Lumitecture: Innovations in Architectural Lighting

This feature can be read in the February / March 2016 issue of Aesthetica Magazine.

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In Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 film Pierrot Le Fou, a famous sequence depicts a party in different coloured lights. Walking from room to room, the protagonist Pierrot witnesses a couple kiss under jaundiced yellow; as a woman leans to light a cigarette, the screen flickers from blue to green. Conversation is limited to commercial jargon: men in red talk about cars, women in blue talk about beauty products. The host has used interior lighting to express individuality, but the use of block colour is strangely stultifying – each scene is wholly unoriginal. It’s at this point that Pierrot knows he has to leave.

The sequence indicates a new awareness of lighting design which emerged during the 1960s. In the 1950s the designer Richard Kelly transformed the practice of architectural lighting from a matter of engineering to an art of scene-setting; a decade later, his theories of “focal glow”, “ambient luminescence” and “play of brilliants” were entering private homes. Meanwhile, artists such as Doug Wheeler, Larry Bell and Robert Irwin pioneered the Light and Space movement in Southern California, adopting the technology of the engineering and aerospace industries to create sensory installations. However, the more progressive attitudes towards light were scattered and rarefied. Pierrot le Fou cast a cynical eye on contemporary lighting design, dismissing it as a luxury for the rich and little more than a gimmick.

A new book about architectural lighting, Lumitecture by Anna Yudina, reveals how far we’ve come since the 1960s. Yudina, a writer and curator based in Paris, selects 200 examples which demonstrate what she describes as an “evolutionary leap” in lighting, ranging from practical design solutions to installations which question our perception of physical reality. Recent developments in LED technology have allowed architects to incorporate smaller and more efficient light sources, removing the need for a rigid infrastructure and expanding the possibilities for experimentation.  As systems become ever more immersive and interactive we are invited not only to see, but to inhabit the space around us – instead of being used simply to model a space, light is being applied as a building material in its own right. Above all, the emphasis is on the experiential. Whether a room of twilight or soap-bubble lampshade ready to pop, each project in the book enacts the Japanese concept of akari: light as a sensual, emotive force.

It all starts with the self. Plato’s theory of Optics was based on the idea that sight was the result of rays emitted from the eyes, and medieval poets believed that a lover’s gaze radiated laser-like beams of attraction. Today, presence detectors and motion-tracking software place the individual at the centre of their own light source, a means of conserving energy whilst creating dynamic effects. In their design for the stairways of London’s St Botolph’s Building, the lighting experts Speirs + Major worked in collaboration with Grimshaw Architects to create a system which would respond to the needs of the individual whilst impacting the building as a whole. Lighting levels boost to accompany the movement of office workers up and down stairs, animating the building’s façade with a subtle play of light throughout night and day. St Botolph’s Building could be seen as the workaday version of Random International’s responsive light sculptures, and the same culture of sleepless activity is suggested by Regent Lighting’s therapeutic solution for lonely employees. Alone at Work transforms solitary islands of light into an archipelago of illumination across the office, using an opto-electronic connection to create the effect of companionship.

Le Corbusier wrote in his diaries that lighting should “create ambiance and feel of a place, as well as the expression of a structure that houses the functions within it and around it”. The contemporary interpretation of Le Corbusier’s principle places the individual as the hypersensitive centre of an equally intuitive environment, creating dynamic interior layouts where light, mood and function are seamlessly integrated.

Innovations such as light-emitting glass and concrete allow light to embody material form, and designers are using projections and precisely controlled LEDs to create new volumes and textures. Some of the most inventive approaches to spatial layout arise as a solution to practical problems. This is demonstrated in the architect Nicolas Dorval-Bory’s unusual structuring principle for his Spectral Apartment, a “bipolar” layout based on the Colour Rendering Index (CRI). To offset a lack of natural light, the interior is split according need to accurately distinguish colours: the kitchen and living room are lit with fluorescent tubes emitting a high CRI light for maximum colour reception, while low CRI sodium lamps provide a warmer glow in the bedroom and bathroom.

The architect Philippe Rahm goes one step further in his design for a space structured according to the body’s response to different coloured light. His Split Times Café brings to mind Pierrot’s colour scheme, with three glass zones designating different physiological environments and functions. While the clear glass zone acts as a “control”, the blue glass creates a sensation of perpetual day by causing the body to block the sleep hormone melatonin. The yellow room stimulates the release of melatonin, and visitors take advantage of the comfortable seating to sit and doze. Other projects focus on mastering the effects of artificial daylight. The designer Daniel Rybakken has undertaken a number of experiments to recreate the appearance of a shard of sunlight on a wall or floor, and the physicist Paolo Di Trapani has invented an artificial skylight for windowless rooms. His CoeLux system uses LEDs to precisely replicate the subtle details which signify the outdoors – the deep blue of the sky, for instance, and the scattering of light which occurs in the atmosphere.

