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An Asymmetrical Solar Architecture
By Leif Leer Sørensen In the beginning of the 20th century, light served as a preventive and healing element in the architecture. However, with the prevalence of penicillin in the 1940´s, attention was drawn towards a more medical treatment rather than prevention through architecture. In his doctoral dissertation Carlo Volf puts renewed emphasis and focus upon light and architecture and their shared significance to health. "It's about finding a balance between exposure and protection from the sunlight", he argues.
“My conclusion is that it is possible to base the architecture on a healthier light if the architecture partly is planned deliberately according to East, South, West and North, and partly in relation to the body's circadian rhythm", states Carlo Volf who defended his PhD thesis "Light, Architecture and Health – a Method” at Aarhus School of Architecture, Nov 11th 2013.
Forgotten Knowledge and the Worship of the Sun during Modernism
He not only defended it, but was praised by the opponents for a thesis "of international format". Thanks
to a thorough job, first revealing a collection of 'forgotten knowledge' based on historical sources and
field studies of modernist buildings, which, in their architecture, were built upon health-related intentions.
“However, with the knowledge we have about light and health today, we can see that modernism and its
strategy for optimizing the sun no longer seems to work. The same goes for modern glass architecture
which unbridled opens up towards the sunlight using 'unhealthy' solar protective glass. It is about finding
a balance between exposure to and protection from the light of the sun", Carlo Volf explains. The Sunlight and the Circadian Rhythm of the Body
This balance he has tried to find through practical light experiments, where he studied the geographical
orientation, the Danish weather and the body's circadian rhythm. Through new experimental setups and
the development of a new method of representation, "Simultaneous Time-lapse Photography", he was
able to portray and maintain differences in light over time and place. This applies both in terms of the
geographical orientation and the annual differences, at summer solstice, equinox and winter solstice,
respectively. "Based on field studies and studies of light, the thesis introduces an overall architectural
approach to a healthier light, a strategy which responds the asymmetrical light of the sun by being – in
itself – asymmetrical. The solution is to vary the architecture as a response to the asymmetrical light of
the sun. Be it in the form of asymmetrical building shapes, facades, apertures or artificial lighting", Carlo
The Exception to the Rule
Although he generally blame modernism's mantra of light and transparency , it is also from this period
Carlo Volf finds the exception which he believes proves the rule: The Paimio Sanatorium in Finland,
designed by Alvar Aalto in the years 1929-34. According to Carlo Volf, it serves as an illustrative example
of how it is possible – based on the geographical context - to harness and balance the sunlight in relation
to human needs . As he writes in his thesis:
"Paimio Sanatorium is located at 60° N. latitude in Finland. The asymmetrical plan balances the sunlight
at the northern latitudes. The building opens up towards SE, utilizing the morning light, at the same time
shielding of the evening light. This not only allows the use of clear and healthier glass. It also balances
the sunlight, by preventing too much - and too late - evening sun during summer, when the sun sets at
22:30. The asymmetrical shape of the building also protects against too much - and too early – morning
sun, during summertime, when the sun rises at 03:30. At the same time, the orientation of The Paimio Sanatorium utilizes the winter sun throughout the cold winter period. From sunrise AM 9.15 and until sunset at PM 14.45."
The New Herlev Hospital
But Carlo Volf not only studied and analysed exemplary reference buildings, his accumulated knowledge
about light, architecture and health was also used and applied in an actual hospital construction project:
The New Herlev Hospital.
A consortium consisting of, among others Henning Larsen Architects Friis & Moltke Architects won the
competition in 2011 – based on two symmetrical, round buildings with glass facades designed for
optimizing the daylight. While the basic shape was determined, Carlo Volf was called in to help with his
knowledge of quality and intake of daylight.
"To the extent possible, we tried to convert this symmetrical building to an asymmetrical building. Where
the shielding originally consisted of adjustable physical blinds and solar protective glass, the shielding
instead became an integrated part of the architectural form: light openings in the facades was
transformed and differentiated, so that the facades and the building responded to the asymmetrical light
of the sun. Instead of identical wards, we were able to create very different wards, as a response to the
light of the sun", Carlo Volf says.
An environmental perspective
"The asymmetrical distribution of the glass surfaces means that area of the massive, heavy walls
increases, the heat radiation is greatest. This exploits and stores the passive heat and energy from the
sun better in the architecture and it can create an alternative to the otherwise highly insulated passive
and active housing that we see today. In this way, the thesis not only draws health but also
environmental and energy perspectives.”
So, the knowledge gained and collected by Carlo Volf through his research, already has been implemented in practice. Now the hope is, not only for Carlo, but clearly also for the dissertation opponents, that this way of thinking light and architecture will gain even more ground in future architecture. Read a summary of the dissertation: The entire dissertation can be read in the Library at the Aarhus School of Architecture, where it is available in both Danish and English.
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