Shadow as a light catalyst
Shadow itself, its nuances or its density as penumbra, are facilitators in revealing light, enhancing the space, and generating content and identity.
In the first projects, the goal was to build with light and to understand the architecture and the space to emphasize its rhythms, its materials, its program, its constraints. Managed with relative focus on the horizontal plane and influenced by regulatory requirements, the idea was to add light to the architecture. In 2003, when I started the Paseo del Óvalo Restoration Project in which the vertical planes were the key aspect, a question came up: Why do I have to illuminate all the surfaces? It was costly and the space’s quality was diminished by overly uniform light. It was the first project where I chose to keep the horizontal plane out of direct light, in penumbra only dappled by some sparkles, to accentuate the architectural value of the illuminated vertical plane; the outcome of the contrast was beauty.
I realized that it was more interesting to design lighting towards or from the darkness, and in that interest I discovered the great little book “In Praise of Shadows” by Tanizaki.
In a country where there was not much lighting culture at that time, and quantity rather than quality of light was more highly prized, it was not easy to find projects where you could work with this concept.
The Hammershøi and Dreyer project started in 2006 with RCR Arquitectes for the CCCB in Barcelona, a temporary exhibition on the visual relations between a painter and a filmmaker, both Danish, based on the dominance of light and shadow in their works, was the ideal time to explore the densities of penumbra that are generated between light and shadow, to convey pictorial content inspired by them.
“In Praise of Shadows” is a seminal text in our practice that has taught us to cherish shadow and darkness as a delicate counterpoint to the tangibility of light. It inspires us to consider the beauty in the flickering flame of a candle and discover the soul of architecture through the degrees of opacity of the materials and the silence and penumbra of the empty space. The essence lies in capturing the enigma of shadow, where beauty is a play of chiaroscuro that generates subtle variations in the shadow.
At the studio we adopted shadow as a means of projection and it is balanced with light in all the projects we undertake, even though in some of them it is the foremost component in their identity or meaning.
Lagares Showroom in Girona, begun in 2008, is a low budget project with RCR Arquitectes exhibiting sanitary ware suspended by steel cables in an industrial setting to create an impression of levitation. Light is generally used to emphasize the levitation of objects. However, in this case and drawing on Tanizaki’s writings, we sought to use shadow to enhance it as we feel shadow adds value to light, lending it nuances of meaning and highlighting the objects.
At Lagares Showroom, the interaction between light and shadow orders, categorizes, and generates relationships between the exhibits, composes the scene and lifts it to a dimension beyond the secular. This balance brings out the soul of the objects that float weightlessly in an atmospheric penumbra of peace and elegant simplicity like a Japanese Zen garden.
Another project in which this reflection on shadow, in this case projected, was built was BD Ediciones, Barcelona, started in 2010, where the object exhibited was enhanced through its shadow, rendering its communication more suggestive. The intangible image of the object, in negative, is expressed to bring meaning to the object itself.
This approach to cast shadow has recently been used for the temporary exhibition “Desplazamientos” at the Venice Architecture Biennale ’22 for the Mexican Pavilion based on the social displacements brought about by natural or human situations. The shadow emphasizes the concept of displacement, since as it is emitted from a source it generates the sensation that all the hanging weights are displaced by their shadow, thus underscoring the exhibition’s message.
This reflection runs through all areas of the studio’s work. In light art projects such as “Carrillon” realized for iGuzzini’s Light Experience at the 2018 Frankfurt Fair, it was expanded by including the synchrony of sound and the ephemeral dynamism of shadow to become an experience in itself to move people. It is shadow in rhythmic musical movement as an expression of light art.
There is a further interpretation in the Enigma restaurant project in Barcelona, where the penumbra is produced in the architectural material of the false ceiling-like “Enigmatic” system, a bespoke material fashioned to generate nuances and densities of shadows. The sum of layers of materials—translucent, transparent and micro-perforated mesh—distills shadows by backlighting with varying intensities using one-by-one controlled light points.
Stepping into product design, our fascination with shadows is evident in the luminaires we create, such as “Trace” for Lamp or “Nuit” for Davide Groppi, in which the light emerges from the piece’s negative element that appears delineated by the light, which in turn overflows it to subtly illuminate the path. In these cases, the bold effect of the backlit brand intervenes as the foundation of the object’s design, setting the counterpoint, enhancing the light it emits and revealing a graphic statement.
Another project in which this reflection takes center stage is “Buio” for Davide Groppi in which light emerges from darkness, a contradiction that stimulates creativity by designing a darkened point of light which when turned off is a specific graphic in space and when turned on reveals the sensation of a light tinged with darkness. It is a luminaire in which the dark precedes the surprise of finding the magic of light.
Throughout this time the Umbra reflection on shadow, darkness, and penumbra has been evolving. It appeals to us as a contrasting feature, a generator of beauty, of meaning, of artistic content, of design, even matter, a process that we hope to continue to add to in future challenges.