“The history of architecture is the history of the struggle for light.” Le Corbusier's oft-repeated quote captures the obsession most architects have with the role of light in buildings. And yet, the study of light is often absent from architecture curricula. Students rarely get the opportunity to experiment with light or to better understand how this transient, yet critical, property functions.

Blaine Brownell, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota (UMN) School of Architecture, remembers this disconnect in his own architecture education. “Lighting was something that we talked about but never studied on its own,” he says. He endeavored to change that for his students. UMN offers a unique one-week course to its architecture graduates called a catalyst class. The aim is to immerse participants in an intense, quick study of a topic. “The idea of [the] catalyst [course] is that within one week students can take a break from their current coursework and they can focus on one thing,” he says. “And that one thing can be experimental and high risk.”

Brownell has developed two catalyst courses around light—Light as Material and The Shape of Light. “Architecture is often defined as necessitating the presence of light, the embodiment of beautiful forms and light,” he says. “Yet for students, it's almost always referred to in general terms and assumptions. These classes are about learning by doing. I wanted to inspire them.”

The first class, Light as Material, was held in the spring of 2009. The goal: Teach students about the behavior of light and material integration. In five days, participants would create their own physical structures using light as a primary ingredient and install them on campus. To assist in this, Brownell brought in John Huizinga, at the time a scientist at St. Paul–based 3M, to mentor the students. Huizinga, who is now retired from 3M, presented the company's enhanced specular reflector (ESR) film as a tool for manipulating light. “A typical bathroom mirror is 90 percent reflective. The 3M film is 99 percent reflective. You can do a lot more [to direct the light's travel path] and not lose the light as quickly,” he says.

Typically 3M uses ESR film to bring daylight into buildings—a particularly valuable system for adaptive reuse projects—but Huizinga was curious to see how architects-in-training might apply the technology. “My role [in the class] was to tell them what was different about those films in dealing with light and to get them to design something that would look architecturally different,” he says. Huizinga was particularly excited to see the film used in new ways that differed from the typical daylighting systems that 3M creates.

Brownell and Huizinga inspired students with a lecture and a series of readings on the nature of light, then Brownell set the class loose to design and fabricate a light-propagating installation—a surface, system, or device—that used materials to manipulate light. Twelve projects emerged by the end of the week, all with vastly different approaches. Some students worked as teams; others worked solo. One student team used the ESR film to great effect with wood veneer with a project called Illuminated Wood. By backlighting the wood, the film transformed the material, which then emitted a warm, rosy glow. Another student created a self-supporting sculptural tapestry out of wood and plastic that could transmit electric light and reflect daylight. “It's a hybrid between structure and form and lighting,” Brownell says.

For her team project, “Liquid Bricks,” student Jennifer Garman, then in her second year, and her partners—Tom Christian and Ryan Diedrich—played with light, liquid, and translucency. “We were excited to see how you could take an intangible source like light and make it work as a material,” Garman says. They explored several different materials to see what could be sandwiched between plastic to create a kind of liquid diffusion system. The final design used corn syrup and India ink. “We also played around with glow sticks, which was really fun,” Garman says. From this initial exploration, the team developed a glowing structural brick system composed of lasercut 2-inch-square cubes of acrylic strung with a network of LEDs. They also developed bricks filled with a light-emitting polymer liquid.

Brownell's second catalyst course, The Shape of Light, was held this past spring and it had a similar experimental vibe. This time, participants explored the ways in which fiber optics allow for the bending and extension of light through structural devices such as light pipes, acrylic tubes, and mirror ducts. This time, Brownell partnered with 3M's Margaret Vogel-Martin. Students were asked to utilize a scale model of 3M's Light Guide system—a duct system that brings daylight into the deep recesses of buildings—and develop new lenses, filters, fixtures, and delivery mechanisms for the sunlight dispatched through the Light Guide. They then created scaled-down mock-ups of their systems to test the ideas.

Students Ben Garrison, The Phan, and Sopheak Pho came up with the idea for a Light Screen, an adaptable multilayered surface with different-sized apertures. The mock-up they designed has a system of Swiss-cheese-like metal screens on tracks that can be moved by the user to change the openings of the apertures. The result is a dappled light effect reminiscent of a room-dividing screen used in Middle Eastern architecture.

In contrast, Denisse Velez Rivera and her teammates Laura Flynn and Abby Kurlinkus looked to the ceiling. For their project, titled “Light Canopy,” they developed a series of six scrims that mimicked the effect of a tree canopy. The system is meant to create an expansive, open sky sensation in a room. “Rather than a plenum space that is dropped over your head, there would be a sense that there was an expanse and the whole ceiling is light,” Brownell says.

While the class is short and sweet—five intense days of long hours, research, and experimentation—the lasting impact on the students is significant. “I've always been interested in the phenomenology of light and how it can transform space. With the catalyst you get to innovate and explore that one dimension of a building,” Garman says. “And to be able to go hands-on and have a project that you can hold at the end of the week is pretty unique.”


Class/Semester Light as Material, Catalyst: Arch 5110, Spring 2009; The Shape of Light, Catalyst: Arch 5110, Spring 2010

School University of Minnesota, School of Architecture, Minneapolis

Faculty Member Blaine Brownell

Visiting Critics, Light as Material: John Huizinga, 3M, and Abhinand Lath, Sensitile; The Shape of Light: Margaret Vogel-Martin, 3M


Light as Material:

Andrew Blaisdell, Joe Brown, Tom Christian, Ryan Diedrich, Darin Duch, Jennifer Garman, Matt Haller, Ellen Konerza, Jonathan Leung, Jessica Lucas, Alison Markowitz-Chan, Jessica McClurg, Jonathan Moore, Yong Moua, Caleb Nelson, Tim Ogren, Peter Portilla, Greg Schwartz, Aaron Wilson, and Brad Zielinski

The Shape of Light:

Thomas Everson, Olawale Falade, Laura Flynn, Ben Garrison, Josh Grenier, Abby Kurlinkus, Kelly Martinez, Laurie McGinley, Tam Ngo, Elizabeth Payton, The Phan, Sopheak Pho, Denisse Velez Rivera, Andrew Schoenherr, Kyle Snyder, and Piseth Tep

Images Courtesy Blaine Brownell