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.
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Such sophisticated lighting schemes are possible because of advances in technologies such as LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and especially electronic controls. Sensors can transmit information from a variety of stimuli: the motion of pedestrian and vehicle traffic, ocean tides, weather, and the passing of time.Skip to next paragraph
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"People enjoy having light follow them as they walk," says Leni Schwendinger of Light Projects Ltd. in New York. "There's a one-on-one interaction." But to take lighting to the next level, "the light can't just be sympathetic, it has to be contrapuntal," she says. Think of light as music, with the simplest formula being one step equals one melody, as opposed to the more complex musical notion of counterpoint, in which additional melodies come in above or below the existing melody, as in a Bach canon. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Ms. Schwendinger's last name.]
Light as it's generally used lacks this type of nuance.
"Cities are expanding, so that the city edge, which was once oriented toward industry or transportation, is now in the center," says Ms. Schwendinger. "We're brought in to humanize sites that are neglected, to make them more friendly and, hopefully, more provocative."
She recently completed a large-scale, permanent installation for New York's Port Authority bus terminal, called "Triple Bridge Gateway." The terminal, which is the largest bus station in the United States and serves about 55 million riders a year, uses a system of ramps to move buses and people. Cars drive under these ramps, which were once a no man's land of ugly metal I-beams. Schwendinger designed a colored lighting pattern on metal mesh that not only illuminates the underside of the terminal, but also projects patterns onto the street below. The result is a kaleidoscope of colors that transforms the terminal and reconnects two Manhattan neighborhoods.
Not everyone agrees that colorful lighting displays improve a city. "Just because we have LEDs in all the colors of the rainbow, does that mean we have to use them?" asks Pete Strasser, managing director of Dark Skies, a group in Tucson, Ariz., that advocates reducing light pollution. He quotes detractors who call such lighting designs "spilled Kool-Aid." Instead, he supports architectural lighting that reveals a building's features in a subtle way. "It's appropriate for cities to take pride in their buildings, but the structures don't have to be lit all night, they can be dimmed," he adds.
Artists see their role as reengaging people with their cities. "The surprising factor is that the US is still discovering this tool," says Lucette de Rugy, a French lighting designer in New York whose company, Art Lumière, has applied a painterly touch to facades from Geneva to Dallas. While a number of American cities host light festivals, the idea of reinvigorating downtowns or shopping districts with light has not really caught on yet.
Schwendinger sees this attitude shifting. "The field of lighting design is still in its adolescence," she says. More designers need to understand the process and work with municipal officials and architects to frame a shared vision of what cities can offer their citizens after dark. "There are as many shades of night as there are of daylight," she says.