The strategic use of light is key in modern building design and architecture makes use of light for functional and aesthetic reasons. In ancient architecture design, light was also used to convey a spiritual meaning and some ancient structures have sunlight that falls on them on a certain day to create a phenomenon…

Equal day and night

One of the significant times of year when architects made use of light is during the Equinox. This is a Latin word for when the night is equal in length to the day (equi meaning equal and nox meaning night). Occurring twice a year, once in autumn and once in spring, the sun orbits directly over the equator, making daylight and darkness hours equal. The South African Spring Equinox happens on the 20th of March this year.

Amazing ancient architecture design

The ancient city of Chichen Itza in Mexico is a testament to the Mayans’ knowledge and accomplishment and it is believed to be more than 1 500 years old. The Pyramid of Kukulcan is the most impressive structure and looking at the light and shadow on the pyramid it is possible to predict and measure the equinoxes and solstices. Experts think that Mayans used the pyramid like a calendar – as the light and shadows fell across significant parts on the pyramid it would signal when they should start planting or harvest, and they could see what the optimal times were for getting married or buried and other ceremonial events.

At Spring and Winter Equinox the light hits the stepped terraces of the pyramid in a way that forms seven triangular shadows that make a snake form. The snake also seems to descend as the sun sets until the lowest triangle stops on the sculpted serpent head of Kukulcan at the bottom of the pyramid.


When the sun stands still

Solstices are another astrological event which architects have incorporated into designs. The Winter Solstice takes place in South Africa (and the southern hemisphere) every year around the 20th of June and this is the shortest day and longest night for us because of the position of the sun. As it orbits around this time of year, the sun seems to slow down to stopping and the Latin name refers to this – sol meaning sun, and sistere meaning to stand still.

Stonehenge: the prehistoric calendar?

The Summer Solstice is a special occasion at Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in England. The monument is made with huge stones that were placed in a circular arrangement. Experts think that the 4,500 year old monument could have also functioned as a calendar. On the morning of the Summer Solstice, the point where the sun rises on the horizon lines up with the centre of the structure.

A South African monument

The Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria can be counted among the structures that have a light phenomenon. Innovative building design was used so that on the 16th of December (a significant day for the Voortrekkers who made it) every year a shard of light will fall on a Cenotaph and illuminate an inscription.

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