Darkness visible

Rapidly encroaching urbanisation need not result in switching on ever more lights. Suzanne Hinchliffe investigates. See below for video schemes by UVA, Jason Bruges Studios and Speirs & Major

Where there are people, there is outdoor lighting. You only have to look out of an aeroplane window to see 24-hour cities and shimmering roads illuminating the night sky. Our need and desire for lighting shows no signs of abating either, with a growing deluge of light pouring from animated billboards, building facades and even people, if you include the impact of iPads, iPods and mobile phones.

’One problem with lighting is over-saturation,’ says Ben Kreukniet, a lighting designer at United Visual Artists. ’It’s important to get the right balance of lighting,’ he says. ’Like advertising, if you have too much light people will stop looking at it.’

Kreukniet is not the only one who has thought about the implications of too much light. Lighting consultancy Speirs & Major’s design team often advises clients on how to retain and preserve the night – almost becoming ’darkness designers’ in the process.

’The great challenge is to provide the types of after-dark environments that people now aspire to,’ says Satu Streatfield, senior designer at Speirs & Major. Streatfield emphasises the importance of masterplanning. ’Architects masterplan a city in the daylight to look at the fall of sunlight, but it also makes sense to do this at night, in terms of looking at the proximity of artificial illumination in an area,’ she explains.

Paul Nulty, from Light Bureau, thinks that lighting trends are moving away from facade illumination. ’It is now seen as frivolous and a bit of a waste of money and energy,’ he says.

He believes that the public is in the driving seat when it comes to this change in attitude, applying pressure to switch lights off. ’Turning lights off can be achieved by decreasing the number of light installations used in an area,’ says Nulty. ’Quality of light is more important than quantity, and helps increase the impact of an illuminated area.’

Lighting design’s biggest opportunity for decades lies in the fact that across the UK a lot of public street lighting is coming up for renewal. Installed in the mid-to-late 20th century to illuminate pedestrian walkways, the familiar bright orange sodium lights were designed as a purely functional part of our cities’ infrastructure.

Designers are now thinking of different ways to install public lighting systems – which may encompass public artworks, ground-level installations or lighting that is part of the fabric of buildings.

But Speirs & Major director Mark Major points out that changing the infrastructure already in place is complicated and expensive. ’Designers need to seek imaginative solutions, such as using the natural environment more,’ he says. Speirs & Major revamped the lighting at the Queen’s Walk on London’s South Bank, creating a haze of twinkly blue and white lights in the trees.

Likewise, Jason Bruges Studio completed an experimental lighting system in July this year, called Shortcut, for a public alleyway off Dover Street in London. Here, kinetic LED lighting recessed into the paving responds to the movement of pedestrians through the alley. ’The light increases in intensity as people pass, causing a rippling wave of light,’ says Bruges. ’It responds to different speeds, rhythms and concentrations of people, including a low brightness to save energy when no one is there.’

This wouldn’t have been possible without technological advances such as LEDs and motion sensing. ’LEDs are helping us to do things we have never done before,’ says Nulty. However, while this technology is being used more and more, it is not the only tool available, with halide, fluorescent and tungsten light sources remaining popular. Streatfield says, ’It is important to step back and not go overboard with LED technology – a lot of research still needs to happen to see what the best applications are.’

Designers are also using computer programming to create lights that respond to the environment. Speirs & Major designed a lighting concept for the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi in 2008 that alters the character of the building according to the lunar cycle of the moon. The mosque is bathed in white light during the full moon, which gradually shifts to a deeper blue as the moon wanes.

Just as the aesthetic and technical aspects of public lighting are changing, so is its function. Streatfield suggests that lighting should be implemented as wayfinding – helping the public navigate its way through a city. ’Public lighting need no longer be static and can be tailored to meet the changing needs of people,’ she says.

Light elicits emotional responses in humans, but without darkness its creation would be impossible. The Public, and now designers, are increasingly stressing the importance of switching lights off. After all, Kreukniet concludes, ’It’s arrogant to create lighting that is too copious.’

Visionary project
Canopy in Toronto, Canada
by United Visual Artists 2010

British-based collective United Visual Artists switched on Canopy – an interactive public lighting system in the city of Toronto, Canada – this week. Inspired by walking beneath a forest canopy of leaves, light and shadows play on the floor, reflecting the movement of dappled light above. The permanent installation, which is suspended above a public pathway, was commissioned by Public Art Management as part of the ongoing development of the city’s waterfront.

Canopy consists of 8000 identical polygonal modules, each representing an abstraction of a leaf, which reflect and refract both sunlight and artificial light. The 90m x 3m canvas of lights is programmed with D3 software, allowing it to recreate itself over time. It can also respond to many variables, including the time of day, seasonal changes and the patterns it creates.

’Canopy is a reflection of nature in an urban environment,’ says Ben Kreukniet of UVA. ’After dusk, particles of artificial light are born, navigate through the grid, then die. Their survival is determined by regions of energy sweeping across the structure. This ensures that the branches of light will always be different.’

Which location would you most like to design a lighting scheme for ?

Times Square, New York
Jason Bruges , Jason Bruges Studio

Trafalgar Square, London
Paul Nulty, Light Bureau

A quarry, the Arctic or space
Ben Kreukniet , United Visual Artists

Dingy toilets in London
Satu Streatfield , Speirs & Major

Sydney Harbour Bridge
Mark Major , Speirs & Major

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