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Architecture and light: notes from the Free State
Drawings, plans, elevations
Light is the grand measure traversing the horizon-separated realms of earth and sky. It used to be something mystical. For instance, the first nation of Southern Africa, the San, looked up at the lights in the night sky and heard the stars. The modern mindset, the child of Newton’s study of optics, tried to straitjacket light. But all it ever gives us is the harsh cold light of rationalism; a meager consolation. In contrast, the new science of quantum mechanics tells a much more nuanced story about light. In this strange world light is endowed with new capacities that somehow evoke the old mysteries and mythologies. It is time to take a long hard look at light, and how it may shape, and be shaped by architecture. This documentary focuses on poetically reading the light quality of one particular part of the continent, the Free State Province in South Africa, in order to suggest general principles that architects may use to appreciate the light quality of their own places. The Free State Province is the agricultural heartland of South Africa. In ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ Nelson Mandela described this outstretched grassland as a place that “always had a magical effect on [him]”. He continued: “With its flat dusty landscape as far as the eye can see, the great blue ceiling above, the endless stretches of yellow mealie fields, scrub and bushes, the Free State’s landscape gladdens my heart no matter what my mood. When I am there I feel like nothing can shut me in, that my thoughts can roam as far and wide as the horizons.” What is it that touches us so in a place with few striking natural features? Could it be the light itself? In order to assess this question, we first need to acknowledge the uniqueness of the place we live in and accept that it has a certain ‘voice’. Secondly, we need to be open to our unique care; the way we take care of the voice of the place amid our own concerns. Only in the interplay between atmospheric voice and listening care, may buildings serve as responsible built answers. Answers that bring us face to face with the destiny of the place, and invite us to belong to it. In belonging togetherness we are brought to presence. I am because we are. The most encompassing way to draw near the interaction of place and care is to ask how our light is. Light is the rhythm that allows us to make in harmony with a way of life. In response to this gift, architects are called to gratefully appreciate and safeguard both the way light is and the content it reveals. Works of architecture affirm our capacity to translate mortal emplaced care in a way that celebrates the grand measure. It is as if great architects are able to take light by the hand and lead it through buildings; guiding, crafting, sculpting and inviting light to show itself.