Crow insists that "overpaved" L.A. has lost that trademark quality of Southern California sun. Natural and human-made topographies, haze, and smog have made the light in Los Angeles "absolutely different" from San Diego's. Movie and television people used to stay up north to film the play of light and coast -- the sun breaking up the fog, the marine layer softening the sky, the glare of light off the beachfront bungalows near the end of day. Now they come here.
Increasingly we live with less access to the light. Building booms, busy lives, backcountry pushed farther back. Our indoor environments, at home and work, are often sealed to keep out noise and heat and cold -- or keep them in. The walls and baffles mean foiled light. So says David Kopec, who at 36, with his doctorate in environmental psychology, teaches at the New School of Architecture and Design. Among his clients are people who want to redesign their living space because their health problems have not responded to traditional medical treatments; they and Kopec suspect "environmental modification" is in order. When Kopec enters an environment, he doesn't see "the shape and the design as an architect would." Rather, he sees "just the opposite -- the people's behaviors" and then how the indoor space expresses those behaviors. So the nightclub manager's home will be darker than the grade school teacher's.
Moving to San Diego from Massachusetts 16 years ago, Kopec immediately saw his mood change: no more cabin fever, no more gray-flannel skies. "When I came out here," he says, "it was like a key in a keyhole." As a college student, his academics went south. He blames the sun for lowering his GPA. "There are studies by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan that say green spaces and offices with windows increase productivity and make people feel better. [The sun] had the opposite effect on me. I wanted to be outside; I didn't want to be studying." Observing Southern Californians, he found that light and sun make people more competitive outdoors -- on mountain bikes, in marathons -- but less competitive in the workplace, in part because the light seems to be calling us out, especially if we're deprived of it in offices. People should go out in the sun in the morning, Kopec says, because bright light will inhibit the production of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone the body will make during the day in dimly lit environments. Without enough light, people drink more coffee and eat more sweets for energy, which, very easily, they could get by just going into the sun for ten minutes. He says it's commonly known that "nurses who work the 11:00 to 7:00 shift gain ten pounds the first six months." They've loaded up on carbohydrates, which they may need to stay awake.
If San Diegans, on occasion, avoid going out, Kopec knows the reason: the sun "is always here," he says. "Tomorrow's going to be very similar to today. In Massachusetts," in summer, "I wore shorts and went outside because I knew it was going to end." There, he says, he camped regularly; here, he puts it off: "I can always do it next week." (The idea is echoed by feng shui practitioner Lynn Scheurell. She believes that since light is so available locally, people can be "expansive and open; boundaries aren't as strong; people can be scattered and ungrounded." Such folk are so social they can't find personal direction; they're lost in the flux of outdoor living. There they go, Rollerblading down the boardwalk in blue thongs.)
One of Kopec's clients is a woman who was living in a dark apartment, feeling depressed and gaining weight. She had seasonal affective disorder, a condition, one might think, that could happen only elsewhere. Visiting her, Kopec discovered she had no eastern exposure for early morning light. He encouraged her to get up at six and go for a walk in the light or take short walks during the sunny part of the day at work. Weeks after beginning this regimen, she felt better, stopped coffee and sweets, lost a dozen pounds. Natural light and fresh air had been taken away: it was up to her to re-acquire it. Kopec's client tells me by phone that after moving here, she watched her child enter a San Diego school whose classrooms had little natural light, nonopening windows, and air-conditioning. The woman's son got sick frequently and did worse in school; today, she attributes his poor health and fuzzy concentration to the absence of fresh air and sunlight.
What Kopec has revealed is just how ignorant local buildings are of our light. Indeed, says James Robbins, local designers have an abysmal record for making buildings that use the sun's heat and its light in tandem.
Robbins, an architect with Robbins Jorgensen Christopher, does not separate light from climate. A childhood in Houston, Texas, imprinted him strongly: there, the thunderstorms burst, then quickly cleared out; sun and bounteous clouds were the norm, making dramatic sunsets, he says, more than the "slow slipping of the orange disk here." He says of architecture in general that "it's the best record of how a culture adapts to its particular conditions. The way buildings adapt to light reflects their location and climate and their attitudes toward life. It's different from place to place." Robbins says the reason Russian Orthodox churches feature a staggered array of onion domes was that in the far north the low-angled early and late sun would make them glow. On Wall Street, in Manhattan, he says, when you look up from the canyonlike streets, you see "a sliver of light at the top," creating a "Gothic-cathedral quality that contributes to our perception of Wall Street as the temple of mammon." In Venice, reflected light off the canals "reaches the buildings so that [with the sun from above] shadows go up as well as down."
For Robbins, Southern California is "drenched in light." Here, south-facing structures need overhangs to block solar radiation and a few windows to receive light. The west and east sides need shading against the glare of sunrise and sunset. The north needs no shade and should have many windows to take advantage of the indirect light. These facts are understood by San Diego builders, Robbins says, but they regularly disregard them. People were sensitive once to such site-specific issues. Today, however, we have "more mechanical means to intervene -- we can have windows that reflect; we can control the transmittance of light through the window by the glass we choose. We don't have to think as much about how the window is shaded, and we can depend more on air-conditioning and heating." In other words, we live less with the sunshine in mind, despite our attraction to it.