Light, shadow and penumbra follow one another like the screens of our lives, like canvas on which our physical and spiritual experience is imprinted. A fragmented and fluid experience at the same time, life unfolds on multiple levels of apprehension where our actions, experimentations and thoughts summon up various stimuli and feelings of joy, sadness, emotion, nostalgia or melancholy inside us. Driven by the desire for love, by the search for wellbeing and by incessant existential questioning, we often liken light to the notion of truth, certainty or a kind of reassuring presence. Light being the revealer of the cycle of life, the original spark that makes everything visible and the experience of life tangible. Sacred in our culture and repeatedly mentioned in the Quran, light floods everything with a form of evidence and dispels darkness, allowing life to blossom, creating a beginning. Nevertheless, it seems that penumbra is inseparable from light and constitutes the negative which gives even more brilliance to the celestial rays, as if the beauty of the sunlight, of the silvery reflections on the Mediterranean Sea, found its counterpart only through the contrast with penumbra – darkness, shadow – and from this balance the beauty of the world was born. Like a necessary and salutary path to better highlight and reveal the sublimeness of light; like a metaphor for life, from the maternal womb to birth and daylight. The transition from the shadow of darkness to saving light is anchored in our unconscious and is regularly used as a metaphor in various circumstances of our existence. In architecture, in the warm regions of the southern Mediterranean, this transition from shadow to light, this strong contrast, is often staged through the progression from a dark and narrow chicane hallway to the tranquillity and soft luminosity of a patio for example, or to the play of shadows and reflections found in the streets of the medinas thanks to perforated screens – mashrabiyas – that create unique dancing light movements. The staging of an entrance thus plays on both the necessary privacy and the desire to reach a compromise with the strength of the sun and its negative. As well as offering protection from the harsh sun and prying eyes, mashrabiyas recompose a reality by fragmenting it and opening up the imagination to an array of stories. The notion of privacy is essential in the Arab-Muslim tradition and is manifested architecturally by a whole set of features implemented to serve social and cultural principles. The architecture draws a beauty of its own from this, and plays with the mystery of the half-light, the tranquillity of subdued and filtered light, the brilliance of the sun and the contrast of its shadows. The mastery of the dosage and composition of light comes together with the physical elements of the architecture to enhance the course of our lives with moments of emotion and an inspiring and poetic spatial experience. To engage the senses, to experience the movement of passing time, to be in harmony and in resonance with the natural elements, our bodies and souls melting into a celestial dance movement … However, penumbra cannot only be thought of in terms of light but has its own beauty and attributes, a world of sensations and representations that is born as the light is dimmed and where a whole new universe imprints itself on our retinas as our eyes close.

An Allegory of Passing Time

Penumbra is a beautiful allegory of passing time, a poetic marker of the path of the sun and the ticking seconds tending towards infinity. Through light sneaking into a crack, through a tree’s silhouette that gradually melts into the sky, like a celestial clock, shadow becomes inseparable from light, their dialogue telling us something about the renewal of life. A simple crack in the walls of Jørn Utzon’s wonderful Can Lis in Mallorca creates a thrill, provoking a unique architectural emotion for a few minutes that bring us closer to eternity. Built in 1971 as a holiday retreat for his family, following the Sydney Opera House drama when he was dismissed as the project architect for financial and political reasons, this house plays perfectly with the elements and enhances the daily course of time and light. Deliberately highlighted, the shadows in architecture resonate and dance in a unique choreography and lengthen as the hours pass until they gradually merge with the surface on which they are projected – an architectural timepiece that is amplified even further in the world’s sunnier regions. The architecture of JeanFrançois Zevaco, sculptural and playing with the rays of the sun, is a fine example, such as in the Sidi Harazem Thermal Bath Complex (1960) or the Ouarzazate School for Teachers (1962), both in Morocco. While subject to gravity and static constraints, architecture is not immobile, but changes according to the angle from which it is viewed, the path of the viewer and the passage of time. It manifests with its own language, through its interaction with humans and nature, our very place in the world, like a medium or a prism multiplying sensorial experiences. The beauty of nature is also revealed through this unfolding of time, from the darkness of the night to the diluted, mixed, uncertain tones of the first light of day and the burning colours of twilight. These colour changes and reflections transform landscapes and architectures over time, drawing shifting silhouettes that alternately dazzle under the sun or present uncertain contours, giving them a haunting beauty. The palm groves of Morocco’s Draa Valley, the minarets of Istanbul and the kasbahs of southern Morocco thus live several lives throughout the day and are adorned with a unique aura when the gaze becomes less precise and opens up to new dimensions.

