The oculus in the Pantheon dome in Rome.
The oculus in the Pantheon dome in Rome.

The Pantheon in Rome. The Sir John Soane House Museum. The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. These three projects represent seminal examples of daylighting that serve as benchmarks for both architecture and lighting.

The Pantheon, originally built as a Roman temple, now a church, was completed under the emperor Hadrian in approximately 126 A.D. The circular building features a Corinthian column portico and a rectangular vestibule that leads to the rotunda. This space, with an oculus opening to the sky in the concrete dome (shown), is one of the purist expressions of natural light entering a building and illuminating a space. Measuring 43.3 meters (142 feet) tall and wide, the Pantheon’s structure remains the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.


A detail of the shallow dome at the breakfast room at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, now the Sir John Soane's Museum London.
Courtesy Sir John Soane's Museum London A detail of the shallow dome at the breakfast room at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, now the Sir John Soane's Museum London.

Sir John Soane (1753–1837) was enamored with light, considering it an essential building material. He developed a number of innovative daylighting systems using skylights, mirrors, and concealed lamps in his London home at 12-14 Lincoln’s Inn Fields (now the Sir John Soane's Museum London) that served as his laboratory. The breakfast room, for instance, features an octagonal skylight with colored-glass panels and two side skylights. Strategically placed mirrors reflect the colored light. Soane’s experimentation goes well beyond just bringing natural light into a room but how, through its manipulation, light can craft space and create atmosphere.


The entry of the Kahn Building and its signature ceiling reflector system allows daylight to illuminate the interiors.
Richard Barnes The entry of the Kahn Building and its signature ceiling reflector system allows daylight to illuminate the interiors.

A modern tour de force of the unification of architecture and illumination was realized in the Kimbell Art Museum in 1972. A collaboration between architect Louis Kahn and lighting designer Richard Kelly, the skylight design features a curved reflecting screen made of perforated anodized aluminum that distributes a “silvery” light evenly across the cycloid curve of the ceiling and only allows indirect sunlight to come in contact with the artworks. (Downlights provide supplementary illumination when needed.) Kelly also worked with engineer Isaac Goodbar from lighting manufacturer Edison Price, who devised a computer program to determine the reflector’s curve, one of the first uses of computer technology in either architecture or lighting design.

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