Untold Facts About Light in Architecture


Untold Facts About Light in Architecture

Light in architecture is an essential element of the design process that accentuates every aspect of the building. It determines the layout of the project, the position of the openings, the functionality, and the aesthetics of the structure, both internally and externally. 

When it comes to the exterior of the building, architects and designers have cleverly incorporated light over the years into their designs. Architizer covers some of the most magnificent architectural design projects that display the masterful use of light in its article. Light illuminates different materials and reflective surfaces, creating a play of highlights and shadows that transforms ordinary structures into breath-taking landmarks and sceneries. 

Architecture Modern, Alex Ginard, 2015, via Pixabay

For the interiors, light sets the mood of the room, provides adequate functionality for carrying out the intended tasks throughout the day, and generally illuminates the room. The proper decorative use of light also complements and enhances the aesthetics of every space. 

Direct and Indirect Lighting in Architecture

To appreciate fully the application of light in architecture, it is crucial to understand the two main lighting concepts. This includes direct and indirect lighting. Direct light involves the illumination of a room straight from the visible light source. It is mostly used to offer solutions for ambient and task lighting. 

Round Beige and Brown Wooden Table and Chair, Medhat Ayad, 2017, via Pexels


Indirect lighting, on the other hand, provides illumination to a space through the reflection of light rays onto surfaces. It consequently results in a softer light with minimum glare. Indirect lighting emphasizes outstanding architectural space features or design elements when used as accent lighting. However, it can also serve as ambient lighting where low levels of illumination are required. 


Modular Linear Built-in LED Module, Archiproducts, 2020, via Pinterest


The quantity and quality of light reflected into a room through indirect lighting depends on the reflectance of the surfaces and the intensity of the light source. Therefore, for wall lighting, matte and textured wall finishes are best to minimize glare.

Distribution of Light in Architecture

Lighting design is often a solution to the needs of the space. Therefore, the method of distribution of light must be intentional and well thought through. This aspect also consequently determines the type of luminaires and lighting fixtures employed in the architectural lighting design. The lighting design should hence have the final user in mind.

The following are the modes of light distribution that are applicable in architectural lighting:


This is one of the most common methods of architectural lighting. It involves the positioning of the light source above the room, therefore casting its rays downwards onto a working plane. It mostly applies to task lighting and ambient lighting in meeting the standard illumination levels and providing uniform lighting.

Living Room Area, Terry Magallanes, 2019, via Pexels


Uplighting is conventionally a method of indirect lighting since the light reflects onto the ceilings and walls to illuminate the room. Therefore, it predominantly functions as accent lighting for interior applications. In building exteriors, it applies in landscape lighting, offers visual saliency at night in urban spaces, and is used for architectural expression.

CORMAC Residence, ArchDaily, 2013, via Pinterest


Sideward Lighting

The sideward mode of light distribution draws a person’s attention to a given focal point. They integrate into the design as luminous wall panels commonly used for branding in commercial setups, or just direct lighting fixed horizontally to walls and performance stages for a more dramatic effect.

Multidirectional Lighting

Multidirectional light sources in architecture radiate light in more than one direction. They create a uniform distribution of light and generally function as ambient lighting. However, luminaires designed for multidirectional lighting suitable for accent lighting on walls also exist.

Sparkle and Pattern Lighting

These forms of lighting distribution apply decoratively in architecture. They often act as secondary sources of light used to create a visual appeal to a room or structure by creating a captivating design with light. For instance, arranging lamps or luminaires in a particular pattern can demarcate various functional spaces in an open office layout.

Light and Shadow in Architectural Lighting

In good architectural lighting, it is impossible to focus on just lights without paying keen attention to the shadows. When an object is illuminated, it casts shadows in the room, which eventually affects the illumination, aesthetics, and functionality of the space. 

Light and shadow create visual contrast in architecture. They bring out the concept of depth to the various elements and forms of the structure. They can also add captivating shapes and patterns to the building surfaces.

White Arch Building, Miriam Espacio, 2019, via Pexels


Diffuse light sources and indirect lighting generally create softer shadows that are flattering to the people and the objects in the room, making them great for restaurants and reception areas. However, direct lighting and concentrated light sources create crisp shadows that emphasize the dominant areas in a space. 

The size of the lighting source also affects the sharpness of the shadows. Larger light sources distribute light over a larger area, casting softer shadows as compared to smaller concentrated light sources.

