Soane described the breakfast room at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, as “a succession of fanciful effects, which constitute the poetry of architecture.” A light, shallow dome stretches across the center of the room and is illuminated by an octagonal skylight filled with panels of colored glass.
Martin Charles, courtesy of the Soane Museum, London Soane described the breakfast room at No. 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, as “a succession of fanciful effects, which constitute the poetry of architecture.” A light, shallow dome stretches across the center of the room and is illuminated by an octagonal skylight filled with panels of colored glass.

Few figures of the romantic era have had as profound an impact on architecture of the past 50 years as Sir John Soane (1753-1837), the English master of lumière mystérieuse, that mystical, mysterious atmosphere achieved through a variety of light effects, including skylights, mirrors, and concealed lamps. Light itself was an essential building material to Soane, who developed innovative daylighting systems, often combined with colored glass and other optical enhancements, to create dramatic, ever-changing scenes throughout his interiors. Among the most innovative of Soane's lighting techniques can be found at his home, 12-14 Lincoln's Inn Fields (now the Soane Museum) in the London borough of Camden, and in south London at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first purpose-built public art gallery in Britain. These two early nineteenth-century buildings exemplify Soane's ability to use light—particularly daylight—as a means of enhancing, even transforming, architectural form.

Soane's house at 12-14 Lincoln's Inn Fields functioned as a kind of laboratory, a place where he could endlessly alter and modify his designs, occasionally borrowing techniques from past commissions and often pioneering new methods. In creating this remarkable structure, Soane demolished and subsequently reconstructed three townhouses beginning in 1792, and continuously modified and added to the house and its contents until his death. The long history of this complex building project began with No. 12, which Soane rebuilt from 1792 to 1794. Soane subsequently reworked No. 13 in two phases in 1808–9 and again in 1812. The reconstruction concluded with No. 14, which he rebuilt from 1823 to 1824. The resulting house served not only as his family home, but also as a repository and showcase for his marvelously eclectic collection, which is composed of tens of thousands of items, including antiquities such as the sarcophagus of Seti I, medieval architectural fragments, paintings by Italian and British masters, books and prints. Soane displayed these treasures to the benefit of his architecture students at the Royal Academy.

Soane's interest in the transformative powers of light on architectural form is evident throughout the house, in both public and private areas. The breakfast room in No. 13, a space described by Soane as “a succession of fanciful effects, which constitute the poetry of architecture,” contains some of the architect's most innovative daylighting techniques. A light, shallow dome, which Soane preferred to call a canopy, stretches across the center of the rectangular room and is illuminated by an octagonal skylight filled with panels of colored glass with two additional flat skylights flanking the dome on either side. Soane, intrigued by the potential to transform space with optical devices, placed mirrors strategically throughout the room to reflect the colored light from the skylights and refract images from the nearby library and external vista. He placed convex mirrors in the dome's pendentives, as well as alternating clear and mirrored glass in the two sets of double doors leading into the breakfast room. Through the simple manipulation of the mirrored doors, Soane provided an endless array of picturesque views, reflecting the diverse nature of the remarkable house.

As a perpetual student and teacher of architecture, Soane amassed a large collection of building fragments, antiquities, and plaster casts of ancient sculpture, that he felt provided an exemplary foundation for the study of classical principles of design. Most of these items were displayed in the remarkable area of the house referred to by Soane as the museum. Perhaps inspired by the atmospheric engravings of the Italian designer Giovanni Battista Piranesi, he arranged the objects in richly textured layers intended to provide maximum dramatic visual effect. Lighting was supplied by a combination of daylight and artificial sources, including a magnificent colored glass dome toplighting the space, and concealed oil lamps throughout the double-height gallery. Soane was particularly interested in light's ability to change the appearance of sculpture, and the collection was further transformed at night, when light from oil lamps and candles provided atmospheric illumination. The resulting effect was a space of mystery and poetry, two qualities Soane pursued throughout his career.

A similar assemblage of sculptural fragments, arranged on a more intimate, personal scale, can be found in Soane's private study and dressing room. This area, like the museum dome, is illuminated by a skylight filled with yellow glass. The light from this aperture is further modified through the use of angled mirrored surrounds, which refract and reflect the yellow-tinted daylight, suggesting the warmth of the Roman sun that Soane encountered on his studies in Italy as an architecture student.

Soane's house, which he negotiated as an act of Parliament in 1833 (and went into effect upon his death in 1837) to preserve for benefit and education of “amateurs and students” of architecture, remains one of architecture's most eloquent examples of light's ability to alter, transform, and manipulate space.

Like his home, the Dulwich Picture Gallery—designed by Soane and opened to the public in 1817 as the first public art gallery in Britain—also has inspired countless architects, lighting designers, and others in their own explorations of light and form. With its austere, astylar exterior in London brick and simple, top lit enfilade of galleries, the Dulwich often is cited as one of the most influential museum building designs.

In his original scheme for the Dulwich, Soane designed an ingenious system of both vertical and sloping lanterns in each of the five sequential galleries, which provided sufficient light without creating glare on the paintings. To further prevent overlighting of the pictures, the architect proposed to fill in the caps of the lanterns as a means of diffusing the daylight penetrating into the gallery, so that no direct sunlight struck the paintings. Financial restrictions led to Soane using more conventional octagonal lanterns, although a restoration of the gallery in 2000 enabled the installation of the monitor lights largely as conceived by Soane.

Across time and radical stylistic differences, contemporary architects and lighting designers remain inspired by Soane's gift for deploying daylighting techniques in creating complex, multi-textured programs of space and light, programs that reflect Soane's “poetry of architecture.” His lighting strategies and spatial explorations can be seen in the attenuated apertures providing diffused and poetic daylighting throughout Louis Kahn's Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, to Venturi, Scott Brown & Associate's faithful yet modernized interpretation of the Dulwich's rhythmic progression of galleries and its lighting systems in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery in London, to Rafael Moneo's Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain. As New York City–based architect and lighting designer Richard Renfro, whose portfolio includes a number of significant museum projects including the recent Bloch addition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri (“Sculpting With Light,” Architectural Lighting, Sept/Oct 2007, p. 44), comments, it is the “magic of daylight softly flowing from hidden sources above” that ultimately makes Soane's work an enduring touchstone for modern architectural design.


PROJECT | Sir John Soane's Museum, London
ARCHITECT | Sir John Soane
PROJECT SIZE | Three adjacent townhouses
PHOTOGRAPHER | Martin Charles, courtesy of the Soane Museum, London (unless otherwise noted)
DAYLIGHTING STRATEGY | Toplighting, colored glass, and the extensive use of mirrors for light amplification and reflection.