A Distortion of Reality

This transition from light to shadow is a space where perceptions can be dramatised, reality distorted and different sensorial experiences confronted. The elongated shadows, the distorted shapes and the fascinating chiaroscuro of Giorgio de Chirico’s canvases open us up to a phantasmagorical dimension and a singular poetic feeling. Bringing us back to ancient times and a kind of allegory of memory, it is our very notion of reality that is questioned, penumbra being the locus of diluted borders, uncertain contours and vaporous glimmers, and opening the way to a world of possibilities and a multiplication of dimensions, like an escape from the contingencies of reality. This dramatisation gives architecture a power and a solemn charge, magnifying cultural or institutional works. It makes the link with a world full of senses, with ancient resonances, far from the asepsis of the modern world. The power of volumes, abstraction, the play of proportions, chiaroscuro, accentuated contrasts, elongated perspectives – all of these are architectural tools that take a unique turn under the scorching sun and with the gradual onset of darkness. A lyrical feeling is imprinted on our retinas and our souls, and opens the door to a space-time where dreams take on different shapes, where beauty becomes more uncertain but also more hypnotic and where human beings are confronted with themselves. An exploration of intimate memory, souvenirs of the future and hopes of yesterday … In painting, the works of Mark Rothko and Georgia O’Keeffe admirably translate this world of uncertainty, of the poetic veil that covers raw reality and enables us to see something other than the tangible surface of things. Through some of his photographic series, Cy Twombly transcribes a vaporous universe where the simplest objects are bathed in semi-darkness and take on a strange and poetic aspect – like a photographic lens that opens and closes according to the artist’s intentions and captures moments of evanescent beauty. In film, there are those unforgettable shots in the works of Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, composed of characters and landscapes but also a skilful dosage of light, as evocative as the most sophisticated of sets. This phantasmagoria of moving forms with fuzzy contours sends ripples through our certainties and questions the splendour of the truth by enriching it with a different perspective, thus reflecting the complexity of the world around us and the importance and richness of the invisible. A surreal and captivating world that is discovered each time in a different way.

Penumbra as a Filter

Penumbra is the moment of change and artistic uncertainties. Colour shifts in unpredictable tones, precision fades, materials alter in appearance and characteristics, and the passage of time conceals specificities of its own which reconfigure our relationship to the tangible. The world around us takes on a completely different aspect, its forms become mobile, vague and endowed with an aesthetic specific to these moments. Some surfaces only find the fullness of their beauty when the intensity of the light fades and allows them to express an element of sophistication and subtlety. The gaze itself takes sides, depending on the position of the observer and the light source. A game of variations, reflections and tangled shadows amplifies primal perception and writes a story with multiple perspectives. Architecture plays on these artistic deformations, a space being perceived as much by its shape and proportion as by the quality of a ray of light that caresses it or of a shadow that transforms and attenuates its limits. Chiaroscuro, backlighting, reflectivity of materials, surface relief and the subtlety of colours construct and deconstruct the apprehension of architectural space and play an essential role in the creation of atmosphere. The dosage of light and the understanding of the sun’s cycle thus become intangible elements of the architectural palette in their own right, the imponderable and the unforeseen adding a sense of magic. This distortion of reality is particularly striking in our apprehension of nature, which takes on a whole new appearance as night approaches. Reflections of an olive tree’s foliage gradually merging with the dark night, vaporous glimmers of dawn emerging from the darkness, the awakening of the sea in the morning light; the choreography of clouds taking on shifting shapes before proudly standing out against the sky … Desert dunes sculpting unreal shapes, a starry sky drawing a surreal canvas, changing outlines of mountains … The infinite evocative power of Nature is augmented by this filter and reminds us of the artist Paul Klee, who claimed to be constantly rediscovering nature as if using a microscope, and that new, unexpected aspects appeared to him at each degree of enlargement. Changing nature, changing light, dancing shadows, vaporous atmosphere, redesigned contours, desaturated colours … A whole different world takes its place, in the same way as night replaces day …

The Gardens of Paradise

The rigour of the sun and its hypnotic presence are magnified by these moments of tranquillity and calm in the shade of a patio, under a century-old olive tree. Refreshed by a breeze, our mind wanders and dreams of the Gardens of Paradise, admiring the beauty of Creation and living this fleeting moment of serenity and contemplation to the full. The hours pass by, the sea’s twinkling transforms into myriad shades of blue, until it merges with the sky and time seems suspended between sky and earth – a metaphor for the richness of life and its cycle, of Nature and Humanity being one and of the infinite beauty that presents itself to our sight and our souls. A Path to the Light …

Driss Kettani