As someone who lives and works in Swansea, the home of one of Europe’s best schools of architectural glass, I am used to seeing light manipulated to great artistic effect. So it has been interesting to start collecting examples of light being manipulated by nature and by people without a decorative agenda.
Light manipulated by glass artists of one kind or another has been with us for many hundreds of years. Light manipulated by nature must have been with us for eons. For example; when I lived in our last house we inherited an old garden shed of very rudimentary construction, made from old concrete breeze blocks and covered by the ubiquitous rusty corrugated tin roof. The ill-fitting south facing windows were glazed in a variety of second-hand glass. Some had chicken-wire reinforcing mesh in them, others looked like they had been used in lobbies or bathrooms as they were of diffused or frosted glass. On the outside of the shed some variety of creeping ivy had overtaken the front liberally coating it in an organic over-cladding that changed colour with the seasons. By the onset of the autumn the green creeper (which had also grown across the windows) changed colour from bright red or russet to an engaging shade of yellow. The leaves also seemed to grow more translucent in that they allowed progressively more light through them. So, by the end of October the general gloom of the shed had been converted into a hazy twilight produced entirely by organic means. The effect wasn’t very powerful colouristically; by that I mean it didn’t flood the shed interior with colour. Rather it was like looking at windows that someone had delicately painted with a kind of water colour effect. The diffused nature of the glass helped; if it had just been some clear glass I don’t the effect would have been as subtle. When fully lit by the midday sun it was simultaneously subtle yet striking. As the autumn wore on the leaf colour became weaker and weaker until it (and they) disappeared. Because this was all taking place within the context of a window it was naturally framed for the eye and the wiring within some of the windows gave them a kind of internal structure (composition-wise) so that the eye was held and engaged. The end-product possessed a ‘rightness’ that was impossible to improve upon or argue with. It was all so organic in the truest sense and happened every year more or less on time and in a garden shed where no one could see or notice it. I even photographed it once standing back from the window in the gloom of the shed, so that the window was framed by the surrounding dark. The result resembled one of Rothko’s paintings done in the late 1940s or early 1950s. The point I’m trying to make is that the effect was dramatic yet subtle and variable in tune with the season it was occurring in. As a concept it is brilliant and only executable by using an organic medium i.e. a living plant.
My second example of what might be called a ‘naturally-occurring stained glass’ effect can be found on the Greek island of Rhodes at the resort of Lindos. For here in the tourist-ridden centre of the town is a length of street lined with souvenir and gift shops. These are nothing more than very basic shop units separated by a pavement used by the tourist and the purveyors of donkey rides up the steep hill to the Acropolis. To provide some shade from the fierce heat of the summer the owners have strung a square metal mesh between the shops and trained vines across them to provide sun shading. Not only does it work, it also provides a dappled shade punctuated by a baffling series of circular dots of white light. Now, I don’t pretend to understand the optics behind it all, only that the combination of mesh and organic growth seems to result in a roughly circular dot of light being dropped onto the pavement below. They occur randomly so they do not owe their existence to the mesh or some perforated metal or plastic template suspended above. Some occur in groups, others separately while others are merged and they dapple the floor with a subtlety of effect that I’m sure that most people are unaware of. For me, not knowing how this effect is created is responsible half its magic and you can’t see how this would be produced other than by accident. The question is – is there scope for further experiment. Could glass artists take this pretext or template and – once they understood the optics involved – take it a stage or many stages further in another architectural setting? What is the scope for a project using perhaps a tensile-skin structure to produce still more exciting visual effects? Where might this optical phenomenon take us?
My third example came from Machynlleth in mid-Wales. For, at the Centre for Alternative Technology there used to be (in 2005) an example of a concrete shell structure into which has been embedded dozens of glass bottles of all colours. The idea behind this project was to demonstrate how a basic concrete shell could (a) provide shelter and (b) how it could admit light both economically and sustainably using bottles, things that (until very recently) would normally only be thrown away. Experienced from the inside the effect created was that of a crowded night sky lit by green, blue and clear planets. When counterchange made the light fluctuate outside or when it was filtered through leafy trees, the variously coloured bottle ends flashed as though charged with electricity. Although they offered no visibility through them they did break up the concrete shell into something that felt as though it was made of glass as much as concrete. Like my garden shed, it was not enough to light the floor within the shell but enough ambient light was generated to modify what would have otherwise been an unremarkable interior. I am told that if you sang inside, the bottle ends also produced interesting acoustic effects as a bonus. This was a superb marriage of art and architecture (or at least shelter) that worked to create architectural glass in the truest sense. The net effect was completely practical yet created using materials (the concrete aside) that were entirely by-products of another process. Unfortunately technical problems led to it being removed; but it was an interesting experiment
So there we have it. Three examples of how light can be modified by passing it variously through creeping ivy, steel mesh and grape vines and bottle ends buried in concrete. By sidestepping traditional technologies and strategies perhaps we open up new vistas on how to creatively manipulate light. Over to the artists…
(photos by the author)