Light in Architecture, part 3

Post written by Paul de Vries and Simon Droog. Follow them on Twitter.

This is part 3 of our Light in Architecture series. If you missed the previous parts, you can find them here:

  1. Without light, no architecture?
  2. Light – City Hall Gothenburg

In this part we’ll continue with a short essay on light in Dutch canalside houses. If you have any questions or remarks afterwards, just drop us a line in the comment section below of send us an email through the contact page.

Light in Dutch canal houses
Light from one direction > plasticity + texture

Probably the most instructive examples of good lighted spaces are the Dutch canal houses. These typically Dutch houses are deep, tall and narrow. All the light had to come from the windows in front and rear, because the deep side walls were usually shared with the neighbouring houses. As a result, there could be no openings in these side walls. This is why these houses had large window openings to provide enough light for the rooms. In the time they were build, glass was so expensive and difficult to procure that the larger lower parts of the windows were equipped with shutters only, while the upper parts had fixed leaded panes. In bad weather the light which came trough the small glass panes above had to suffice, because only during good summer days the shutters could be opened so that the inhabitants could look outside and let the light flow in. Later when glass was less scarce, the lower parts of the windows were also glazed, but the shutters were retained. Even the upper parts where sometimes equipped with shutters, in which case they opened into the room. This produced a four framed window with a shutter for each frame that could be opened or closed independently so the light could be regulated at will. Curtains and hangings perfected this four-shutter system. The rich merchants who lived in these well-lighted houses could enjoy the textural effects of their mostly expensive interiors with Orient porcelain and beautifully wooden carved furniture.

The famous Dutch painters of the seventeenth century took full advantage of the many lighting possibilities of these houses. The best documented paintings of the lighting of Dutch interiors are the works of Johannes Vermeer. He lived and worked his entire life in the city of Delft with its many canal houses. In these houses he made his masterpieces, with almost always the light coming from the left. In the painting “The Music Lesson” (fig. 2) we can see how the room is lighted when all the shutters are open. The rearmost window is right up against the wall and the light coming through shows us even the texture of the white plastered wall. The shadows of the mirror and the virginal are softened by reflected light and especially by light coming from the other windows. Also the plasticity of the jug of wine produced by the light is beautifully painted by Vermeer.

In the painting “Woman Holding a Balance” (fig. 3) the light comes from the upper half of the rearmost window and it is further dimmed by curtains. This strong light from one direction creates big contrasts and shows the enormous plasticity of the clothes of the woman. In this way you can go through all of Vermeers works and determine just how he obtained the right light for each of his paintings.

In part 4, we’ll talk more about the amazing light in one of Le Corbusier’s masterpieces. In the mean time let me know about your ideas on light in architecture. If you have anything to add… please leave a comment below or drop us a line through the contact page.


  1. RASMUSSEN, S.E. (1962) Experiencing Architecture, 2nd Edition (p. 199) – affiliate link

One thought on “Light – Dutch Canal Houses

  1. Great article.
    I remember these narrow dutch homes to discover how they escaped the feeling of being cooped in. The reason they were developed this way was, of course, the frugal Dutch loved money. These buildings were taxes on frontage, not on value or square footage.

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