The Material of Shadow


I am usually fairly mild-mannered and don’t openly say that I love many things.|1| But I love architecture tours.

Architecture tours give you insight into the thoughtful design of the architect and provide you with a more profound appreciation of the environments you are inhabiting.

Therefore, I had a mild heart palpitation upon visiting the Getty Center in Los Angeles. I am not the biggest Richard Meier fanboy, yet I love architecture tours, and I thought I might gain a broader appreciation for Richard Meier – and his expansive Getty Center campus. 

On my last visit to the Getty Center, we arrived in the morning around 11:30am. There are 6 architectural tours daily; but unfortunately, we had already missed 2 tours and had to wait until 1:00pm for the next tour to start.

Thus at 12:40,|2| my mother-in-law, slightly-begrudging wife, and myself waited for the arrival of our architectural tour guide – Debbie the Docent.|3|

When Debbie the Docent promptly arrived, she asked us what are our names were, where we were from, and other meaningless chit-chat – probably to pass the excruciatingly long time before the tour actually started.

Enthusiastically, my mother-in-law informed Debbie the Docent that I was an actual architect. My mother-in-law was probably hoping to be whisked away into secret tunnels or given special key cards. Unfortunately, we did not receive an exclusive behind the scenes tour. The only difference was that Debbie the Docent now supposed I spoke for the group – and thus should ask all of the questions. 

However, I don’t like to ask questions on architectural tours. I prefer to linger in the back of the group. This is probably because I spend an immense amount of time inspecting and touching every material – while precariously taking pictures from the prone position. This creates the constant state of catching back up to the group; but also, I never have intellectually stimulating questions. The questions in my head usually aren’t even architectural related, but more along the lines of “Wow, what are the transportation logistics to ship 16,000 tons of specially-guillotined Italian Travertine?”|4| 

But now that Debbie the Docent knows I am an architect,|5| she feels compelled to ask me all the architectural questions.

Debbie the Docent: So, Mr. Architect. I imagine you’re extremely fond of Richard Meier?
Me: Ummm… Ok. A little bit – I guess. Not really…
Debbie the Docent: So, Mr. Architect, can you name the four materials Richard Meier used in the Getty Center?
Me: Ummm… Expensive Travertine, Metal Panels, Glazing, and probably a lot of Concrete.
Debbie the Docent: That was really close. Mr. Meier likes to say that the 4th material he uses is the Material of Shadow.
Me: Oh, of course. The Material of Shadow!
Debbie the Docent: Yes, The Material of Shadow. As you can see Mr. Meier permeates every space with amazing light qualities and shadow play… (speech continued in this manner)

Dammit. I always forget about the Material of Shadow.

Next time my project is being value-engineered to cut costs I should say, “Stone is too expensive. I don’t like the appearance of the limestone EIFS. What other affordable materials could we use? Oh, I know! Why don’t we use the Material of Shadow. If we harness sunlight, the Material of Shadow is free.


Indeed, the Material of Shadow is a diverse product. It can be cladding for an entire exterior facade. Or it can be used as a trim material. Specifically in the application of a “Shadow Line.”

Although, the term ‘shadow line’ has always bothered me a little bit.

“Brady, why don’t we add a shadow line across that wall.” Oh. Ok. Let me get out my straight edge, and my magic shadow brush and I’ll just add a shadow line.

Great architecture is in the details. You can’t specify shadow lines, but you can detail reglets, reveals, and material spacing to create shadow lines.

Furthermore, the poor Material of Sun never gets credit for allowing the Material of Shadow to create interesting spaces. The Material of Sun is always implied to exist, yet is essential to create the juxtaposition to reveal shadows.

I don’t want to downplay the dramatic effects of the Material of Shadow, but without the Material of Sunlight – the Material of Shadow would be rendered opaque and renamed nighttime. 

I think there are probably four materials superior to the Material of Shadow:
  • The Material of Refracted Light
  • The Material of Radiosity|6|
  • The Material of Moiré Patterns
  • The Material of a Double-Rainbow Reflected over a Crystal Clear Lake with a Rainbow Trout Leaping out of the Water to Catch a Dragonfly
  • I half joke about the Material of Shadow, but light and shadow are incredibly powerful properties within the built environment – and if curated correctly, can create dynamic architectural forms and spaces.

    The ethereal qualities of light and shadow are constantly considered by architects, and help to create more beautiful environments. A typical homeowner might see an empty and bare wall, and then gussy it up by slapping on some window shutters or painting the trim bright colors; but this is merely ornamentation and oftentimes is more distracting. However, a careful consideration of the empty and barren facade could result in a lively interaction of form and space by installing the Material of Shadow.

    Architects constantly think about shadows. Whereas, the kitschy arts & crafts painter Thomas Kinkade is the Painter of Light, architects are the predominant Painters of Shadow. The contemplation of space, form, light, and (specifically) shadow – add significant value to architecture; and beyond a shadow of a doubt, the integration of these ‘materials’ dramatically improves our built environment.




    Click the purple numerals to transport between hyperlinks

    1 Outside of my wife and my cat.
    2 I made sure we were fifteen minutes early, as I didn’t want to wait another hour for the next tour.
    3 I actually can’t remember her name, but I’m going to pretend that her name was an alliteration.
    4 Or for you math whizzes out there, that is 32,000,000 pounds. Which seems like a lot, until you realize that Americans consume 251,770,000 pounds of pepperonis per year. We could build 7 additional Getty Museums just out of Pepperonis – and they’d be edible!
    5 And if NCARB is reading this – I was not claiming to be an actual architect, nor selling architectural services under the guise of being an architect – when I was still merely a baby architect.
    6 Specifically reflected chartreuse color


    1. Rich

      … and the “material of shadows” observed can emphasize the passing of time, which might not have increased your enjoyment of the tour. Tx for sharing. Not one on my ‘bucket list’. For further study I recommend the little book “In Praise of Shadows” by Tanizaki.

      • brady ernst

        Thanks Rich.
        I agree “In Praise of Shadows” is a nice little read.
        I found it especially interesting that Westerners typically want more light and the Far East traditionally wants more shadows.

    2. David

      If you want to know why I read your blog, this is why: “The Material of a Double-Rainbow Reflected over a Crystal Clear Lake with a Rainbow Trout Leaping out of the Water to Catch a Dragonfly”

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *