Light as Material

I repeat my vow in unchanging colors of the ageless bamboo. Which still creates ten thousand generations of shadows
— Gyokuran (eleventh-century Japanese poet)

When Abhinand Lath was studying architecture at the University of Michigan, he became fascinated with the ability of certain materials to propagate light and the way in which they do so. He was particularly intrigued with the process of Total Internal Reflection (TIR), the phenomenon that enables optical fibers to transmit light over long distances. The experimental prototypes he developed for his master’s thesis utilized various configurations of Poly(methyl methacrylate) or PMMA light pipes, either alone or embedded within concrete. Crafted with the sophistication of one skilled in both material knowledge and design thinking, Lath’s light pipe matrixes conjured unexpected effects – capturing and directing illumination into shadow, without the need for electricity or any additional light sources.

Based on the success of his experiments, Lath founded SensiTile Systems in 2005, and the company has since grown to become a well-known manufacturer of light-propagating architectural finishes. At the time of his company’s launch, Lath selected the poem above to express the mysterious luminous effects he was attempting to harness within physical substance.

In an era of active material investigation, light has become an increasingly important ingredient in the pursuit of optimal and unforeseen material effects. As Lath’s example demonstrates, the adoption of fiber optic principles, of bending and extending light has become a significant trend. This is seen in a variety of materials such as light pipes, acrylic tubes and mirror ducts. These optical principles have been harnessed to produce responsive material effects at the scale of a detail, as well as smart day-lighting and energy optimization strategies at the scale of a building. The compelling intersection of provocative optical phenomena and energy saving strategies has encouraged many designers, engineers, and product manufacturers to develop new materials and assemblies that capture, focus, and transmit light.

In an intensive mini-studio I teach at the University of Minnesota College of Design, students learn the principles of light behavior and material integration, in addition to methods for developing physical structures that use light as a primary ingredient. Participants in the catalyst studio, as it is called, design and construct multivalent light-channeling systems and surfaces in order to test light principles and prospects at the middle scale: between that of a detail and a building.

Every year, I invite guest instructors with lighting and material expertise to co-teach the class. Past guests have included material scientists John Huizinga and Margaret Vogel-Martin (3M), lighting designer Brian Stacy (Arup), architects Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich (KVA MATx), as well as Abhinand Lath himself. Within this multidisciplinary pedagogical framework, students have created a variety of material experiments that blur the conventional boundaries between the fields of architecture, lighting, interior design, engineering, and materials science.

These novel explorations of light and material demonstrate the expanded potential of building surfaces and systems, and suggest that we no longer consider the discipline of lighting design as a discrete domain. Rather, as inspired by Lath’s example, light has become a critical focus of material development. At the intersection between matter and energy, or substance and transience, light too may be thought of as a material.