The Virtues of Natural Light. Robbrecht en Daem's design for BRUSKBy Wouter Davidts
"No space, architecturally, is a space unless it has natural light." 1
Louis Kahn, 1969
Louis Kahn, 1969
A space without natural light, architect Louis Kahn once stated, does not deserve to be called architecture. With and through light a building becomes real; it becomes inscribed in the cyclical time of the seasons.
This thought seems too obvious to be defended. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to museums. The bulk of museums being built today eschew natural light. In the white cube, Brian O'Doherty noted as early as 1976, the tube lights on the ceiling have replaced the sun as a source of light.2 Preference is given to artificial light that can be adjusted according to the technical requirements of the artworks or scenographic specifications of the exhibition. This choice is justified first and foremost from the standpoint of conservation: a perfectly controllable intensity of light provides the right conditions for the management of the artworks presented. In addition, electric lighting offers the guarantee that the exhibition will look the same at any time of the day. The fact that this choice often has a profound impact on the experience of the artworks is rarely taken into account. Technical stability and atmospheric precision are preferred to the particularity and interchangeability of the art experience. The incessant mutability of the world—as contained in the continuous shift of daylight—is frozen, and the art experience is denied a worldly dimension. “Art exists in a kind of eternity of display, and though there is lots of ‘period’ (late modern), there is no time,” lamented O'Doherty.3 So why is daylight still so often studiously kept out of museums?
With BRUSK's design for Bruges, the design team of Robbrecht en Daem architecten resolutely opts for natural light. We follow the architect Louis Kahn in saying that an experience of art gains intensity and meaning when it is embedded in the world, when the place where that experience takes place becomes inscribed in the cyclical course of time. That is why we deliberately choose to open our building to the world, and to let the light in generously. In this way we ensure that visitors can keep in touch with the world outside the museum, with the world in which time does not stand still and life continues notwithstanding. Electric light is static, has no changing mood. Why should the changing conditions of time and light no longer be visible and experienceable in the museum?
The change of sunlight, the clouds gliding by, writes Kahn when he designs the extraordinary Kimbell Art Museum in Dallas, makes the experience richer:
And the cloud that passes over gives the room a feeling of association with the person that is in it, knowing that there is life outside of the room, and it reflects the life-giving that a painting does because I think a work of art is a life-giver. So light, this great maker of presences, can never be … brought forth by the single moment in light which the electric bulb has. And natural light has all the moods of the time of the day, the seasons of the year, [which] year for year and day for day are different from the day preceding.4
The choice of daylight also goes back to the place where art was made. Few artists, from Rembrandt to Tuymans, from Michelangelo to De Bruyckere, made do without daylight in their studios, and they still do not. Light is the basic condition for making art, a first way of exposing the work of art in the making to the world in all caution. Because of light, things can appear in and to the world: in space and through light, they gain volume and texture. When the work is subsequently taken out of the studio and exhibited in galleries or museums, artists often lament that this situation is not maintained. The American artist Donald Judd hated electric spotlights. “All my pieces are meant to be seen in even or natural light,” he stated unequivocally.5 It was important to Judd that his work be able to confront the world and reality relentlessly. Natural light was an indispensable condition for this endeavour. In all the rooms in which he installed his own work and that of other artists in Marfa, Texas, daylight pours in generously.
The large skylights in BRUSK not only refer to the historical typology of the artist's studio, but above all they want to give the exhibition space a quality that is reminiscent of the space in which the work of art is made and first experienced. A space in which the objects presented are not frozen in time but have the opportunity to show themselves as changing over time. That is why we do not opt for the typology of the white cube, but for large rooms in which daylight enters and the materiality of the architecture colours the space.
BRUSK wants to offer spaces in which the meaning of the artwork is not fixed but opened to the wonderful particularity of each experience. Daylight, we believe, is necessary to make this ambition real. Then it becomes possible to offer an art experience that is not static but, in Kahn's words, full of change and surprise in and through the architecture:
(…) the museum has as many moods as there are moments in time, and never as long as the museum remains a building will there be a single day like the other.6
1 Louis Kahn in: L’architecture d’aujourd’hui, n° 142, February-March 1969.
2 Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, in Artforum, March 1976.
4 Louis Kahn, Interview with William Marlin, Philadelphia, June 24, 1972.
5 John Coplans and Donald Judd, "I'm interested in static visual art and hate imitation of movement." An interview with Donald Judd, in: Artforum IX, nr. 10 (June), 1971, pp. 40-50.
6 Louis Kahn, Interview with Patsy Swank for KERA-TV, Dallas, October 27, 1973.
Original publication: Wouter Davidts, Brusk Kunstenplein, prologue on the competition entry