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Featured Texts or Projects

Vol. 5 No. 1 (2020): Visual Spaces of Change: Designing Interiority - shelter, shape, place, atmosphere

In praise of light and shadows




The interaction of light and shadow has always fascinated architects, and even more so since Le Corbusier’s famous quote from 1923, published in Vers une Architecture, in which he describes architecture as “the learned game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in the light”. This game, which thus motivated the painters of Purism and Cubism – among whom Le Corbusier would come to be included – contributed in great part to the definition of the aesthetic ideals of the artistic avant-garde in the West in the first half of the 20th century. Associated with the purity of crystal, with the idea of total transparency, and with the blurring of the boundaries between the interior and the exterior, this very same game served as the conceptual premise of (and later as a critical challenge to) the architecture of the Modern Movement.

The counterpoint to the purist and crystalline impetus of modernism would emerge, and indeed one of many, by way of “In Praise of Shadows”, a reference to the book written in 1933 by Junichiro Tanizaki. In this work, the author examines how Oriental culture (in contrast with Western culture) has always sought to shield the interior space from the invasion of light and from exterior views by use of trees, porches, patios, shutters, and translucent sliding doors or dividers (the Japanese shôji). It is not by accident that many of these traditional elements would once again come to be adopted by Western architecture from the late 1950s onward in its search for vernacular values deriving from a broad variety of cultures.

Having studied in these seminal years of critical review of the Modern Movement and coinciding with the publication of the Survey on Regional Architecture in Portugal – (Inquérito à Arquitetura Popular em Portugal) (1955-1961), the young architect Álvaro Siza learned from Fernando Távora – his former teacher and mentor – to appreciate not only the effect of light on forms (Távora himself admitted to being an avid admirer of Le Corbusier), but also to stroll about the shadows in traditional habitats (Távora would gather important teachings from Japanese architecture during his grand tour in 1960 and filtering it through another great influence of his: Frank Lloyd Wright).

These different “phantom-characters” would come to also occupy the imagination of the young Siza, and to them he added references to Alvar Aalto, Bruno Taut or Adolf Loos, at the moment of considering the relationship between the individual and the collective space, between the domestic and the monumental scale, between the window and the city.

The photographic work of Mark Durden and João Leal focusing on Álvaro Siza’s work in Porto – now published by Scopio Newspaper – goes in search of not only this same game of shadows upon the target surfaces of the façades and the interiors of the buildings but also the multiplicity of transparencies and penumbras that unfold through their ample glazed windows.