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For the New York-based lighting artist Leni Schwendinger, working with local people is an integral part of the design process. Clare Dowdy asks her about the concept of ‘community outreach design’


It may not be the most lucrative, the most straightforward or the highest profile, but Leni Schwendinger has been ploughing an increasingly rewarding furrow for herself.

Much of her New York practice’s work is what she describes as ‘community outreach lighting’. The upshot is a portfolio of varied, quirky and often socially aware schemes.

So, from a project for Glasgow 1999 to the biggest bus terminal in the US, the opportunities are nothing if not varied.

For Schwendinger, who set up Light Projects in the mid-1990s, ‘community outreach’ – meaning presentations to community stakeholder groups (the community board, neighbourhood associations, concerned citizens groups) or hands-on urban design workshops – is about liaising with the locals. ‘Most, if not all, civic design projects have a community outreach component to gain insight for design consideration, or to win approval for design proposals,’ she says.

She pulls this off with an eclectic collection of staff, padding out her lighting design team with an architect, an industrial designer, an artist and a newly appointed landscape architect.

‘Community outreach design’ is clearly a vocation for the slightly maverick, somewhat boho Schwendinger, who is no stranger to community activism. Her background includes the student union and women’s liberation group on the Berkeley High School campus in 1968, squatting in London’s Broadway Market in the 1970s and founding the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association in Manhattan in the 1990s. ‘I wanted to focus on an art form that involved people, site and light,’ she says.

She sees her involvement with the 1999 Glasgow architecture and design festival as a turning point. ‘Here I had an opportunity to engage a larger initiative [the British Waterways Millennium project], envision a lighting installation that revealed a great historic industrial accomplishment in Glasgow, and formulate a participation project that brought together schoolchildren, a community arts course, lock-keepers, and a group of artists and architects for a temporary light event,’ she says. The result was her Water Above Water design.

Since then, she’s been involved with some imaginative schemes, like the Triple Bridge Gateway. This will surely be one of Light Projects’ crowning glories, not only for its design, but for its design team’s tenacity – the design process started in 1996.

And again, this project demonstrates Schwendinger’s own grass-roots involvement, as she was leader of the HKNA. In 1994, she was on an NYC Community Board taskforce, working out community desires for ‘the aesthetic enhancement of a dark, dismal collection of bus ramps spanning a major avenue and leading in to the largest bus terminal in the US, the Port Authority Bus Terminal’, she explains. She thinks of it as her first foray into community outreach. Light Projects’ solution – which goes live this summer – includes a metal mesh, lit up by cleverly positioned lighting fixtures, along with reflective panels to produce a carpet of light on the road.

And just completed last month is the illumination of Hoboken’s ferry terminal in New Jersey. The century-old New Jersey station now has its copper façade, plazas and walkways aesthetically illuminated.

And as for imagination, there’s her ‘light playground’, called Light on Wheels. This, a ten-year dream for Schwendinger, was prototyped for a lighting masterclass in Alingsås, Sweden, with the European Lighting Design Association. It transformed a 560m2 parking lot into an extravaganza of cyclists and skaters.

But it seems that community outreach designers are victims of aborted schemes even more often than those in the purely commercial field. This was the outcome of Schwendinger’s Brandywine, a stone wall with plaques, and a light sculpture called Rust into Light. ‘It seems to me that the proposals may seem too complex, too wide-ranging. The idea of a cross-disciplinary urban design/community outreach/lighting design/public art project is difficult to understand, but each envisioning opportunity allows me to hone my skills and presentation techniques,’ she says.

Schwendinger, who is exploring work opportunities with several architects, engineers and landscape architects in the UK, dreams of setting up shop in London ‘some day soon’.

In the meantime, she continues to champion the under-acknowledged role of community outreach. ‘The idea of the public realm has gained so much credibility in the past few years, which I find exciting. But we are “so” making it up. I mention it as much as possible, but it’s not a market that exists,’ she admits.

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