In his excellent collection of essays Shadow-Makers, Stephen Kite proposes to bring shadows “out of the shadows” (5)—a reasonable objective, given that architecture in recent years has been slanted toward the making of great, illuminated spaces, shiny surfaces, and the minimization of darkness and all manner of unhygienic stuff. “Shadow has had a ‘bad’ press” (7), Kite claims, at least since Plato's cave parable in the Republic, in which confined prisoners know reality only through shadows cast by activities they cannot directly see. As shadows take on a life dissociated from their sources and the light that cast them, they become untethered from reality, and it becomes difficult to verify their truth. The cultural associations of darkness are often negative and include—as we know even without reading this book—the unknown, the sinister, ignorance, dirtiness, ugliness, sadness, unhealthiness, chaos, perdition, and evil. Kite finds the sources of our built shadow world and affirms their connections to constructed reality such that they are no longer sinister; rather, as Kite notes, citing Louis Kahn, they illustrate that shadow belongs to light (288).
No wonder we fear the dark. We know our world as a light-filled place interrupted by darkness, and we link gloom with specific places: caves, basements, attics, crypts, and the underground. But in the history of art and architecture, and on our better days, this menu of nastiness confronts a greater truth: the universe is a beautiful, dark place, with remarkable occasions of light and gradations of shadow. Some cultures have recognized this, seeing black as representative of creativity and fertility, as did ancient Egyptians, for whom black represented the Nile's rich, dark silts, which were requisite for agricultural production.1 In Western culture, black is frequently associated with elegance. As Tim Edensor observes, vision is not objective; it is entangled with individual interpretations of culture and convention.2
Kite begins with a review of the vast literary foundation for our views of darkness. He quotes Pliny the Elder, who asserted, probably overstating the case, that “all agree that painting began with the outlining of a man's shadow” (6). But shadows are not merely “holes in light,” as Claude-Nicholas Lecat suggested in 1767 (5). Painters, with increasing confidence and effect, have long deployed shadow to tell stories, several of which are recounted here. The notion that shadow and darkness are part of the experience of light is seen in depictions of shadow as a symbol of life and health, as in Masaccio's fresco St. Peter Healing the Sick with His Shadow (1427–80). Kite then demonstrates how painting and drawing have used shading to emphasize, by contrast, the impression of illumination. For example, in Masaccio's Virgin and Child (1426), shadow falls over the centralized throne and holy figures, with the result that they are perceived to be engulfed in a brightly lit setting.3
Those of us who draw architecture by hand know Masaccio's device well. The depiction of shadow inheres in the simplest sketch. Each tool leaves a mark, and each mark removes light. It is difficult to draw architecture without employing marks that differentiate planes, inside from outside, lighted from shadowed niches and joints, up (the common source of daylight) from down (the repository of darkness). Kite explains that John Ruskin, understanding this, presented his shadow studies, drawn and written, to move architects beyond the use of light and shade to model form, and developed the case for darkness as a form-making gesture, asserting that cast shadows “sometimes [gained] supremacy over even the things that cast them.”4 Ruskin influenced architects in Europe and the United States, including Louis Sullivan in Chicago and Frank Furness in Philadelphia, where the notion that forms are linked to purpose later found a place in the work of Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, and Charles Moore.
Kite then takes up the examples of Sir John Soane, Kahn, Peter Zumthor, and others. In describing Soane's London house and studio, bequeathed to his nation and now Sir John Soane's Museum, Kite notes “the penumbra-like mid-tone which establishes the pervasive mood of the house” (104). The veiled illumination and blurring of spatial distinctions as rooms lead one to the next are broken by flashes of images reflected in mirrors, vistas through layered spaces, and, on occasion, “shafts of sunlight” as they penetrate London's overcast skies through Soane's array of skylights. Soane's fascination with the lumiere mystérieuse and the idea of procession through a sequence of spaces is meant to be appreciated through all the senses; Kite traces this to Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, whose 1780 book The Genius of Architecture; or, The Analogy of That Art with Our Sensations Soane translated in preparation for his 1807 lectures to the Royal Academy (105).
As insightfully observed in this telling, Kahn is portrayed as more than the great finder of light in mass; he is also the keeper of a “treasury of shadows.” In fact, Kahn's breakthrough project, the Trenton Bath House, might be appreciated as an example of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's observation of Japanese architecture, which Kite quotes: “In making for ourselves a place to live, we first spread a parasol to throw a shadow on the earth, and in the pale light of the shadow we put together a house” (24). Later, at Kahn's First Unitarian Church, light and shadow became companions. In the sanctuary, the heavy, shaded concrete roof structure presses downward, while light monitors douse the space's four corners in daylight. Darkness compresses and focuses the room while daylight responds with an upward rush of space into sky. This interplay of daylight and darkness is introduced in the “folding” of the exterior masonry walls to capture daylight and shadow. The hand of Kahn is present as his pencil marks develop shadows and find spaces modeled by darkness in rough studies and drafted renderings of the north elevation.
The examples cited in this book range from the making of shadow in Islamic settlements to the last two church projects of architecture's modern prince of “gloomth,” Sigurd Lewerentz. Introducing the reader to the book's topic in the first chapters, Kite engages in cultural and literary referencing that is dense with obscure wisdom and well-known observations, much of which is well worth following up. But the thread of the author's argument frays in a tangle of citations, where the reader wants a firm foundation for the book's subsequent and intelligent architectural narrative. For those interested in the influence of daylight and darkness in architecture, this book may be worth buying for the wealth of references alone, but readers will want to approach it with smartphones or laptops nearby so that they can search references and call up additional images.
Shadow-Makers concludes with a valuable speculation. Computerized drawing, Kite suggests, has influenced and will continue to influence the making of architectural shadows. His point is well taken, but there are better examples than those he presents. Hand drawing and software are not mutually exclusive; they may be deployed in hybrid formats to evoke the best of both. The former method tends to formulate darkness as something that inheres in form; the latter, situated in code, invokes darkness only when it is ordered up, and shadows can be suppressed while form and space are conceived lightlessly. The most convincing modern experiments in shadow and built form are still those that anticipate parametric methods: Rafael Moneo's Murcia Town Hall (1991–98); Louis Kahn and Anne Tyng's “modified space-frame motif ceiling” at the Yale Art Gallery (1953), an image of which graces the cover of Shadow-Makers; and, of course, Lewerentz's churches of the 1950s and 1960s.5 The shift from handmade to digital representation in architecture parallels a similar shift in popular music production. We have means of making that were unimagined just a few years ago, but the depth and meaning of the compositions are not necessarily intensified. The struggle for coherence resides in tools and methods and yields meaning. Arguably, works like Kahn's Salk Institute and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band could not be made today. In both cases, it would be too easy.