Night and day

With Luminale light festival opening next week in Frankfurt, Trish Lorenz wonders how much longer such showcases for technology can continue to skate over issues of sustainability, while Henrietta Thompson looks at the work of a designer keen to take a hu

The number of lighting festivals taking place in cities across the world continues to grow. And next week, it’s the turn of the fourth biennale of lighting culture in Frankfurt, called Luminale 08, which features more than 200 installations lighting up monuments, streets and buildings, and includes work from a stellar range of designers, engineers and artists, including Olafur Eliasson and James Turrell.

Luminale is set to coincide with Frankfurt’s Light & Building fair, one of the biggest such fairs in the world. And to put it simply, it operates a kind of practical demonstration of the technology to hand.

‘The idea is to make a kind of laboratory of light – or a festival – around the fair,’ says Luminale 08 curator Helmut Bien. ‘It’s as much to do with the work of artists and designers as it is to do with the lighting industry.’

So Luminale aims to go straight into that interesting position/ it’s part spectacle, part lighting-technology showcase, part exemplar of how light can aid civic enhancement. It’s the kind of event that regeneration strategists and those in charge of local authority masterplans will attend as well as designers and, indeed, the public – Bien expects 100 000 people to come to admire the lighting displays.

The installations are impressive and broad-ranging, with all manner of things lit up, from bridges over the river Rhine to churches, subterranean labyrinths and public spaces. The interplay of architecture and light is a key theme, and the festival also has the theme of ‘urban romanticism’, alluding to the global revival of interest in the city. The organisers have also come up with the term ‘mediatecture’ to represent the moment when darkness falls and ‘physical architecture passes the baton to the architecture of light’.

Of course, the lit city at night can make for a compelling piece of urban theatre, and Luminale has some excellent offerings. Skyscrapers feature as large, luminous billboards on which lighting designers have been let loose to play, billed as ‘an opportunity to create’. Frankfurt’s Dresdner Bank hosts Light Shaft, an installation by Turrell, which sees specially developed software generating a gently rotating spectrum of coloured light across the building’s 36 floors.

Meanwhile, at the Frankfurter Büro Center, an 800m2 cloud of light will float over the roof between the building and its neighbour, while a 220m-long projection will run along the building site of the European Central Bank on the northern banks of the River Main. Designed by Casa Magica, Friedrich Förster and Sabine Weißinger, the concept uses light to illustrate in detail how the completed building will look: a virtual manifestation of as yet unfinished architecture. There’s even an aquatic-themed creation by Hamburg designers Michael Batz, Mario Blöm and Florian Köhler that will light up Frankfurt’s Börsenplatz. And elsewhere in the city, buildings will host projections employing real-time motion graphics designed by French group Digital Slaves.

And yet the issue of sustainability is low-key in Luminale. Few installations seem to be striving for energy efficiency or seeking to enhance the beauty of the night sky. ‘Light is one of the most important mediums of the urban lifestyle, which is why the festival [aims] to turn night into day,’ touts the publicity material, promising that Frankfurt’s Rhine-Main conurbation will be ‘so bright that it can be seen from space’. While Luminale’s publicity acknowledges the climate debate, it does not appear to have put it at the top of the agenda.

Clearly, it’s not fair to point the finger solely at Frankfurt. Across the world, light festivals and the designers involved in them face an increasingly difficult balancing act: the awareness that light is a valuable and versatile design resource, yet one that demands energy. Increasingly, light festivals are becoming showcases for eco-friendlier lighting solutions, and the notion of going in with all lights blazing is becoming harder to sustain.

Luminale 08, Frankfurt, Germany, 6-11 April


Magnus Wästberg strongly believes that lighting is rather too bright these days – and that we are working ourselves to death under its inhuman glare. ‘Familiar rules and patterns have turned into mundane routines when it comes to developing lighting fixtures and total lighting solutions,’ says the Swedish lighting designer. ‘We have forgotten how to light up our lives in a truly good way.’

With the establishment of his eponymous new company, Wästberg wants to forge a new path for a new kind of lighting industry: one that values the human, poetic and natural properties of light by way of task lighting. There are no overhead or strip lights in sight here, and as set out in his entertaining manifesto – called Lamps for Neanderthal Man – Wästberg hopes to create beautiful lamps that cast beautiful light. He has enlisted help from some of contemporary design’s most eminent talents to help him achieve this aim.

The first four creatives to work on the Wästberg manifesto were Ilse Crawford, James Irvine, Jean-Marie Massaud and Claesson Koivisto Rune, and their lamps will be on sale by summer. ‘Most of the designers I have known for some time,’ says Wästberg, on why he chose this group. ‘They are all people I enjoy spending time with and are all fantastic designers. But they also have a deeper engagement in the way that we live our lives, so they are the most suitable designers to interpret my manifesto. And, luckily for me, when I told them about my ideas they were all thrilled.’

The lamps are all calm in design, but with essential differences between them. Rune’s lamp is an exercise in Minimalism, with hidden controls that make its use entirely intuitive. Irvine’s design, while similarly sleek, seems more concerned with the functional angles of the light. Massaud’s lamp consists of a weighted arm that can be adjusted to any angle from the base, and StudioIlse’s design is foremost an essay in materials: porcelain, wood and iron. Wästberg developed each one with the help of a few technical lighting specialists. ‘They were challenged to think in new directions which led to some really interesting results,’ he says. As well as being tactile, the lamps are dimmable, and available in different colours and formats.

Wästberg is steeped in the lighting industry. His father crafted lights and worked for a number of companies before founding his own. Holidays, he says, were often spent working with his father and visiting lighting fairs. After graduating in economics, Wästberg worked for about six years with his father and established his company last year.

‘In Scandinavia we have a strong technical tradition when it comes to task lights,’ he says. ‘The process is managed by technicians and lighting specialists and the focus is on the technical solutions, with the aesthetic values given low priority. If you look at producers from other parts of the world, for example southern Europe, it is the other way around.’

The result, he believes, is that there is very little lighting which successfully combines both values. ‘In addition, I think that far too many lighting manufacturers just put “yet another lamp” on the market instead of thinking about how to use light in a better way.’

Wästberg’s plans are ambitious, but not grandiose. ‘I really want to make a change in the way we light up our lives,’ he says. ‘That is obviously not an easy task, but I think that both architects and people in general are getting more interested in lighting. Hopefully some of them will like my ideas – and together we can change things for the better.’

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