Toward a solar architecture: An interview with Carlo Volf, PhD

Toward a Solar Architecture: An Interview with Carlo Volf, PhD


Inspired by the science of circadian rhythms, Carlo Volf, PhD, has created buildings which use natural forces, especially light, to enhance people’s health. On behalf of the Center for Environmental Therapeutics, Elizabeth Saenger, PhD, interviewed this Danish visionary on the challenges of following his dream.

Your work as an architect is informed by the conviction that a knowledge of circadian rhythms is essential to create buildings that protect people’s health. Please tell us about your belief, and how you came to that realization.

I believe that the element of time is essential to architecture. When we create buildings, we may learn a great deal by studying the differences in bodily activity during the day and during the year. The circadian and circannual rhythms are essential because they reflect changes that take place in our environment and in our body. As architects, we can create harmony between these internal changes and the external changes in space and architecture. As Alvar Aalto phrased it, “We may define the ideal goals of architecture by saying that the purpose of a building is to act as an instrument that collects all the positive influences in nature for man’s benefit, while also sheltering him from all the unfavorable influences that appear in nature and the building’s specific environment.”

In earlier, vernacular architecture, a marked difference in the use of spaces during a day, and during the year, is often seen. One room may be important in the morning, and less important in the evening. The same goes with certain spaces during the year: a winter garden or a solarium adds value in the autumn, winter, and spring, while activity during summer takes place further inside a building, under cooler temperatures. In this way, a building has a kind of circadian and circannual rhythm, balancing daylight, temperatures, and moisture over time, during the day, and during the year.

The elements of time and place are fundamental to modernism in architecture. However, in the 1941 modernist manifesto, Space, Time and Architecture, Sigfried Gideon wrote he does not touch very deeply upon the element of time. He is being deliberately fuzzy, because he sees the time-space relation merely as a development from perspective and focus to abstract decentralized perspective.

Sigfried Gideon wrote he does not touch very deeply upon the element of time. He is being deliberately fuzzy, because he sees the time-space relation merely as a development from perspective and focus to abstract decentralized perspective.

Gideon says, “we are in the formation period of a new tradition.” I believe this is still true. We are “in the middle of restoring architecture to a more human scale,” to use Gideon´s words, and here the circadian rhythm and the element of time plays an important role. Time is the fourth element in architecture, fully equal to height, width and length, and time means a whole world of difference: the difference between a bright, sunlit bedroom, and a dark, gloomy bedroom in the morning, access to, or denial of, sunlight in wintertime. As architects, it may be important to put more effort in the aspect of time, and orient the buildings right in the first place. We need to put as much effort in geographical orientation of spaces, as we put in height, width, and length. As opposed to a car, a building has a fixed relationship with nature: it belongs inseparably on a plot and land, and is affected by its natural conditions, such as sunlight and regional climate.

Do you think your appreciation of circadian rhythms is related to being Danish, as opposed to, say, American? How? And specifically, in what ways might American buildings differ from Danish buildings, and from your buildings in particular, in terms of how they reflect ideas about circadian rhythms?

I think that the appreciation of the sun is characteristic of Danes and Swedes. Architecture in Northern Europe and in Scandinavia reflects a longing and an appreciation of sunlight. Many efforts have been put into making the most of the sun in the northern geography, and Denmark at 56 N is no exception. (See the circadian, seasonal, and daily tool below.)

Circadian rhythm, seasonal, and daily sunlight tool.
Circadian rhythm, seasonal, and daily sunlight tool. As inspiration for solar architecture, this adds a regional aspect to the discussion of both architecture and circadian rhythm. Here, at the latitude of Denmark; 56 N.

Light is luxury. Just as water represents luxury in warm and sunny countries, light represents a luxury in dark, overcast countries. When we, as architects succeed, we can actually create an experience – or an illusion – of more light inside than outside. In my opinion, this shows the power and magic of architecture, a power that exceeds any measurements and calculations, and fundamentally affects us as humans.

American architecture differs from Danish architecture. Deep floor offices with glass architecture, and open planning, seem to be a rule in America, a tradition for decades, since Mies van der Rohe and the Chicago School in World War II. I think in the future this will change. Future architecture will become smaller, with smaller footprints, and less Euclidean shapes, thinner buildings, inspired by European architecture – which again dates back to the preventative role, which light had in vernacular architecture before any antibiotic age, at the time of Florence Nightingale and Niels Finsen.

