The Role of Shadows in Vernacular Architecture
Whenever light falls on a surface there will be a shadow, no matter how insignificant its focus is. The outline will hardly be visible, but other shapes will come to the fore in this play of light and dark. In the case of being projected by solar dance, a latent dynamic is added to the shadows that can be used to intensify everyday phenomena, breaking the monotony of space. Orthogonal openings in a long corridor or woven pieces in a courtyard are examples of constructive elements that create patches of light and shadow, bringing in addition to aesthetic delight and thermal comfort to its users. In this way, it becomes evident that these intangible elements are essential parts of an environment that, long before Louis Kahn declared the power of shadows, was already being manipulated.
In a remote era, before the glass with solar incidence control or photosensitive covering, architecture — today known as vernacular — already understood and manipulated solar lighting through simple strategies such as the orientation of the volume on the ground, the formal composition and the choice of materials. Vernacular buildings are understood as architecture that reflects its place, time and culture and presents a careful understanding of the surroundings and the climate in which they are. They are materialized through solutions that use resources available in the same area, wisely controlling their climatic agents, like light and shadow.
Generally speaking, shade plays an important role in the functionality of vernacular architecture as it protects against the heat and glare of the sun, helping to regulate the temperature and airflow within the building. Therefore, in hot and arid regions, the manipulation of shadows is an aspect that is essentially present in architectural examples, starting with the implantation of volumes on the ground. The traditional houses with central courtyards, recurrent in Middle Eastern culture, present this configuration as a way of dealing with solar incidence, creating four shaded sides with corridors facing the courtyard, offering fresh and comfortable environments. This a characteristic that is also seen in Korean vernacular architecture, more precisely in the houses known as hanok, where the very configuration of the volumes and their patios also create shaded spaces in which the light infiltrates as if it were in secret, subtly illuminating.
However, besides the configuration of the volumes, specific elements are applied in traditional Korean houses that create the necessary shadows for the thermal comfort of the building, as is the case with the eaves. With their pronounced shape, they help to block the strongest solar rays in the summer, generating a layer of shade around the volume. It is worth mentioning that this same strategy is seen in vernacular architectures from different parts of the world, such as in the backlands and Amazonian buildings in Brazil or in Indonesian architecture, where the creation of shadows is done through porches made of timber. They work similarly to brises, generating shadows throughout the day and helping to control the balance between internal and external temperature.
In addition to reasons related to thermal comfort, shadows also assume an aesthetic role that reinforces the identification of vernacular architectures in some regions. The interplay of light and shadow on the facade of a volume can create patterns and textures unique to the local culture and environment. The Arab world, for example, is known for its architecture made of bricks, one of the oldest and most popular materials in hot and arid regions. Based on its shape, size and durability, great works were built in experiments that went beyond the standard walls/pillars using this material as a decorative element, creating weaves, advances, retreats, niches, corbels and muqarnas, exposing its visual beauty. Given this, sunlight reveals the aesthetics of the brick through the contrast between its shadows in situations that, although created for structural and functional purposes, do not neglect the aesthetic and creative aspect, marking the architecture and its particular region.
However, in many cultures, using shadows and light can take on a symbolic role, carrying a deeper cultural meaning. In Japanese architecture, for example, shadows are an essential aspect of the wabi-sabi philosophy, which values simplicity, imperfection and the beauty of natural materials. In this sense, the role of shadow in the history of vernacular architecture is not limited to functional and aesthetic aspects but can also foster the spirituality of its users. As an example, it is worth mentioning the Newgrange funerary complex built in the middle of the Irish mountains, with quartz and granite stones from the place more than five thousand years ago. The structure is marked by solar alignment. The work between light and shadow reaches its peak at the winter solstice when the burial chamber’s depths are illuminated. With the precise manipulation of light, Newgrange seeks to create a spiritual atmosphere, connecting to the sacred and symbolizing rebirth.
Returning to the present, it is worth mentioning the work of architects who have turned to the principles of vernacular architecture, focusing on local materials and techniques. A great example is the 2022 Pritzker Prize winner, Francis Kéré, who brings important features of the place into his projects, also rescuing the manipulation of climatic elements, such as light and shadow. At the School Library in Gando, eucalyptus wood was used rhythmically on the façade, creating an intermediate shaded space protected from the sun. Also responding to weather conditions, the roof integrates a technical innovation: traditional clay pots, handmade by village women, were placed on the concrete structure to ensure natural lighting and ventilation. In this way, Kéré manages to take advantage of this cultural object, transforming it into a building element that, besides generating air circulation, remarkably filters light, creating a beautiful sensory experience marked by the contrast between light and dark.
Whether in the dawn of civilization or the application of vernacular techniques in more recent architecture, these examples reaffirm that the role of shade is essential to create comfortable and livable spaces, regulating temperature and airflow, besides contributing to the aesthetic beauty and cultural significance of traditional buildings.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topics: Light in Architecture, proudly presented by Vitrocsa the original minimalist windows since 1992.
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