Leslie Larson: Lighting the Way

Originally posted August 19, 2019 on

Leslie Larson, a Boston-based lighting designer and wood sculptor, began his 1964 disquisition “Lighting and its Design” with the observations that there were few well-designed lighting fixtures commercially available in America, and that architects too often neglected lighting design as an integral aspect of building. Larson himself designed both lighting systems and fixtures, and in his book, he makes a case for the importance of good lighting, and not incidentally, a good lighting consultant.

On a fundamental level, Larson points out that without light, form and space are not visible, and that the influence of light on the culture and psychology of man is too great for it to be treated mechanically. In short, lighting needs to be considered as a design problem, not an engineering one, and needs to be treated with specificity and with an awareness of both physiological and psychological needs. Beyond enabling the eye to function freely, a good lighting solution enlivens a space and addresses needs for excitement and repose, variety and even drama. Shadow and darkness, as well as natural and artificial light sources, are key elements for Larson–that the illustrations are all in black and white emphasizes this.

Larson provides numerous examples of buildings with well-handled lighting. These range from churches and cathedrals to auditoriums and offices–from the sacred to the profane. Ronchamp and the Guggenheim are singled out, neither surprisingly. Six projects caught my attention as good illustrations of Larson’s argument, and beautifully lit spaces:

1. The Vasterport Church in Vallingby, Sweden, architect Carl Nyren. Natural light coming from on high creates a spiritual aura, while the wall brackets add to the drama.

2. Dome over the Palazzo dello Sport in Rome, architect Paolo Nervi. Light and shadow define Nervi’s masterwork. By day, the brilliantly lit center recess is the focal point set against the softly lit radiating ribs. At night, the dark-lit pattern is reversed.

3. Interior of the Chase Manhattan Bank in Great Neck, New York, The Architects Collaborative. A humble space that is nonetheless crisply delineated by light and shade.

4. The Olivetti showroom, NYC, BBPR architects. The contours and textures of the sand relief mural by Constantino Nivola pick up light and cast shadows; the whole is vividly outlined by cushions of light. Note also the Venini hanging fixtures, which really beg to be seen in color.

5. The St. Louis Air Terminal: Hellmuth, Yamasaki, and Leinweber, architects. Skylights at the junction points of the interlocking vaults provide natural light, while artificial lighting is placed above eye level. Light is projected upward at the surface of the vaulting, which becomes luminous in gradations.

6. Kresge Chapel, MIT: Eero Saarinen, architect, with Stanley McCandless, lighting consultant. An American Ronchamp, perhaps. Poetically lit with direct light from above, which filters downward via Harry Bertoia’s shimmering metal screen.

Light Reading: A 1965 Exhibition at Harvard

Originally posted June 18, 2009 on


“Everything that is seen enters the human eye as a pattern of light qualities. We discern forms in space as configurations of brightness and color. The entire visible world, natural and man-made, is a light world. Its heights and depths, its majestic outlines and intimate details are mapped by light.” So stated Gyorgy Kepes in “Light as a Creative Medium.”


Hungarian-born painter, designer, educator, and art theorist Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001) spent a large part of his career exploring and explaining light as a physical, cultural, and artistic phenomenon.  A student of Moholy-Nagy in Europe, Kepes went on to teach a workshop on light and color at the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and later at MIT. The 1965 exhibition he planned and designed at Harvard, “Light as a Creative Medium,” is thus a summation and continuation of 40 years of work. A stated aim of the exhibition was to trace the deep and deeply historical significance of light as a central tool of art.
“There is an age-old dialogue between man and light…Our human nature is profoundly phototropic. Men obey their deepest instincts when they hold fast to light in comprehensive acts of perception and understanding through which they learn about the world, orient themselves within it, experience the joy of living, and achieve a metaphoric, symbolic grasp of life,” Kepes continues.


The original language of this dialogue was fundamentally altered by the advent of the electric light, co-incident with the rise of cultural modernism and the modern city.

“In all major cities of the world, the ebbing of the day brings a second world of light…It is the world of man-made light sources, the glittering dynamic glow of artificial illumination of the twentieth-century metropolis…Washing away the boundary between night and day has lost us our sense of connection with nature and its rhythms. If our artificial illumination is bright and ample, it is without the vitality, the wonderful ever-changing quality of natural light. For the warm, living play of firelight we have substituted the bluish, greenish television screen with its deadening stream of inane images…”


This, of course, was a source of frustration to Kepes. Despite a quarter century of cultural preparation, modern artists still had not grasped the centrality or potential of light as a medium of art. As Kepes put it, artists were “afraid of light, the use of light, and the meaning of light.” This “spectrum of despair” corresponded with other perceived failures of the modernism project that were hashed out in the mid-1960’s, particularly in regard to the urban milieu. Against this backdrop of criticism and doubt, Kepes presented a call-to-arms to artists, designers, and architects, and offered a message of hope for the future: “This exhibition is a plea…for an emerging environmental art: the creative management of light…It is an art of enormous promise. For painters, sculptors, and makers of motion pictures, a field for creative originality…For architects and planners, a mighty tool with which to reshape our tangled, cluttered cityscapes. For the ordinary citizens of our dizzily expanding urbanized world, an aid to orientation in their surroundings.”


Author’s note: In 1964, at the same time that “Light as a Creative Medium” was being organized, a young artist mounted two exhibitions in New York City galleries. Dan Flavin’s first exhibition in fluorescent light, at the Green Gallery, addressed Kepes’ plea for a “radiant new visual poetry” and marked a watershed in the advent of 1960’s minimalist art. In the context of the Harvard exhibition, it is interesting that the minimalist movement was directly influenced by this use of light and color.

Images 1-4 from the catalog “Light as a Creative Medium” published by Harvard University in 1965; image 5 by Bernice Abbott in “Language of Vision” by Gyorgy Kepes; image 6 by Billy Jim, courtesy of Stephen Flavin; image 7 courtesy estate of Dan Flavin.