Daylight in Auditoriums

Many pre-modern theaters were dependent on daylighting. This was obviously true of open air theaters—the theaters of ancient Greece and Rome, Japanese Noh theaters, Taoist temple theaters, the Spanish corrales de comedias, the public playhouses of Elizabethan England, and so on. Daylight was also the principal source of illumination in some indoor theaters, including the private Elizabethan playhouses. Even as performances were lit with improved artificial light sources, daylight continued to be provided in a few theaters. And daylighting has always been a common feature in rooms for music.

Today, daylight seems to be a feature in more new performance spaces and auditoriums. Do you want daylight in your new performance space? The response to this question is often a vehement “NO!” but sometimes it’s “Maybe” or “Let’s talk about it.” What follows is an overview of the issues this question raises.

Why provide daylight?

Daylight itself is pleasing. It provides a connection to the world outside the auditorium and creates a more humane environment. Daylight increases what environment psychologists call the “information rate” of an environment. Spaces with high information rate promote arousal (also called activation) and invite active participation.

Daylight can reduce the need for artificial lighting and contribute to the energy efficiency and sustainability of the building.

Sometimes daylighting is a “side effect” of the desire to provide views out of (or into) the auditorium. The Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport, Massachusetts is one example; the auditorium provides a striking view of Back Harbor and the Atlantic Ocean. Some venues provide views into the auditorium to allow audience seated on the surrounding lawn to experience the performance. Seiji Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood is a notable example. Sometimes the motivation is to increase the visibility of the activity within the auditorium and provide visual connections with the surrounding spaces or landscape. An example is the Ruth Caplin Theatre at University of Virginia, shown in the photo below.

Ruth Caplin Theater

Ruth Caplin Theater

How is daylight provided?

We can divide daylighting features into two broad categories. Clerestory windows, light monitors, and skylights provide daylight but not views of the exterior. Windows that are closer to floor level, curtain walls, and large openings (barn doors) can provide both light and views.

Potential concerns

A primary concern is the need to black out the auditorium, so that artificial lighting can be used to control the visual experience. An effective blackout can be achieved with motorized shades, but they add costs—both initial capital cost and ongoing maintenance costs. While some shades are high-quality and reliable, lower-cost products can be problematic, leading to fears of a breakdown a half-hour before the curtain rises.

Windows, skylights, and curtain walls may all raise acoustical concerns. These elements are not as massive as the surrounding walls and may be weak points in the effort to isolate the auditorium from exterior noise. This concern can be addressed with careful design and detailing, which may increase costs. Also, because these elements have less mass, they absorb rather than reflect low frequency sound, resulting in a room acoustic with less “warmth.” This may be a concern, especially in music spaces. The planar surfaces of windows and curtain walls do reflect mid and high frequency sounds, and these reflections can be unwanted. Again, careful design can address these concerns.

Direct sunlight (as opposed to daylight) can be uncomfortable for both audience and performers. It’s best to orient the daylighting elements to minimize or eliminate direct sunlight during likely performance times. If necessary, a brise-soleil can be used to block direct sunlight or fritted glass can be used to filter it.

If they cover a large area, clerestory windows, light monitors, and skylights can be a distraction during daylight performances even if they don’t allow direct sunlight. The changing sky or an approaching storm can dramatically alter the daylight (and the mood) within the auditorium.

Views out of the auditorium can be distracting, and views into the auditorium can raise privacy concerns. Lower windows, curtain walls, and openings can be distracting if activity outside of the auditorium is in view of performers and audience. Views into the auditorium can raise concerns about voyeurism and occupant safety. These concerns can be addressed by the use of fritted glass or light filtering shades, but obviously both block the views that perhaps were intended to be provided.

- Gene Leitermann is co-founder of Nextstage Design, an educator, and a theater consultant with more than 30 years of experience.