I often find myself in scenarios that go something like this: After walking through a space, the client describes the architectural elements and tells me what’s important to see, as well as how the space will be used. “Yes,” I respond, “you can light it to perform any of the tasks you want to perform, and I can make it look the way you want it to look. But how do you want it to feel?” In my view, that’s a critical question when it comes to lighting up a room.
Case in point: During a recent charrette to redesign a multipurpose art center, the architects were keen to have the lighting signal that each room, from gallery to classroom, has a unique function. They offered up inventive ideas on ways to design the architectural details and lighting fixtures to do just that. But my job is to shape the light itself. I want people to feel different in each room where they’ll be performing different kinds of tasks.
This affect is not as simple as emphasizing what you see directly in front of you. It can come from the periphery of your vision—the “fringe of your focus”—and it determines how you feel in a particular space. You absorb much of the affect without being acutely aware that you’re doing it through what we variously call the co-conscious, unconscious, or just the “noise around us”. Some of this is sensed through the body–it’s everything we see out of the corners of our eyes. Once I meet the clients’ goals of function and look, I work at the peripheral layer to establish both a sense of wellbeing and a desired emotional tone.
What, then, does it mean to talk about how a space feels? People usually respond in one of two ways.
For residential clients, the question of “how the lighting should feel” may ignite strong emotional responses, such as, “I hate fluorescent lights. I hate track. I love incandescent. I love candle light.” “My mother (or father) always went around turning off lights, and I can’t bear the feeling of not seeing.” “I hate it when it’s too bright; I feel ill.” “I’m afraid of the dark.” “My partner and I totally disagree about the reading light in the bedroom and how bright the bathroom should be. We always fight about it.”
These intense emotional reactions–fear, hate, love, and anger are hard-wired biological functions of our nervous system–make sense to me. We grew up, as did our parents, in a world of plentiful artificial light. It is inextricably fused with our memories of home, whether gloomy or bright, candlelit or washed by a single circular fluorescent in the center of the kitchen. We remember the (now unimaginably) high levels of illumination above our desks in elementary school, and the acutely bright light at the hospital where we were rushed with broken bones, or visited relatives.
Despite these common memories, when I ask, “How do you want the lighting to feel?” I’m met with blank stares. With our focus on function and look, describing “feeling” — some neuropsychologists distinguish feeling from emotion by its subtlety, complexity, and the way it mixes intelligence, judgment, and experience — is particularly difficult.
To break through this barrier, I might ask, “Do you want it to feel comforting, calm and orderly; cozy and intimate, enchanting or glamorous, mysterious, friendly, playful, surprising?” Some of our feelings are unique to us, some we share with others. For homeowners whose spaces are deeply personal, I help identify the distinct feeling they want to have in each room. For public spaces with their diversity of users, I work from a more generalized idea of what the feeling should be, based on the desired activities and psychological states.
Here’s where the peripheral layer comes in. Once we establish the emotional tone for the environment, I think about shape, movement, and light-to-shadow relationships and wavelengths. This is what the eye and brain register outside the narrow cone of focus that takes in detail and exact color.
Dining room, Colorado, by Maya Lin. Photo by Paul Warchol
The most commonly held and influential idea about design is that it’s the art of bringing essentially unrelated parts into a “composition” or an “assembly”. The funny thing is, from a scientific point of view, this idea is entirely wrong. A much better idea about design is that it’s the transformation of one whole into another whole. Not only is this definition more accurate, it’s also crucial for achieving an adaptive design.
Let’s talk about the important implications of this distinction between assembly and transformation.
Why is it scientifically wrong to say that design is the “composition” of essentially unrelated elements? Because nothing that works as a complete system is really “essentially unrelated” — though the sciences used to operate more or less successfully from that abstract premise, and much of technology still does. By contrast, the sciences of the last century have taught us more and more about the essential inter-relatedness of the Universe, from the largest scales of the space-time continuum, to the push-pull world of the quantum. In the biological sciences, we’ve come to understand the multi-layered, historical interdependence of systems, especially evident in the web-like relationships of ecological systems. Wherever we look in nature, we find vast and intricate networks of connections.