Sublime Darkness

What artists know that most architects haven’t yet fully embraced is the practice of drawing the dark shapes. It’s not natural when drafting on a computer to visualize exactly how the dark is going to move across the room especially when our entire focus tends to be on washing the space in the light.

I have recently revisited this lesson while gesture painting from a live model. All architects should practice figure drawing regularly if for no other reason; it will remind them to draw shadows as a solid shape.   When all you have is 3 minutes to capture a form as with the drawing above, the dark and light shapes are just about all you get. What you learn is that there is no light until you have the dark defined and therefore no form. This is also true of architectural space.

To translate this lesson into architecture we must first disregard the implicit meaning given to darkness as being sinister or hiding something dirty. Of course most cultural references and most all religious traditions convey quite the opposite.

John writes in the New Testament, “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil”( John 3:31) In the Judaic story of the Exodus of Egypt, darkness is the plague and with death “a thick darkness descended”. (Exod. 10:21–23) In the context of Buddhism, good is identified with the fundamental nature of enlightenment, while evil indicates fundamental darkness and separation. Need I go on?

So here I am writing this on winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, and while our sun perpetuates its trustworthy annual cycle, virtually all major world religions are celebrating the triumph of light over darkness. Of course Mother Nature has other ideas about this and so in honor of her, I will rejoice in the darkness this season and observe and promote its most sublime and vital qualities.

Darkness is in fact the beginning of all light. Leonardo da Vinci states, “A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.”

Leonardo Da Vinci I am not, and my architectural portfolio is humble at best in both scope and nature, but when spoken of, my work is often part of a dialogue about light, both natural light and electrical light.

For example, I claim begrudgingly, the expertise that is involved to layout this ridiculous wall of switches.Home Light Switches

When I lay out an electrical plan I make painstaking efforts to consider the every corner of the room receives its calculated amount of lumens with variations based on function, ceiling heights, and mood. There are formulas to follow so that the cones of light of specified color and direction are overlapping in perfect coverage. Switches allow for a variety of options. In a bathroom for instance there might be fan+ shower light, tub light + vanity light, vanity light + accent light, vanity light + shower light, ….….you get the point.

All of this….. so that we can dim the lights.

So what if we actually design the dark into the architectural experience? Since all of architecture is done with materials we must first think of darkness as a substantive material.

John Ruskin in his article, “Seven Lamps of Architecture” advocates for a controlled and deliberate application of darkness rather than a texture of accidental shadows. ”The composition of the whole depends on the proportioning and shaping of the darks…like leaves laid upon the snow.”

Window from the Ca' Foscari, Venice, Seven lamps of Architecture, John Ruskin 1849

Window from the Ca’ Foscari, Venice
Seven lamps of Architecture
John Ruskin 1849

One of the devices for the application of darkness, according to Ruskin is penetrative or pierced ornament. In the context of contemporary architectural criticism, this is a slippery slope. Ruskin believes that architects have the right to apply ornament with the sole purpose of making an otherwise plain element into something beautiful.

In fact, I’d argue that there is an essential function to this type of ornament and that is the creation of shadows and composition of darkness which can illicit emotion, memory, and evoke mystery, all of which give meaning to architecture and therefore enhance the human experience.

scarp 1 po imagesA6YE6LL5edit

The ornament of shadows and darkness.
Lft: Castelvecchio, Verona Italy
By Carlo Scarpa, 1947

In my work, I often find myself searching for a place to let the dark rest without shutting out the natural light available. This can be done by carving out an alcove in a surface or wall. In other words creating a space where light can’t enter. For this we look to the east for expertise and inspiration. From the beautiful little book called, “In Praise of Shadows”, Tanizaki writes this:

“A Japanese room might be likened to an ink wash painting, the paper paneled shoji being the expanse where the ink is the thinnest and the alcove is where it is the darkest. I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows or sensitive use of shadow and light for the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more . An yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence, that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway. The “mysterious Orient” of which westerners speak probably refers to the uncanny silence of these dark places.” (pg. 68)


This “takanoma”, a Japanese alcove is a place where the eye, body and soul can escape the light. Especially now during the holiday season when the twinkly lights are strewn about so generously, I strive to find places like this alcove.

I believe that things that sparkle lose their great power when washed with too much light. This doesn’t just pertain to the variations of stainless steel and glass but is also true of human skin, lips, and eyes. Even things that don’t sparkle such as dirt and soap scum lose their power when not over illuminated, I am sure we can all appreciate the advantage to this.

So in conclusion, let us celebrate the gift of “darkness” this season. Regardless of how good your lighting plan is and how expertly designed is the architecture…….I venture to say that the most beautiful and sacred space in your home tonight will be the darkest corner with a single candle lit.


“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness”

― Mary Oliver


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