Improving Light Quality and Visual Comfort in Architecture

High-intensity direct lighting can sometimes cause glare and unappealing shadows. Various methods exist in architectural lighting, which soften and disperse light, therefore avoiding glare, controlling brightness, and minimizing sharper shadows.

Apart from adjusting the lamp output and selecting less reflective material finishes for the building, shielding is an efficient technique in softening and improving the quality of light in a space. 


Trendy Hotel Decoration, Delightfull, 2020, via Pinterest

Shielding works by preventing light from directly striking the working plane, which usually causes glare. It utilizes the transmittance, the reflectance, the shape, and the specularity of the shielding materials to control the brightness and quality of light. The following are some of the effective shielding techniques:

Louvres, Screens, Grilles, and Baffles

These are mostly applicable in commercial settings.  The members organized symmetrically or around the lighting fixtures screen the light and hence minimize glare. The sizes of the cells and spacing of the elements also affect the control of the diffusion and brightness of the light. In contemporary architecture, screens with ornamental or geometric patterns incorporated with vertical luminous panels create an aesthetic appeal to any space.

Backlit Metal Wall Solutions, Moz Designs, 2020, via Pinterest


Diffusing Panels

Most LED panel fixtures come with a diffuse panel that softens the light by distributing it uniformly over a larger area. White plastic diffusing panels, dichroic glass, corrugated panels, clear plastic prismatic panels, and formed panels can all control the brightness and intensity of light from the lamp.

Interior Night City, Sutulo, 2018, via Pixabay


Natural and Artificial Lights in Architecture

Natural Lighting and Artificial Lighting are equally important in architectural lighting. Natural daylight has multiple benefits of increased productivity, visual comfort, and energy efficiency. However, due to the varying nature of daylight, artificial lighting comes in handy to regulate and standardize the light level throughout the day. 

Natural Light in Architecture

The natural light architecture largely affects the distribution of light in a space. However, the illumination levels of daylight vary according to the location, orientation of the structure, date, time, and weather conditions, among many other factors.

The daylight quantity depends on more than just the direct sunlight. The diffuse skylight and the light reflected onto surfaces all contribute to the daylight in a room. Therefore, proper planning and design are all necessary for maximizing natural lighting.

Red Sofa Chairs beside Glass Wall Inside Building, Frans Van Heerden, 2015, via Pexels


To harvest natural daylight, built structures are oriented in the North-South direction. This allows the windows and rooms to receive adequate daylight throughout the day without affecting the thermal comfort of the room often caused by direct sunlight.

There are lots of good lighting principles when it comes to the design of natural daylight. For example, the window area should be approximately ten to twenty percent of the total wall area. The heights and positions of the windows as well as the width of the room also influence the amount of daylight that flows into the room. 

Take advantage of the reflectance of the surfaces internally and externally, such as the adjacent buildings, walls, and ground surfaces, to maximize the amount of daylight in the space. 

Artificial Light and Architecture

Artificial light is a principal component of architectural lighting. It complements natural daylight to ensure that the space attains the recommended standards of lighting at all times. In architecture and light, artificial lighting has three main applications: ambient lighting, task lighting, and accent lighting. 

Beige Couch, Vecislavas Popa, 2018, via Pexels


It contributes to the overall lighting of a space, provides adequate lighting to carry out tasks, influences the mood of the room, accentuates and highlights significant and aesthetic features of the structure, both in the interior space and on the façade. Artificial lighting generally gives more flexibility over the control of light levels and artistic freedom in various applications. It allows for experimentation with various lighting layers, fixture designs, color temperature, and layouts.

To maximize energy efficiency, artificial lighting systems should incorporate automatic daylight controls that adjust the illumination according to the daylight levels. Occupancy sensors, space controls, time-based controls, and wireless controls, installed in various rooms as appropriate, can also minimize energy wastage.

Lighting affects how we perceive and experience a given space. Lighting design is a key element in architecture and one of the broadest skills to master. It applies both aesthetically and structurally, varying with every application and intended effect.

If you need to learn more about light in modern architecture, Architectural Digest has prepared a long list of insightful books on the art of lighting design. Alternatively, hire a lighting designer to work on the best lighting plan design for the interior design and exterior of your built environment.


Light is a key element that affects how we perceive and experience architecture. It determines the orientation, functionality, and aesthetics of structures, both internally and externally. Read on to learn about the key principles of the application of light in architecture.


Winny Okoth is a practicing Construction Project Manager and Interior Designer. She is also currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Construction Project Management. Winny Okoth has a great passion for every form of design and has the mastery of principles of design, as well as 3D visualizations skills for architectural and interior design renders.