Monday, September 19, 2016


Cologne Cathedral. The twin 511-foot
spires are visible at left.
Cologne, Germany: The great Gothic cathedral begun in 1248. You’re inside the base of the north tower, in a cramped spiral stairway of stone.  It is very dark.  You begin to climb the steep flight of steps to the spire more than five hundred feet overhead. At intervals, tiny window slits cast a dusty shaft of light into the blackness.  After a seemingly interminable climb, you step into an even darker passageway, barely able to glimpse the plank door straight ahead. You pull the heavy door open.

Inside the tower, a seemingly
endless climb up a stone staircase
finally takes you from darkness...
Suddenly you find yourself in brilliant sunlight. You’re standing beneath the towering fretwork of the spire, five hundred feet above Cologne. The sun streams through the openings in the spire’s Gothic tracery, casting fantastic patterns of light all around you. After the long, dark climb, the effect is other-worldly. You have made the transition from darkness to light.

These impressions of Cologne Cathedral relate one of the most ethereal yet powerful attributes of great architecture: light. The Gothic cathedral, with its superb interplay of  light, dark, pattern,
and color, probably represents the ultimate use of light in architecture.  But the same basic principles can add interest to residential design as well. Because light effects don’t rely on scale for impact, they can be applied to any building, however humble. light. Looking upward into the soaring spire
of Gothic stone tracery.
•  First, there must be contrast in light levels to achieve drama.  A uniformly bright series of spaces will be cheerful, but they’ll also be bland because there is no gradation of light level. On the other hand, passing through a darker space before entering a light one will redouble the impact of a bright room. This can be done by intentionally limiting the size of windows in anterooms such as foyers and halls. It’s also a good opportunity to use special window shapes such as circles or octagons.

The drama of dark and light
needn't be limited to
•  Introducing pattern is a subtle and evocative way to use light.  In Gothic architecture, stone tracery casts intricate patterns of light and shadow. In a residential setting, window muntins (the pieces that divide the glass), leaded or patterned glass, or a pierced screen shading a window can provide interesting shadow patterns in interior spaces.  These patterns will change as the sun moves across the sky, casting an ever-varying arabesque of light and dark on interior surfaces.

•  Finally, introducing color can add richness to the quality of light within a space. Just as the dark, somber interior of a Gothic cathedral contrasts with the brilliantly colored light entering through its stained glass windows, small panes of colored glass will cast jewel-like rainbow effects on interior surfaces that will vary with the time of day.  Or,  for a bolder effect, stained-glass pieces can be suspended over the full area of windows. Likewise, a small beveled glass panel suspended in a bright window will shower a room in an ever-changing pattern of prismatic reflections.
If your windows have muntins dividing the glass, a less expensive alternative to beveled or stained glass is to use colored glass in certain panes — for example, across the top row.  In either case, for the most dramatic effects, choose windows that receive bright sun.

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