“What men call the shadow of the body is not the shadow of the body, but is the body of the soul.” – Oscar Wilde
There was a game my friends and I played back in China when we were kids. One of us was chosen to begin as the “ghost”, and he or she would try to catch the others. If caught, that kid would then assume the role of the “ghost” and the chase would begin anew. It sounds like a super universal kids’ game. However, there was a twist. The definition of “catching” in this Chinese version of this game of tag meant stepping onto another’s shadow. It’s interesting to realize our shadow is an extension of ourselves, yet sometimes it changes even as we stay still as the light around us changes.
Light is a given, shadow is just one of the results. Shadow is an important part of the Asian aesthetic and the one I’m most interested in. Many Chinese poems depict the shadow of trees, bamboos, and even humans. Traditionally in Chinese gardens shadows are considered when designing a scene, such as bamboo shadows swaying against a white wall or an exquisite window frame casting patterns along a walkway. Thus, when I walk along a street I like to search for shadows cast across surfaces. Even the shadow of a fence creates a rhythm in my eyes, playing a pattern between dark and bright, dark and bright.
Shadow gives depth, enhancing the texture of an object. Cast shadows can be an authentic drawing which turns a three-dimensional tree into an abstraction, a mysterious image onto the wall. The existence of any shadow is dependent upon the presence of both an object and cast light, an interdependency representing the heart of Yin Yang. There are many great natural and manmade landscapes and architectural masterpieces where beautiful shadows occur. And not only is the visual effect evocative, but also the physical feeling of coolness; a shadow imparts a space with its presence.
Architects play with shadows all of the time. It’s an art finding the perfect cut opening. However, for us landscape architects, perhaps the relationship between space and light is the other way around.
“A column and a column brings light between them. To make a column which grows out of the wall and which makes its own rhythm of no-light, light, no-light, light: that is the marvel of the artist.” – Louis Kahn
Note: A version of this same piece translated into Chinese is available below…