In keeping with the principle of a self-orientated space, designs for individual light fixtures have a custom-made aesthetic and an emphasis on adaptability. The Mono-Light system by the Dutch design studio OS&OOS uses siliconfoam tubing to create flexible, luminous chains which can be bent or contorted into any spacial situation, and Alex Schulz’s Anytime trasforms a wardrobe into a giant, floor-lit lampshade. Statement pieces such as Studio Drift’s exquisite dandelion chandeliers show a tendency for theatrics, but some of the most impressive designs are the most understated. Paul Cocksedge’s Capture is a bowl of pure light powered by concealed LEDs, and Brian Richer’s wireless fluorescent tubes hint towards the lighting of the future – although, as yet, they can’t be held more than a few inches away from the base which contains the circuit. David Groppi represents an ultra-minimalist school of thought which seeks to remove the light fixture completely. His Nulla appears as little more than a hole in the ceiling, a case of “designing the light and not the lamp”.

These are designs made for multitasking modern lives, providing efficient solutions which fit to function. Artists, on the other hand, prefer to use light to push the boundaries of perception. The success of Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project at Tate Modern relied on the desire of the audience to bask in the illusion, whereas other artworks are activated by the viewer’s curiosity. The luminous pyramids of Anthony McCall’s Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture invite the viewer to break and enter; some oblige, others prefer to stand outside or touch the curved surface with their fingertips. In the installation Vanishing Point, United Visual Artists used programmed laser beams to create “perspective drawings” in a darkened room, constructing an architectural blueprint for the viewer to walk through. In the words of UVA’s Tiemen Rapati, “what interests us is where the programmable and the real come together […] Light is ultimately controllable and you can use it to create anything you want, but it also has a very physical, very visceral attraction.”

With controllability, comes freedom. The LED originally liberated designers from the binary tyranny of the on-off switch, creating what the architect Carlo Ratti has described as “infinite gradients in space and time”. “Pixels will soon be liberated from screens to become tangible and controllable light particles,” he foresees, “with the capacity to create […] three-dimensional displays, atomised and diffused into air”. The idea brings to mind Picasso’s light drawings, the extraordinary scenes captured by the photographer Gjon Mili in 1949. Sweeping through the air with a small electric light, Picasso scrawled centaurs, bulls, leaping gods and a vase full of flowers. Mili used an open shutter technique to represent Picasso’s movements as luminous line drawings: behind these airbourne neons the artist appears as agile as an athlete.

These drawings explode the cliché of the “lightbulb moment” – the genius makes his mark on the air with defiant wit. Yet there’s something hubristic in the tendency to see light as a medium to be skilfully manipulated. In his 1933 essay In Praise of Shadows, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki lamented the lack of nuance in the Western obsession with illumination, stating “we [the Japanese] do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance”. That aesthetic is demonstrated in Tokujin Yoshioka’s Twilight, an immersive installation created in response to the Japanese earthquake and tsunami of 2011. By projecting rays of light through a thick white mist, Yoshioka creates a meditative space of uneasy beauty; denied choice or control, the viewer is offered the infinite possibilities of ambiguity.

Our reactions to light are fundamentally different from what they were 10 years ago. A significant proportion of our exposure to light comes from the screens which attract, absorb and sap our attention, and a flashing LED on a smartphone is now even more compelling than a vibration or a sonic blip. We have learnt to associate light with communication, and lighting design has evolved simultaneously to emphasise features of connectedness and activity. Where will Lumitecture go next? “The immediate future of lighting design will be in the further development of LEDs”, says Anna Yudina, “we’ll see systems which are ever more compact, flexible and efficient. Alternative light sources will also be important, such as the use of bioluminescence and electroluminescent organic material – the oLED is a startpoint”. However, perhaps the most radical change would result from a renewed appreciation of darkness and shadows. In its capacity to shape or be sculpted, the medium of light acquires an alluring tangibility. And yet the most intriguing examples of lighting design refuse to let the viewer equate light with understanding: instead of confirming our world view, they reintroduce mystery into our ways of seeing. As Oscar Wilde put it, “the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”.

Lumitecture by Anna Yudina will be published on 29 February by Thames & Hudson.

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