You have said that architecture should take into account the morning sun, evening sun, summer sun, and winter sun, and that architecture should balance exposure to sunlight with protection from it. Please tell us what you mean by these claims.

In recent years, there has been a tendency to optimize daylight, we see it in glass architecture, and open planning. However, in my opinion, this is not sustainable architecture. It is far more relevant to create a balance between light and darkness, to create differences. That is what circadian rhythms also teach us. We need to balance light and darkness, exposure to sunlight and protection from sunlight.
However, balancing the sunlight is a difficult task, when both the angle and the height of the sun changes dramatically during over the year.

I have studied how to plan solar architecture, and one simple rule is to make the most of the winter sun. Making the most of the winter sun can create many beautiful buildings. At the same time, it can be a step in the right direction when it comes to human ecology to make asymmetrical solar architecture.
A side effect of balancing the sunlight is that it enables us to use ecological renewable materials, such as wood, with little thermal mass, but amazing qualities when it comes to indoor climate, light, air, moisture, and thermal performance.

Recently you were awarded a commission to design the Herlev Hospital and New Hvidovre Hospital in Denmark. How does your design reflect your ideas and passions?

Working with hospitals is fascinating. Hospitals are important to architecture. They serve as visible landmarks, reflecting current beliefs in society, reflecting medical developments and development in treatment. You may say they are kind of lighthouses for our civilization.

I started working with hospitals because I experienced the effect of light. In 1999 I was hospitalized myself, feeling very weak. I felt my primary senses all of a sudden become more sensitive. Famous architect Alvar Aalto puts it this way: “Architecture should defend man at his weakest.”

I think that describes what I felt. I remembered that especially light and shadows had great importance to me at that time. Sunlight and clear shadows can stimulate vision of spaces, but modern hospitals are lit like moon bases, chasing the shadows away, using poor glazing, and poor lighting fixtures. This is very much unlike the early twentieth century, when Niels Finsen inspired modern architecture by using clear glass, and quartz light, to cure tuberculosis and other diseases.

You sometimes use the phrase forgotten knowledge. What is forgotten knowledge? Why do we need it? And given its usefulness, why do you think it has become forgotten?

Niels Finsen´s work inspired Modernism, and created an affinity between light, architecture and health. Unfortunately this affinity has been lost and forgotten – just like the wisdom of Florence Nightingale when it comes to the effect of sunlit wards. In my opinion, they both share an interest in nature, and the forces of the nature.

But in the Modern Era, man’s relation to nature has changed to become an anthropocentric one. We simply see man and technology as primary, and nature as secondary. I believe this is wrong, and I believe it is the other way round: nature has many of the answers to the questions we raise today in the Modern Era. This is also true when it comes to natural daylight and natural materials.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Eco Architecture, Djursland, Denmark. Light, air, and natural surroundings. Architecture based on self-ventilating wood constructions and special glazing and window constructions allowing unfiltered, natural daylight,including UVB.

Architecture is not static; it is possible to change it. Natural daylight, natural ventilation, and natural, sustainable materials, are all part of architecture, and part of our relation to nature. I put effort into trying to reintroduce natural ventilation, natural sunlight, and natural, breathable materials into modern architecture. Housing in renewable materials, such as wood without paint, and breathable, natural insulating façade materials, with self-ventilating wall constructions, and decentralized roof drain and sewerage, makes sense to me.

Instead of using materials, such as concrete and composites, which are heavy contributors when it comes to CO2 and non-disposable waste, I believe that it is possible to change architecture, and stop building in non-renewable materials. An example of this is the Eco Architecture in Djursland, Denmark. (See photograph at left.)

In nature we can find inspiration to create harmony between man and technology, and create architecture that collects all the positive influences in nature for man’s benefit, while also sheltering him from all the unfavorable influences that appear in nature, and the building’s specific environment.

En film om “lys, arkitektur og sundhed” – A film about “light, architecture and health”. Short version from Aarhus School of Architecture on Vimeo.