Darkness under a Blazing Sun

Elias Baumgarten
5. October 2021
Photo: Iwan Baan

Architectural photographer Iwan Baan and his friend, architect Francis Kéré, traveled around Burkina Faso. The result of their trip is an inspiring illustrated book on the role of sunlight in African architecture.

"Annual report" — sounds like figures, tables, pie charts and dry-as-dust reviews of the economic situation. That’s not the case with the Zumtobel Group. By tradition, the annual reports of the lighting experts from the Austrian Vorarlberg region are small works of art. This year, facts and figures are hidden in a thin brochure that was presented at the company’s headquarters in Dornbirn alongside an impressive illustrated book. The latter, the subject of this article, is called Momentum of Light and is available for purchase by anyone interested. 

The openings of traditional houses in Burkina Faso are designed so that only a minimum of light enters the interiors. Thus, the rooms are just bright enough to see, while the residents are protected from the intense sunlight. (Photo: Iwan Baan) 

Light is, of course, the theme of the book, which is intended as a source of inspiration for architects. Iwan Baan and Francis Kéré traveled to Burkina Faso and explored the role of natural light in the country’s vernacular architecture. In the African country, houses are traditionally designed to allow only a minimum of light to penetrate through a few small openings. In the dark interiors, it is just bright enough to see, while the residents are protected from the extreme sunlight and heat. Iwan Baan captured this stark contrast in magnificent photographs, which presented a high technical challenge for him.

Photo: Iwan Baan
I’ve always been fascinated by the ingenuity of traditional, vernacular buildings around the world. […] With my friend Francis Kéré, we travelled for over a week to remote parts of the country to document something that had long intrigued me and is difficult to capture. Together with the designer duo Haller Brun we managed to transfer the feeling of being in these extraordinary spaces [into the book].

Iwan Baan

Photo: Iwan Baan

Francis Kéré grew up experiencing this contrast between light and dark, which continues to have an effect in his architecture today. Just think of the reception hall he designed for the Gando Elementary School Library: small, circular skylights create an impressive play of light and a beautiful atmosphere in the comparatively dark room. In the book, sketches by the architect, a Berliner by choice, illustrate the role that natural light plays in the vernacular architecture of his home country.

The contrast between glaring sunlight and dark interiors is very stark. The eyes have to get used to the fierce change of light. For Iwan Baan, too, these conditions presented technical challenges for his work. (Photo: Iwan Baan) 

However, Momentum of Light does not only draw on Iwan Baan’s photographs. Sonja Haller and Pascal Brun from the Dutch design studio Haller Brun have taken up the theme of the book. With their work, they demonstrate why Dutch designers still enjoy an excellent reputation worldwide and are often regarded as role models — especially when it comes to book design. The light/dark contrast of the photographs is emphasized by the choice of different papers and printing processes: Iwan Baan’s exterior shots are presented on high gloss paper, so that they almost dazzle the viewer. The interior images, on the other hand, were printed on a matte black background that seems to literally swallow light; this effect is enhanced by the mixture of silver, white and CMY ink.

Cool, shady places are of great importance to the people of Burkina Faso. (Photo: Iwan Baan) 

Explanatory texts and Kéré’s sketches are printed on very thin paper, so that they can be clearly distinguished from the photo section. The designers say that the typeface selected, with its “geometric architectural character,” is intended to fit in with the design vocabulary of the architecture shown — well, all right. The typeface is not geometric, but it has a pleasantly understated and restrained effect and therefore does not vie with the beautiful images. The typography is neat, resulting in good readability of the few explanations — a quality that has unfortunately become the exception even in art and architecture books today.

The book, published by Lars Müller Publishers, is a good addition to any architectural library. It is appealing both as an object and for its inspiring content.

Photo: Iwan Baan
Momentum of Light

Momentum of Light
Francis Kéré
With photographs by Iwan Baan

240 x 330 mm
180 Pages
108 Illustrations
Paperback
ISBN 9783037786864
Lars Müller Publishers
Purchase this book


This article was originally published as "Dunkelheit unter gleißender Sonne" on Austria-Architects. Translation by Bianca Murphy.

Related articles

Other articles in this category