Let there be light

Past excesses have inevitably put light festivals in the doghouse with environmentalists, but an event in London this week turns the tables and suggests they can be showcases for sustainable and responsible urban illumination, says Oliver Bennett

Recently there’s been a boom in light festivals, and that boom continues apace. The past few years have seen a roll-call of illumination events across the country, such as Radiance, Glow, Dazzle and City of Lights. And this week Switched On London returns for a ‘new, improved’ second year.

Last year, SOL revolved around six projects. Now, it has 15 site-specific lighting projects commissioned to appear around the Tower Bridge/Pool of London area. ‘The first year was a trial run,’ says SOL director Paul James. ‘It is becoming more resolved.’

Trouble is, in these carbon-neutral days, any lighting festival has to justify its existence. ‘There has been a lot of bad press about lighting, particularly exterior lighting,’ says James. So the festival takes a pre-emptive strike to counter negative perceptions, and to use light to campaign against light – specifically, the profligate use of lighting in offices. And, of course, the event highlights the skills of lighting designers. ‘A lot of specifiers in the UK who make lighting decisions are local authority employees or engineers,’ says James. ‘Those people should be looking at the work of lighting designers.’ However, he adds that the festival will also be fun for non-professional visitors.

The designers represented include big names like Jason Bruges and DPA, and, because of the prevailing mood of sustainability, much of the lighting is either low-energy, LED-based, or at least highly efficient – the bombastic floodlighting of a decade ago being now widely discredited. Interestingly, says James, the lighting designers this year take a historical/conceptual approach to their art. ‘For instance, at HMS Belfast, Mind’s Eye has made a piece called Dazzle Ships, looking at the history of lighting as camouflage,’ he explains.

Today’s lighting designers often work in the spirit of regeneration, casting light into neglected corners. For example, Light Bureau has created an installation on London’s Bermondsey Street to act as a link between the district’s dank past and its shiny future, the latter symbolised by Lord Foster’s More London development in Tooley Street. ‘We call it “light at the end of the tunnel”,’ says LB’s Paul Traynor, who is also president of the Professional Lighting Designers Association. ‘We’re not trying to do anything “disco”, or flashy. It’s there to create an architectural and psychological link.’

Creatmosphere has previously worked in regeneration and also at festivals such as Big Chill. Following the completion of an installation in 2006 for a festival in Geneva called Arbres et Lumieres, the consultancy’s designer Laurent Louyer has created two ‘breathing trees’ in London’s Potters Fields Park, behind City Hall, for SOL.

‘They are plane trees, which I thought looked like giant lungs,’ says Louyer. ‘So I had the idea to make the trees come alive and “breathe” with light.’ And so, with off-site controls for the LEDs in the trees and sound design by Martyn Ware, Louyer has brought the singing, ringing tree to the London Mayor’s backyard, and made an eco point, too. It may sound like a paradox – a show of lighting designers helping to solve the problem of excessive light – but specifiers would do well to have a look.

Switched On London 2008 is at the Pool of London and Bankside, London, until 14 February. The ARC Show and the International Association of Lighting Designers’ Enlighten Europe conference takes place at the Business Design Centre, London N1 on 11-13 February

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