This feature was written for and published in the July 2023 ACE Cultural Tours brochure (Art & Architecture)
‘Our buildings - and our public buildings in particular - should be to some extent poems’ wrote the visionary 18th century architect Étienne-Louis Boullée; ‘the Poetry of architecture lies in natural effects. That is what makes architecture an art and that art sublime’. Shadow and light dominated Boullée’s extraordinary work, yet he had stumbled across this epiphany quite by chance. Walking in a forest one night, heavy with grief, he suddenly noticed his own shadow moving amongst the shadows of the trees. 'What did I see?' he wrote in his memoirs. 'A mass of objects detached in black against a light of extreme pallor. Nature seemed to offer itself, in mourning, to my sight.'
I thought of Boullée’s words as I looked through the photographs on my phone. I’ve been taking pictures of the Granary for the past three years. This montage is a small sample. They were all snapped spontaneously, for no purpose other than the pleasure of capturing things that caught my eye. They were taken during twilight hours when the site was quiet, late at night when the light source was a bright moon or the illuminated building, and during extremes of weather: bright sun, heavy rain, the prelude to a storm. I see now that they all share a common theme; ephemeral effects that emerge from the polarities of light and darkness. They are sights which have an immeasurable hold over my senses.
Stapleford Granary was the vision of Paul Barnes, the son of Philip Brooke Barnes who founded the charity which owns this beautiful complex of converted 19th century farm buildings. The renovation was carried out by Toni Moses and MCW Architects, winning a RIBA regional award for the sympathetic and contemporary conversion which retains pitched roof forms, black stained timber and locally sourced brick combined with large glazed openings. The Granary exudes warmth, hospitality and creativity. It is also a masterpiece in how a building can utilise natural light, not merely for visibility but as a means of expression. Over the seasons and years, I have discovered spaces within and around the site that capture and collect sunlight or moonlight. It's a building that comes to life in the penumbral zone of shadows.
Like holes, shadows are things that are only visible by an absence of something. They are a ‘modifying element’ of architecture, contributing to the identity of a building, accidentally or on purpose. They help us to understand spaces, the texture of materials and, as ancient cave dwellers discovered by the light of a flickering fire, they can be enhanced and intensified for creative purposes. Light and shadow has been used dramatically, symbolically and mysteriously for thousands of years. Mediaeval church builders were masters of shadow. Their churches had dark corners, alcoves and vaults where things were hidden that could only be revealed with the shining of light through windows or from lamps and would fade away when the light source had passed. Renaissance architects had an understanding of light and shadow as sophisticated as their understanding of sound and acoustic. Vincenzo Scamozzi (1552-1616) was the first architect to see light per se as a medium of architecture, not for its dramatic effects or emotional response, but as a medium for living well. His designs show plots for varying light zones, taking the whole sky as a source of illumination and dividing this up into his six carefully nuanced ‘types’ of light, accounting for intensity and direction. It is remarkable that Scamozzi views the architecture itself as the instrument capable of revealing otherwise invisible qualities of light.
Here at the Granary, I have found different types of light and shadow. There is a pale misty light in the early morning that suffuses a room - soft, fragile, foggy and diluted, a suspended glow with immobile shadows that is virtually impossible to capture in my photographs. There is a grey, cold, desolate light that seems to have lost its power to illuminate. There is a sickly yellowish-greenish light before a storm, cloying and potent, enveloping all it touches before the deluge hits. There is a crisp, blazing sunlight that makes windows into searchlights, moving with mathematical precision across surfaces and floors. There is a late afternoon light with long golden shadows that cling to the brick walls and there is a shadowless white night light that turns everyday objects into something ghostly and remarkable; pure theatre.
These lights and their shadows have a quiet presence, a silent occupation of space, existing in a moment I was privileged to see. Concluding his book on light in archeology, the anthropologist Tim Ingold wrote about the experience of witnessing shadows; ‘To watch them is not to take in the world at a glance, but to join in its temporal unfolding, almost as if one would with an orchestral composition. It is to reveal a world that is not laid out in fixed and final forms, but launched in perpetual motion’.
There is a relationship between the ‘poetry of public spaces’ and between nature and human creativity. The things I see can’t be called ‘works of art’, yet they were in an Arts Centre and were, to my mind, striking and unforgettable moments. The effect has been to liberate me from some of the views I subconsciously held about art and music. These moments cannot be framed, exhibited, programmed or performed; they have to be experienced. They don’t replace the work of art, but they are a reminder that nothing is fixed, that aesthetic boundaries are constantly shifting and they generate a wellspring of creative impulses. Boullée's moving shadows are everywhere, if you look for them.
Kate Romano, June 2023