Modern Galileo

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#26 Burke house
center photo by Prakash Patel

Architects Carrie and Kevin Burke designed their home to be a time-telling observatory. Sunlight [shown above center] is corseted through a 24-inch glass eye suspended just beneath a skylight, making the living room double as a sundial.

It turns out that this incredible house – designed to be a functional time-telling instrument as dictated by patterns of light – was built by friends of ours, both architects, living in Charlottesville, VA. Their home, featured in Dwell magazine back in 2009, is a living laboratory, slowly but steadily marking the passage of time. The italicized excerpts are from the talented writer of the article, Shonquis Moreno.

In Galileo’s day, men counted their pulses to tell time. In 2 A.D., Ptolemy, who understood more about the movements of the sun and the earth than most of us do today, designed a tool called the quadrant that, by measuring heaven and earth, brought the infinite scale of the universe into the palm of the hand. 

The house’s primary mechanism for telling time, however, is an oculus embedded in one side of the roof through which a light beam tracks through the observatory. Forming an indoor sundial, it indicates both the hours of the day and the cycles of the season by alighting on crosshairs and lines marked on the floor with auto detailing tape. Later, the Burkes will fill incisions in the floor with powdered metal to make certain dates permanent: solstices and equinoxes; Carrie and daughter Ava’s August birthdays, when the light licks the edge of the banister; and Kevin’s birthday in January, when the beam rests directly beneath the skylight.

The fascinating article goes on to describe how the layout of the house evolved from them synchronizing their daily cycles with the cycles of the sun, identifying where light would and would not fall, and then situating the building to suit their preferences, depending on the function vs the time of day.

Thinking about the disconnect we feel when the natural cycles of life and light are obstructed and obscured randomly – living in busy cities where an abundance of artificial light glares out on unnatural schedules – it’s no wonder we try to seek relief by ‘getting out of town’ and ‘away from it all’ in order to allow our bodies to regain some sense of their natural rhythms.

I’m incredibly inspired by these folks’ efforts to reclaim a connection to the natural cycles that most of us remain largely unaware of and unattuned to. It’s a wonderful reminder of the importance of connecting deeply to the world around you as often as possible in the course of your daily activities, despite the temptations of ever-expanding technologies which, largely, succeed in merely thwarting our peace of mind.