Brise Soleil: Definition, Design & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

How do you design a building that looks great and is still comfortable to be in once you're inside? In this lesson, we'll check out the brise soleil and see examples of how it's been used in architecture.

Brise Soleil

It's not uncommon to hear people say that an amazing work of architecture is simply baffling. Sometimes they mean that it's just really, really impressive. Sometimes, however, they might be talking about something else.

Many buildings contain something called a sun baffle, more commonly called a sun shade. It makes sense; too much direct sunlight can drastically increase the interior temperature of a building. For the sake of comfort and reducing the cost of cooling, many architects utilize an exterior structure called a brise soleil, which literally means ''sun breaker'' in French. Covering windows, openings, or sometimes entire façades of the building, these sun shades help to reflect or limit direct sunlight. It doesn't hurt that they tend to look pretty cool too. To some, though, they're simply baffling.

Historic Examples

The desire to get out of the sun is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, people have tried to balance the need for interior lighting with efforts to prevent too much direct sunlight. Even the Colosseum in Rome had awnings that expanded over the seats in order to provide shade. The brise soleil was another method used by people throughout history, although not known by this name then.

Some of the best examples of historic brises soleil come from Hindu architecture. Hindu architects developed pierced screens called jalis that were placed over windows. These screens were created with intricate geometric patterns. They filtered sunlight so that enough got through to provide some interior lighting, but enough was blocked so that the interior stayed nice and cool. As an additional design feature, the patterns, which blocked the sun, also created incredible shadows of geometric patterns cast onto the floors or walls.

The jalis of Hindu architecture is a highly decorative brise soleil
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Historic Japanese architects developed their own methods for dealing with sunlight. They used sudare, split-bamboo or reed screens that hung from the eaves of houses. The sudare were similar to modern blinds in that they could be rolled up when the sunlight was not too direct and unrolled when more protection was needed.

Modern Brise Soleil

The idea of sunshades was never lost over time, but they did have to be re-integrated into every new style of architecture. For the modern world, and Modernist architecture, one of the key figures in defining contemporary uses of brise soleil was Le Corbusier (1887-1965). This Swiss-French architect was one of the most influential figures of 20th century design and one of the first modernists to put serious effort into studying the impact of sun and sunlight in modern architecture. He particularly employed brises soleil when working in tropical climates where the need to preserve interior temperatures was greater.

One of Le Corbusier's first masterpieces using brises soleil was the Gustavo Capanema Palace of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Designed around 1936, this structure is considered to be one of the first true modernist masterpieces of the Americas. To help control the sunlight, brise soleil fins were added within the grid-like frame of the building. These adjustable panels let the occupants control their environments throughout the year.

Brises soleil of the Gustavo Capanema Palace in Brazil
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