AIA DESIGN THEORY-July 2010
Edited by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Trent Bell
Architect Matthew O’Malia on utilizing one of Maine’s seasonally limited resources—light
Two years ago, architect Matthew O’Malia left Elliott Elliott Norelius Architecture to start his own firm. As a parting gift, friend and mentor Bruce Norelius gave him the book Zenithal Light by Elais Torres—a study of the effect of natural light sources from above on architectural space and material. It was especially fitting for O’Malia, who had just completed a multiyear project with Norelius that was in many ways an exploration of light and space in Maine. The timing of this gift had a powerful impact on O’Malia’s thinking, and put into words the poetry, beauty, and mystery the team had tried to achieve in the design and manipulation of a precious—and seasonally limited—resource in Maine: natural light.
Q: How does light define the architectural experience?
A: It gives form and definition to objects; it creates and articulates space. And it is in constant flux, literally reflecting our shifting perceptions of the world around us. The intensity, tone, and heat of light rise and fall with the time and the seasons, and change from place to place: north to south, east to west, peak to valley.
On the Maine coast, where I live and work, we have a unique and celebrated light, one that has inspired generations of artists. Perhaps most notably, Andrew Wyeth’s pale yet radiant ochre and dusk-toned paintings soulfully capture the myriad qualities of light in midcoast Maine. Like the paint used to depict beautiful, rugged landscapes and sparse vernacular forms in Wyeth’s paintings, Maine’s light is a profound and subtle medium for the architects who seek to build in harmony and concert with the natural environment here.In Maine’s vernacular architectural tradition, the opening in a building’s shell for light, ventilation, and visual access were utilitarian and carefully planned. But back then, windows were drafty, and if they were poorly located, the result was a very uncomfortable interior. As a solution, windows were small and well placed, causing stark shafts of light that complemented the spare and restrained interior detailing of a traditional Maine home.
Q: What kind of tools do you use as an architect to utilize natural light?
A: Over time, technologies and design tools for utilizing natural light have evolved. There is now an almost limitless ability to capture light in a space: witness, in the most extreme example, the glass box houses of the Modernist area, the polar opposite of a traditional façade and massing. Somewhere between the two, though—and borrowing the best from each—is design that uses natural light in ways that are sublime, theatrical, unexpected, and inspiring. All that is engaging in the architectural experience is enabled and elevated by natural light.
In design, solving a building’s function is a primary concern, but functional solutions can also be made to offer transcendent experiences. Function is just the starting point for a dialogue between program, site, environment, and the use of natural light. Due to our clear winter skies, designing in Maine allows a wonderful opportunity to use light that washes through an interior in gentle and subtle ways year-round. When I build, I make use of cutting-edge materials and tools, such as windows and skylight systems, as a way of harnessing the timeless beauty and power of Maine’s light, and to broaden the ways the people in my buildings experience that light.
Another tool I’m extremely interested in right now is passive solar design. My design and utilization of natural light has evolved, and my current work offers all the comfort and beauty I’ve always designed for, alongside the harnessing of that light to create all the energy required for the building: from heat and hot water to all the electricity. In a south-facing building, light penetrates and warms the interior, and the roof is inclined to catch light and turn it into energy, transforming the structure into the kind of natural, self-contained world of a Wyeth painting.
By working with light as one of the fundamental elements available to me as a Maine architect, I bring warmth, comfort, and functionality, as well as art and spirit, to a building or home.