Things to Consider

Using Natural Light to Enhance the Worship Experience

October 26, 2007

C. MICHAEL SHAUGHNESSY

Unless your church is an auditorium where musical and theatrical productions are the norm, natural lighting is a great gift and one of the most effective tools in the design of sacred spaces. The Architect Louis Kahn showed how well he understood the importance of and the use of light in the design of buildings by the following quote: Light is “…the giver of all presences … whatever is made of light casts a shadow. Our work is of shadow. To fulfill its task, light therefore needs material and structure.”

We react experientially to the contrasts of natural light. Imagine being in the middle of a flat desert at high noon. Then imagine standing in the country within rolling fields or a forest of tall trees as the sun begins to cast its rays across the landscape. In the former, the experience is continuous light without shadow. The second evokes positive emotion. The same can be said if one is in a room with a ceiling full of 2x4 fluorescent fixtures. It provides a constant level of light without shadow resulting in an uninspiring climate and possible lowering of one’s morale if they have to remain in the space for extended periods.

Therefore it is important to recognize the value of contrasts in the use of natural light in worship spaces while also recognizing they can become a major problem as will be reviewed later in this article. Another issue to be aware of how one begins visualizing a church design from either the exterior or the interior. Although both are required for a successful design, I believe the priority must be with the interior. The exterior makes a statement or invitation to the community of believers as well as nonbelievers. The interior becomes the expression of why you are there- to worship the God of your faith. This priority is important because the use of natural light obviously requires openings in the exterior of the church which will affect its appearance. When the architect and or client are primarily concerned with the exterior design, we too often find examples of churches with windows that provide a pleasing exterior design but do not contribute to the interior of the worship space.

There are three applications of natural light that I believe should be considered in the design of a worship space: Highlighting areas of importance, providing a sense of the present moment and creating a sense of mystery.

Highlighting areas of importance

Enter any church and you will see electric lighting used to highlight certain areas or objects within the room. If it is important to highlight those areas, why not do the same with natural light. Today our building technology allows the architect great freedom in introducing and controlling natural light. If the chancel or sanctuary is meant to be the primary focus of a worship space, then this area should receive a higher level of natural light than other areas within the space. When a visitor enters the church during the day for private meditation, they will immediately be drawn visually to the importance of this area.

 


Providing a sense of the present moment

Each present moment of time in our lives is always a passing moment at the same time. The passing of time can not be avoided. It can be a cause of stress or a feeing of peace depending on how we react to it. Within the act of worship, time does not cease, but one can be at peace and in tune with the slow movement of time. Allowing shadows from sunlight to move slowly across a surface can be a calming influence and awaken us to the present moment. It is especially effective to breakup the sunlight into small bands of light thereby allowing the observer to notice the movement more readily. As Louis Kahn stated, the architect’s work is with shadow.

Each present moment of time in our lives is always a passing moment at the same time. The passing of time can not be avoided. It can be a cause of stress or a feeing of peace depending on how we react to it. Within the act of worship, time does not cease, but one can be at peace and in tune with the slow movement of time. Allowing shadows from sunlight to move slowly across a surface can be a calming influence and awaken us to the present moment. It is especially effective to breakup the sunlight into small bands of light thereby allowing the observer to notice the movement more readily. As Louis Kahn stated, the architect’s work is with shadow.

Another contribution of natural light involving change is the different experience of being in the same space during the day or during night time. As the daylight fades and the electric lights and candles become more prominent, the space can provide another layer of worship experience.

Creating a sense of mystery

Mystery involves the unknown which brings us back to the consideration of shadow. All areas within a worship space do not need to have natural light. In fact, some areas can be very dark in relationship to the other spaces. The contrast of light and dark is an important tool to use in creating that sense of mystery. Enter one of the great Gothic cathedrals and experience a sense of mystery and awe with the contrast of natural light within the space.

In this small University chapel, the sanctuary and the center of the room receive the natural light while the low receive minor amounts. The height of the rooms that project into the space at the corners is kept to the height of the perimeter walls, thereby creating a dark and deep space above perimeter walls.

When contrasts can be problematic

In the medieval and renaissance churches of Europe, the long high naves with windows above created a sufficient and pleasing light within the space. Part of this success was the fact that the narrowness of the nave allowed light to be reinforced by striking the opposite wall. In today’s churches with wide interior spaces, the use of perimeter windows can create unpleasant glare issues.

 

 

 

 

 

This problem was solved for the Church of the Nativity by designing tall perimeter windows as reverse bay windows. This provided for light to be reflected to the side onto the adjacent wall surfaces and mitigating a strong contrast between wall and window.

Examples of ways to use and control natural light

St John Francis Regis Catholic Church

The parish chose an antiphonal seating arrangement which creates a design problem in having the architecture help create a visual focus on the center sanctuary instead of the seating immediately opposite. A continuous central skylight was used to flood the space directly over the center of the room with natural light. However the light had to be controlled to prevent spill into the congregation.

 

 

 

 

 

Natural light without controls                           Natural light with controls

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Light focused on the center of the space

 

 

 

 

 

Low windows behind the pews eliminate glare from across the room

Atonement Lutheran Church

At completion of construction it was discovered that at a certain time of the year, sunlight penetrated the space to the chancel creating an problem for someone standing at the pulpit or altar. The installation of shelf brackets supporting a series of wood slats created a pleasant texture and solved the problem without eliminating the desired natural light.

 

 

 

 

 


St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center

This 400 seat chapel uses multiple means of delivering natural light into the space.

St. Matthew the Apostle

Renovation of a pre-engineered metal building

 

 




 

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Photo credit:  C. Michael Shaughnessy

C. Michael Shaughnessy, AIA is with Shaughnessy Fickel and Scott in Kansas City, Missouri.  In 2006, he received the Artist of the Year Award from Imago Dei, Friends to Christianity and the Arts.

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