Lam vs. Turrell

During lecture as Professor Sherman presented slide after slide of James Turrell’s incredible work, I began to understand the true depth of lighting and how it can completely alter ones perception of space. Each piece of work tells a different story and entices and moves the viewer by adjusting light. James Turrell is truly a master of light.

In this weeks reading, Perception and Lighting, William Lam explains in the most practical and comprehensive way, how to use lighting to highlight architecture while creating a natural and comfortable environment. Lam explains how to use lighting to direct human interaction with spaces and dictate the perception of buildings. William Lam is truly a master of light.

Both these architects are masters of lighting and altering the perception of space, however they both use light in completely different manners. William Lam approached lighting as an engineer of sorts, regulating how to properly employ lights with relationship to the outdoor and indoor environment to create a comfortable space. James Turrell uses his knowledge of lighting and perception to create art pieces that confuse the eyes and create new and odd experiences. Each architect uses distinctive techniques to create these effects.


James Turrell, 1943-present, artist of over  140 pieces concerning light and space


William Lam, 1924-2012, pioneer of architecural lighting, author of Perception and Lighting

William Lam was the pioneer of lighting design; he is credited with making lighting a true element of architecture rather than a job of an engineer. William Lam shared in his 2001 hall of fame article that, “Lighting is about design and not engineering, If you know what a good environment is, you can create it. Lighting is applied perception psychology. You have to know what makes a good environment.”  In his book Perception and Lighting, Lam emphasizes a clear design intent that is visible through lighting, and recommends the use of windows as an energy saving lighting system that also meets our biological need to be in contact with the outdoors and sun. Lam also warns architects to avoid lighting that created interior conflict, or misdirected inhabitants. Lam illustrates in his book and in his work how to use lighting to emphasize architecture rather than to distract from the building. I believe Lam’s main goal is to create such natural lighting that one forgets that the light is coming from lamps and bulbs. By using muted lighting and natural sunlight designers can also significantly lower energy use.

Image                                                                                       Lam’s work on the Washington DC Union Metro Station fully demonstrate his key rules on lighting, Lam employs indirect, muted lighting to emphasize the brutalist architectural style of the station.

James Turrell does quite the opposite, by using extreme lighting to completely alter one’s perception of space. Rather than use lighting in a muted way, Turrell captures light to demonstrate how light forms the perception of the visible environment. Turrell stated in an interview, “ I make spaces that apprehend light for our perception, and in some ways gather it, or seem to hold it…my work is more about your seeing than it is about my seeing, although it is a product of my seeing.” Turrell creates art that can only be seen from the viewer’s eye, it alters reality, demonstrating how the human body can be tricked by lighting. For example in his work “White” Turrell uses an intense beam of white light from a hidden project which creates an illusion of geometric forms in a corner across the room.


Turrell’s work illustrates how intensely lighting affects the human body. Although completely unique approaches, both Turrell and Lam demonstrate how important lighting is in design and architecture. It is not just an element you can design in at the last minute, it is essential to consider lighting as one designs a space, and how the environment also provides for natural lighting.


To View More Of Turrell’s Work:

Review of Turrell’s Work :

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