years. The history of daylighting in architecture can be traced back to ancient period. In the pre-industrial period prior to the 1800s, daylight in the form of sunlight and skylight has been the primary source of illumination for human activity. Activities and works such as writing, printing, painting, spinning and weaving relied solely on daylight and therefore were primarily limited to daytime hours. The need for daylight in that period would have meant that production was crucially dependent upon prolonging the availability of daylight inside building to a maximum. Due to these reasons, windows and other building apertures for daylight admission were given special prominence within the structures of buildings. Supplemental lighting in the forms of candles and oil lamps were only used at night times. These early flame sources were not as effective in lighting interiors as afforded by modern electric sources.

An important principle applied consistently in early building designs was that effective daylighting could be achieved by keeping the building floor plan shallow relative to the size of openings providing daylight. Therefore, buildings were deliberately designed with relatively shallow plans to allow daylighting. Even up to the1960s, buildings were still largely designed with relatively shallow plans and light-well forms as electric lighting at that time was still relatively inefficient and expensive. Later these attributes were largely ignored when building designs rely heavily on electric light. However, with increasing awareness on sustainability and energy saving, narrow plans and light-well building forms are brought back into the current architecture scene. These distinctive features are among the criteria of sustainable buildings which utilize daylighting optimally and save energy.

Roles of Daylighting

There are two general roles of daylighting in architecture related to pragmatic and poetic purposes. These roles or purposes usually influence the nature of illumination effects or performance and the architectural expressions of buildings. 

Daylighting practices since antiquity have been concerned largely with pragmatic goals such as provision of sufficient quantity of daylight for utility. Borys claims that the daylighting principles in Vitruvius’s De Architectura, Alberti’s De re Aedificatoria, Palladio’s Quattro Libri and later treatises of the Renaissance are principally rooted in the realm of commodity (Borys, 2004). This role was of the utmost importance during the early industrial period or in the nineteenth century when new building types were erected such as factories, offices and department stores. It was necessary to determine an appropriate quantity of daylight for task performance. Later, artificial light was introduced in the nineteenth century to complement daylighting. 

Examples of daylighting as commodity or serving pragmatic role or purposes.

This role places daylight as a commodity. It was further supported in the modern period by development of scientific methods and tools in daylighting such as the Daylight-Factor Method (Hopkinson, 1963), Lumen Method (Rea, 1993), Waldram Diagram (Hopkinson, et al., 1966) and BRS Protractors (Hopkinson, et al., 1966) which provided means for achieving desired amount of daylight illuminance inside buildings.
In short, pragmatic goals in daylighting can be determined in quantitative terms such as illumination levels (lux) and measurable visual performance. 

Daylighting for poetic purposes is very important in architecture such as providing illumination for human orientation, identification, and meaning in space. These qualitative objectives have been responsible in determining whether the luminous environment looks warm, gloomy or cheerful, etc.  Abbé Suger in the fifteenth century used stained glass windows of different colour schemes in his cathedral designs to orchestrate atmospheric tensions (Hunt, 2006). Christopher Day (2002) in his book, Places of the Soul, recommends windows to be set deep into the wall so the brightness outside and the shade inside can give calmness to a room interior. 

Poetic quality of day lit interiors produced by contrasting effects of light and shadow


Stagno (2001) is another architect who emphasises the importance of the poetic aim in daylighting. He claims that in architecture, light can only be treated as a material element when it makes its appearance simultaneously with its opposite or shadow. Stagno highlights that light and shadow separately do not create references. Such poetic principles in daylighting have been central in the designs of Notre Dame du Haut chapel by Le Corbusier and the Church of Light by Tadao Ando.

The subjective effects of daylighting in building, involving the balance between light and shade, were also promoted by Scamozzi in his L’Idea dell’Architettura Universale (1615). Engaging the penumbral analyses of Leonardo and Maurolico, Scamozzi projected different zones of light and shadow inside the cross sectional and plan drawings of his residential design, Villa Bardellini. The light zones which were the by-products of daylight encounter with architectural forms were associated with the experiences of internal spaces. Scamozzi outlined these interior spaces differentiated by light zones, which according to him constituted a range of definitive conditions for living and ordering the habits of everyday life (Borys, 2004):

i.  lume amplissimo, o celeste - intense light from direct sun on a clear day
ii. lume vivo perpendicolare - lively and perpendicular light, as received in courtyards and through domes.
iii. lume vivo orizontale - horizontal light is received frontally or diagonally as in rooms and porticos
iv. lume terminato - limited light obstructed by a place’s narrowness like a street
v. lume di lume - secondary light which comes from an adjacent directly lit space
vi. lume minimo - minimal light which is reflected light


Scamozzi conceived architecture with these definitive conditions as a ‘memory building’ (Frascari, M., 1998) in which daylight and shadow are poetically harnessed to engage human imagination. Such building design allows natural light to create a variety of spatial definitions and experiences. Combination of daylight and shade assist the interior spaces in their identification and characterisation which can be appraised by human experience.

Generally, daylighting for poetic aims prioritizes illuminance quality rather than quantity. A principle or rule for achieving poetic aim in daylighting is impossible to express in quantitative terms such as in mathematical equations. Therefore, it is usually quoted as simple instructions that highlight the essential components or criteria to orchestrate the effects, such as the ‘windows in two adjacent walls’, ‘windows with deep reveals’, ‘simultaneous presence of light and shade’, etc.



Borys, A. M. (2004, May). Lume di Lume: a Theory of Light and its Effect. Journal of Architectural Education (Vol.57). Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.
Day, C. (2002). Places of the Soul: Architecture and Environmental Design as a Healing Art (2nd edition). Oxford: Elsevier Ltd.

Frascari, M. (1998). The Mirror Theatre of Vincenzo Scamozzi. In V. Hart & P. Hicks’s, Paper Palaces: the Rise of the Renaissance Architectural Treatise. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Hopkinson, R.G. (1963). Architectural Physics: Lighting. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Hopkinson, R.G., Petherbridge, P. & Longmore, J. (1966). Daylighting. London: William Heinemann Ltd.

Hunt, P. (2006). Abbé Suger and a Medieval Theory of Light: Lux, Lumen, Illumination. Philolog. Classic Department, Stanford University.

Rea, M. S. (Ed.) (1993). Lighting Handbook: Reference And Application, 8th Edition, New York: IESNA.

Stagno, B. (2001). Designing and Building in the Tropics. In A. Tzonis, L. Lefaivre & B. Stagno (Eds.), Tropical Architecture: Critical Regionalism in the Age of Globalization. Chichester: Wiley-Academy



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