Beginning to see the light

A brief history of architecture and illumination

Our perception of light is dramatically shaped by human tradition. In western culture, light has positive connotations. It represents good as opposed to evil, and knowledge as opposed to ignorance. The absence of light is often used to represent negativity. Toplight: Roof Transparencies from 1760 to 1960 is an exhibit at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) that explores the relationship between natural light and the way that modern society has developed a need for it.

The CCA is housed in an impressive building that looks onto Boulevard Réné Lévesque. As cars drive by on the busy street, the CCA’s enormity is striking. Inside the building, which the museum-goer enters from Rue Baile, Toplight is found in the Octagonal Gallery.

The exhibit starts with drawings for the Halle au Blé, which was built in Paris from 1763 to 1782. The idea for this building was developed from traditional urban grain markets, where grains were kept in containers with open roofs in order to dispel rumours of stockpiling. The theme of transparency in this first building begins a trend apparent throughout the exhibit.

The next part of the exhibit deals with overhead lighting in museums, and the best ways to illuminate art on display. The exhibit takes a look at the lighting used in exhibition halls, such as London’s Crystal Palace, and the problems that arose from their skylights.

From museums and exhibition halls, the display goes on to examine the effects of overhead lighting in railway stations, factories, department stores, and working class tenements. It is interesting to observe the architectural changes that take place alongside social ones during this period. 1760 was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a period when the middle class grew and moved to the city, as manufacturing emerged as a prominent industry. Pierre-Edouard Latouch, assistant curator of collections at the CCA, says in his introduction to the exhibit: “Time and time again it seemed clear to us that these glazed openings, used to illuminate the bourgeois lifestyle from on high, were somehow linked to the harsh material realities of the nineteenth century – a period marked by the disintegration of traditional alliances but slow to establish new ones.”

We can see how the functions of these buildings are linked. The exhibition halls, railway stations, factories, and department stores all had ways of separating different social classes. The use of overhead lighting illuminated what had been covered up for centuries, and the upper class tried to use light to clean up the working class. Architects even thought that making natural light available to New York’s working-class tenements would reduce alcoholism and abuse among families cooped up in small apartments with few windows.

Through an impressive array of photographs, sketches, and models, Toplight reveals how light has shaped our lives since the late 18th century.

“Toplight” runs through February 15 at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (1920 Baile). Admission is free to the public. Additional information can be found at