Views from National Audubon Society office in New York
Garth von Ahnen, from photograph by Lisa Heschong Views from National Audubon Society office in New York

Humans are innately programmed to observe their surroundings from a protected location of elevated perspective. Buildings can offer this opportunity, yet they often do the opposite, enclosing us in an environment mediated by mechanical systems. What is a view worth? And, importantly, who is allowed to reap the view’s benefits?

These inquiries have practical and political implications, which Lisa Heschong, AIA, explores in Visual Delight in Architecture: Daylight, Vision, and View (Routledge, 2021). The architect and co-founder of Heschong Mahone Group writes that throughout her career, she has sought to answer two questions: “What are the potential cognitive benefits of looking out a window? And, how might exposure to natural daylight, either via a window view or as part of the ambient illumination of a space, interact with those effects?”

In some respects, Visual Delight serves as a follow-up to Heschong’s seminal text Thermal Delight in Architecture (The MIT Press, 1979). However, unlike its predecessor, Visual Delight casts a wide net across many subtopics, diving deep with anecdotes that illustrate Heschong’s penchant for interdisciplinary study. Written in a manner accessible to a layperson, the text is both a meditation on innate biological desires and experience and a practical bridge between architectural practice and research in vision, perception psychology, social sciences, mathematics, and building science from the last three decades.

Camden Harbor, Maine
Garth von Ahnen from photograph by Lisa Heschong Camden Harbor, Maine

The exploration of who is allowed access to daylight and views emerges as one of Visual Delight’s most striking undercurrents. Access to these amenities—and ultimately to quality architecture—is enmeshed with social status and equity. The consequences of limited access, whether it be from sitting in a poorly designed school or working in back-of-house space for a 12-hour shift, are consistently and disproportionately felt by people of color.

In the early 1990s, windowless classrooms had been standard practice for decades, kicked off by questionable studies conducted by the University of Michigan in the early 1960s where, as Heschong explains, mostly white male school administrators conjectured that reducing or eliminating classroom windows would compel students to focus on the work rather than the view. Disregard of testimonials from teachers—mostly women—combined with the lack of stakeholders of color in the decision-making process, resulted in decades of windowless classroom construction and ultimately affected generations of Americans.

High-rise apartment building with balconies and air-conditioning units, Cairo, circa 1970
Garth von Ahnen High-rise apartment building with balconies and air-conditioning units, Cairo, circa 1970

HMG, dismayed with structural roadblocks precluding daylight from entering educational buildings that it encountered in its own work, set out to upend school design and understand the impact of daylight and views on students. Its landmark 1999 study “Daylighting in Schools” found significant, quantitative performance improvements when students had access to both. The study made huge waves in the architectural community. “It was a remarkable achievement to put the social impact of architectural design into this wider context,” Heschong writes in Visual Delight.

On the other end of the economic spectrum are populations who have exploited society’s belief that one can “own” a view, either through prohibiting development within a viewshed from a property or in the act of building taller. Many urban skylines have changed as the ultrawealthy seek ever-grander views and access to daylight, at the direct expense of the quality of light and views attainable from below. “Perhaps part of this intense sense of ownership of use is predicated on the fact that it is … possible to permanently block a view, i.e., to physically restrict access to who is allowed to partake of a particular view … ,” Heschong writes. “[F]ew other environmental pleasures are so entwined with our system of property rights.”

Visual Delight is also part solarpunk nonfiction. The book offers road maps for deploying architectural research as a bridge to a more sustainable future while critiquing cyberpunk concepts emerging in architecture’s present-day, such as artificial windows made of high-resolution digital screens. Heschong questions the validity of such technological alternatives to real daylight and views access not merely as a philosophical quandary but also as a scientific one. While studies have found digitally created windows are marginally better than no window access, she writes, the faux versions simply do not offer the same brain stimulation as the real thing.

When artificial windows fail ...
Garth von Ahnen When artificial windows fail ...

Visual Delight is at home in the library of a student, emerging architect, or seasoned practitioner. It offers a fresh take on topics explored in William Lam’s Perception and Lighting as Formgivers for Architecture (McGraw-Hill, 1977) and Sunlighting as Formgiver for Architecture (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1986). (Lam was the founder of my current employer, Lam Partners.) Architects will learn of worthy precedents for post-occupancy research. The book may also find utility with non-architects, including stakeholders making financial or programmatic decisions for building construction or renovation; academic administrators seeking research to support the optimeeization of daylighting and views for their students; and companies wanting to understand the benefits for their employees or their product sales.

Reading Visual Delight is like experiencing Heschong sharing stories around a campfire. The book imbues the next generation of solarpunks with her knowledge while regaling lay readers with the sublime phenomena of our universal experience of the world through our visual system, and the relationship between high-order mathematics and the structural qualities of views. It is these contemplative ponderings that truly elevate the book.

Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, FAIA
Garth von Ahnen Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, FAIA