Cities shed artful light on the canvas of night
As lighting moves beyond its utilitarian role, urban planners are embracing it as a way to showcase a city's character.
Few art forms rival lighting – with its capacity to alter mood, focus attention, or invite wonder. For most of human history, illumination depended on a source of fire, and public lighting displays were as infrequent and fleeting as fireworks on the Fourth of July. Today, artists possess the technology to raise lighting to unprecedented levels, both in their art and in the streets.Skip to next paragraph
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Light serves a number of purposes, not the least of which is to enable us to move around safely at night. But after that basic requirement is met, artists have found themselves looking for new uses for light, whether in single installations or large-scale displays found in lighting festivals. Some have gone so far as to join with municipalities and urban planners to bring lighting design to the table, along with architecture, as a means of improving a city's character and livability.
"We're obsessed with lighting the horizontal plane because we view lighting as mostly functional, but rarely for the visual pleasure of the inhabitants," he writes in an e-mail. Such thinking moves lighting from an afterthought to a central role. Where once lighting was static and uniform, now it has the flexibility to set a mood or broadcast the city's identity across the skyline.
This holistic approach to illuminating cities has come to be known as a lighting master plan. While few cities outside Europe have a plan currently in place, the steps involved in creating one help officials evaluate how the layers of lighting – street-level, marquees and directional signage, and monuments or cultural landmarks – should work together and be energy efficient.
Often, the first glimmer of a future role for lighting design appears during a festival, such as those increasingly held around the world, particularly in December. The grand dame of all celebrations is the Festival des Lumières (Festival of Lights) held in Lyon, France, since 1850. What started with hundreds of flickering candles in windows has evolved into a four-day event that showcases the talents of dozens of international artists and brings 4 million visitors to the city.
At the Festival des Lumières, building facades become moveable feasts of color and familiar landmarks take on an animated aspect. Street performances and music round out the celebration, and people are seen strolling and admiring the magically transformed cityscape.
Lyon's experience with the festival carries over into an advisory role to other cities. In 2002, an association was formed to connect professionals and others interested in bringing coherence to urban planning, called LUCI (Lighting Urban Community International). Today, LUCI counts about 60 member cities; nearly 20 of them host some kind of festival.
"A light festival is easier to promote than a [lighting] master plan," says Alexandre Colombani, general manager of LUCI. A plan often requires considerable effort and money to launch, and once it's in place, it may be invisible to the average citizen.
An example of a master plan on a smaller scale can be seen in the Quartier des Spectacles in Montreal, Quebec, where the city has harnessed the power of light to create a distinct identity for an arts and cultural district.
"We are looking to brand a territory," says Frédéric Bove, manager of the master plan. "We do this on a double level: a lighting signature [a carpet of red dots on the pavement to show the way] and architectural lighting that enhances a facade and reveals the activity within." The lighting is never the same twice, and can be programmed for a particular moment, such as when the theater lets out, to guide patrons to a nearby restaurant or attraction.