“Light conditions the ways in which we perceive – guiding what we are able to see, inflecting visible colours and informing our sense of the shape of space” (Edensor, 2015a, p. 331).
The play of light and dark, the contouring of shadows, and unease with gloomy spaces mediates our experience of landscapes. As Edensor (2015b) has argued, darkness and light should not be viewed as neutral entities, but rather as carrying cultural values and meanings. Our interest in Edensor’s work is matched by our engagement with Sarah Pink’s (2015) treaties on sensory ethnography, leading us to consider how the affects of light can transform the emotional and social meaning of place. Of particular interest has been the theatricality of the light/dark duality: the use of urban illuminations to create spectacle such as the Nuit Blanche arts initiatives in France and beyond (Evans, 2011), the advent of dark restaurants where you eat without light to heighten other senses (Edensor and Falconer, 2015), and the selective use of lighting to flood heritage sites with bright colours at night (Di Salvo, 2014). While appearing subtle, playing with light and dark can speak to a highly orchestrated encounter. This is exemplified in the nuanced rhythm of natural light and purposeful shadow of Le Corbusier’s architectural designs.
Well known for his modernist reinforced concrete structures, Le Corbusier’s work at sites such as the Villa Savoye in Poissy, France, the celebrated Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, France, and the Chandigarh planned city in India, encapsulated his vision of a new, efficient, and rational urban life. While ranging in scale and scope, Le Corbusier’s work often makes use of floor-to-ceiling or blocks of horizontal windows, slender columns, and showcases the texture of poured concrete design. Deliberate in his use of colour, carefully positioning windows and decorative wall cut-outs to create a pattern of daylight and its shadows, Le Corbusier uses light to transform interior spaces. This approach is on display at the architect’s Maison La Roche and the adjacent Maison Jeanneret in Paris, France, which together form the Fondation Le Corbusier. Here, the notation of archive has a dual meaning: it indicates both the collection of printed materials generated by Le Corbusier during his lifetime and held by the Fondation, a form of traditional archiving; and also treats the buildings themselves as architectural archives and entities that enliven and exemplify the principles contained in the boxed-up designs and notes. Vising the Foundation and other sites that Le Corbusier designed, therefore, becomes an immersive experience; one that allows people experiencing the sites to make connections between documented words and the physical manifestation of those ideas. For example, the layout of Maison La Roche links directly to the Five Points of Architecture espoused in Le Corbusier’s handwritten notes, while reading the architect’s meditation on the interplay of light and dark is augmented by the ability to experience first-hand the built outcomes of these approaches.
The photographs and text that follow aim to capture the sensory experience of reading one site in Le Corbusier’s architectural archive, 24 rue Nungesser et Coli. In recognition of the experiential nature of sensory ethnography, the comments are drawn from the research findings of one of this post’s co-authors (Kathryn Travis), with deliberate use of personal pronouns.
Reading space through light and shadow:
Having started to research in the paper archives at Maison Jeanneret, and having twice visited Maison La Roche, I sought to experience first-hand the Apartment-Atellier where Le Corbusier lived for 31 years. Having designed and built the structure with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret – their professional partnership spanned almost twenty years and included numerous collaborations – Le Corbusier received the top two floors of Nungesser et Coli as payment.
On Rue Nungesser et Coli, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s design still stands out. Contrasting neighbouring structures that follow a more traditional 19th century Parisian style of architecture, the horizontal windows that expand the entire width of the building and the use of glass blocks point towards the unique Le Corbusier style. The brilliance of the day intensified the light reflecting off the window panes and magnify the presence of the building. Light reflected from continuous walls of glass outshines that caught by encased and recessed windows.
Having used the intercom to speak with the attendant, I was buzzed into the main floor entrance and told to follow the signs and use the back stairwell. Walking through the front doors, a long pause was needed to adjust to the stark and sudden change in light. It proved difficult to adjust to the interior and orient to this new atmosphere, let alone while needing to locate directional signage. If not for the mirror with the collaged reflection, I might have completely missed the ambient blue glow of the stairwell.
Ambient light filters into the space. Having adjusted to the drastic shift in light when first coming inside, the stairs were relatively easily to find in the small, cramped interior. Climbing the half-shadowed stairway, there was a surprisingly somber mood radiating from this shared space. Separated by slightly ajar, bevelled glass windows, sounds of dishes being moved could be heard from one of the private apartments. These sounds followed me each step to the seventh floor.
The door to Le Corbusier’s apartment opened and I was smacked with natural light. Compared to the immense brilliance outside and the strained light of the interior, this brightness was specific and contained. Pockets of light pull one’s line of sight in very particular movements across each room. Spatial design is sculpted with light; in/direct, reflected, ambient and spectral. Every angle, line and point appears masterfully placed.
The view from above is breath-taking; an uninterrupted expanse of green tree-tops, cream and stone facades and living roof-top patios. Standing seven stories from the ground, there is calm and tranquility, only the hint of a crane and the hum of vehicles from the periphery highway reveal human activity and bustle. After an immersion into Le Corbusier’s apartment, it is clear that the sensory experience of the highly structure interior space affects one’s perspective outwards. From high above, it is easy to imagine how his rhythmic organization of objects, textures, and light could extend out into Parisian landscapes, where buildings seem to sit stoically in their planned locations and, overtime, the naturalized relief of foliage grows between man-made structures.
Kathryn Travis and Roza Tchoukaleyska
Di Salvo, S. (2014). Innovation in lighting for enhancing the appreciation and preservation of archaeological heritage. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 15(2), 209-212.
Edensor, T. (2015a). Light design and atmosphere. Visual Communication, 14(3), 331-350.
Edensor, T. (2015b). The gloomy city: Rethinking the relationship between light and dark. Urban Studies, 52(3), 422-438.
Edensor, T. & Falconer, E. (2015). Dans le noir? Eating in the dark: sensation and conviviality in a lightless place. Cultural Geographies, 22(4), 601-618.
Evans, G. (2011). Hold back the night: Nuit Blanche and all-night events in capital cities. Current Issues in Tourism, 15(1-2), 35-49.
Pink, S. (2015). Doing sensory ethnography(2ndedition). London: Sage.