help.design is the blog of Baumgart Clark Architects. Based in Melbourne, Australia, the studio has bases in Sydney, Canberra, Gold Coast and Adelaide, with work across Australia.

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Musing on the quality of light

Musing on the quality of light

Architects have a curious relationship with the weather, and with light. They say that scent can be highly evocative, and that the slightest whiff of a stray odour can take you back into the distant past, drawing up a moment long buried and thought lost. I have experienced this with scent, it is true, but I also experience it with light; or to be specific, the qualities and moods of daylight.

It is important as an architect, photographer or painter to be highly attuned to the qualities of light. I would argue that it is also important to the writer. I have tried to cultivate such awareness, and I suspect I may have succeeded because I am prone to experiencing strange flashbacks when the lighting conditions are just right. I remember late last Summer, when I left the office one day to get some lunch, the quality of daylight was just so – and immediately I was 13 years old once more, and in the side yard of a neighbour’s house in Queensland on a brooding grey afternoon. I was heading for their swimming pool, I remember this quite distinctly.

The moment was invoked by a combination of the bruised colour of the clouds over Melbourne, the thin greyness of the filtered sunlight, the scent of the air and a myriad of other micro-conditions that all coincidentally aligned to recreate a moment from so long ago.

The impression I gain in such moments is fleeting, and quite spontaneous – the moment is not there, and then it is – and then it is gone. The conditions that instigate such a trip down memory lane are infinitely nuanced and I suspect they rely on all the senses, with one moment being quite unlike many others; the quality of light changes, too, with the progression of the minutes and the movement of clouds, so a memory invoked in one moment may be gone a short time later, dissipating like vapour.

In my experience, some spaces are well attuned to take advantage of this strange phenomenon, although they are few and far between. The Latrobe Reading Room of the State Library of Victoria is one such space. The skylights are like a lens that focuses the quality of external light, distilling it into a distinct impression on the floor of the chamber. The disposition of the room changes with infinite subtlety as the clouds scud by overhead, and as the sun is covered and uncovered in the heavens. I think this is why I like working there – it is like being bathed in a distillation of daylight, and it engages my memories, allowing me to tap into that rich vein we all carry within us.

In the same way as the Inuit reportedly have many words for snow (is this true? I wonder), it would be useful if we had a diverse vocabulary for the many, subtle and perhaps infinite moods of light. Alas we do not, so the architect and writer must multiply words to convey an impression, one that is perhaps more emotive than it is objective. I have toyed with the idea of making up some words to convey the different moods of daylight, but so far the project hasn’t gone beyond idle speculation. I will put it on my backburner list, and give it some more thought.

Our Ballarat Civic Hall project in the Newspaper

Our Ballarat Civic Hall project in the Newspaper

Our St John's project features in the Standard Newspaper in Warrnambool

Our St John's project features in the Standard Newspaper in Warrnambool