Night lights

We spoke to Arup lighting designer Leni Schwendinger about nighttime light and cities.


You’ve spoken about the importance of taking lighting design into realms of art and urbanism. What does that mean to you?

I’m almost exclusively interested in outdoor public space. I have a very strong sensibility of the sidewalks and the streets being ours, all the beauty and ugliness — the infrastructure, the buildings, the public services, the streets, the crosswalks.

Generally, when people think of urban design and architecture they think of the daytime. Most renderings and proposals are shown in daylight. Focusing on the after-dark hours is new.

Generally, when people think of urban design and architecture they think of the daytime

What are we doing in public space at night? That question has many important implications. In terms of public health, it has to do with walking, which is an important focus today. And mental health: interacting with a variety of people in the evening. In many other cultures, public space at night is about the promenade, bumping into your neighbors, meeting strangers and encountering new things and places. Being in public space is so much different than being in your private living room, for example. The use of public space at night is also about economic vitality: people frequenting little shops and restaurants and cultural venues. And safety, which is basically a circular issue: the more people on the street, the safer it is, really.

Artistic approaches increase welcome and interest. In other words, how are we going to invite people into these nighttime streets? Nighttime hours are discretionary, unless you’re a night worker. It’s the time you can choose what to do for yourself. My idea is to create interesting and creative environments with light and materials that are active, sometimes interactive. Work that is more thoughtful and more interesting, more provocative; something you can take home to the dinner table, something that you can talk about at work, something you’ve never seen before that you’d like to know more about.

Can you give an example of a project you’ve worked on that you’ve felt was successful in this respect?

I like using the example of Dreaming in Color, located at the Seattle Center campus. It’s a series of nine large-scale scrims that are lit in color, over time, with four melodies for the eyes, as we called them. They’re composed using a musical score approach.

People have changed their route through the Center to traverse this three-dimensional color-field environment. As it was commissioned, people arrived with evening picnics to sit in the light. The light is immersive of people as well as the scrims above. So it’s very active.

Can you tell me about the night walks you lead?

I invented the NightSeeing, Navigate Your Luminous City program for Designing Urban Nighttime Environments, a class I was teaching at Parsons. Tours generally are planned around destinations. In contrast, the NightSeeing program celebrates the vernacular night, the existing textures of the darkened hours. It’s like a treasure hunt, looking for shadow and light: the gleams off the cars’ fenders, the reflection in a puddle with a big building crane beyond, as well as beautifully designed projects like the Empire State Building or some wonderful new bridge.


An educator once observed on one of these walks, “You’re activating prior knowledge!” Which means vocalizing principles and observations and knowledge that people already have: “Of course I see that bright light, of course I see that shadow, but I didn’t know I saw it.” Apparently it’s a deeper way of learning.

As you lead the walk, do you discuss the technical aspects of the lighting, or the affective aspects?

It’s a little like performance art, because I kind of run from one thing to the next. So it’s, “Oh, look at that streetlight! It’s a new one, it’s an LED, now what do we think of it? Oh, look at that little shadow! Look how they overlap like a Jackson Pollack painting.” And then I have a funny little old-fashioned megaphone I use. I can hand it to locals and say, “What do you now about that, or how long has that been there?”

The LightWalk is a dramatic move through the night. It’s a 10-minute normal stroll that takes an hour to complete. And then depending on the participants, depending on the questions, I might be more or less technical. I usually have a plant in the audience with a light meter, or I’ll bring my own.

People get to know each other. There was one I did in Berlin recently where some long-lost cousins bumped into each other, and then they called someone’s mom in the US. So it’s as much kind of a social connector as it is a learning experience.

And of course the subtext is to enable communities to express what they feel and see and give input on masterplanning — and perhaps make more demands on agencies and utilities to increase the effectiveness of illumination in their neighborhoods.

And this is going on at London at the end of the month.

NightSeeing Canning Town is scheduled with London’s first light festival. The tour will pass building sites, underpasses, an alternative art space, and we’ll end up at art-light installations. We will contrast creative installations with the plain vanilla night.

There’s a great BBC radio documentary about Lagos’ attempt to bring streetlights to the city.

That’s interesting. One of my lifetime goals is to visit each of the 26 megacities and do a light walk in each of them. It’s most meaningful to conduct NightSeeing as part of a wider planning project. For example, I led a walk in Seattle for an alleyway district initiative.

Also, the globe is urbanizing and night safety is an important issue. In some cultures women are unable to go out at night at all. There’s often a lot of press at these events, so it gives a kind of pivot point for organizers – non-profits, NGOs – to use for their own purposes.

So you’re trying to make people understand how outdoor urban lighting is relevant to their lives.

Yeah. I’m trying to frame it in ways other than just technical, and more really about the night than lighting. It’s more than just street lighting or the technologies.

Are there any cities or places in the world where you think the night lighting is really spectacular or adds particularly to community vitality?

Hmm. Paris was the first city of light. I think it’s changed, but I really liked the traditional glowy, soft lighting of Paris. And it’s still just so exciting. In Paris the legibility of the city after dark is clearly defined by light, whether its little string-lights on a narrow alley or the Eiffel Tower in the distance or some wonderfully lit-up shop fronts. It’s really part of the, let’s say, joie de vivre of Paris at night.

As modern technologies develop they are not as optically optimized as we’d like. They’re a bit glarey, the LEDs. I believe they are the future: they’re miniaturized, they take less energy. There are lots of reasons to love LED. But the quality of light isn’t quite there yet. Although it is getting better, owners are jumping on the bandwagon and buying lots of LED lights, which are quite expensive on the capital side, and creating more glare than glow.

Some cities are overlit. I gave a talk once about color in Guangzhou and LED. A young woman got up and said, “We have color pollution here! What should we do?” And I thought, “Oh my goodness, you’re right!” I said, “Just like I did here today, you have to educate your clients.”

A color palette that’s very specific is the objective. Three to five colors that work together in a very particular way is much better, rather than the 16-million colors you can get from an LED. It’s a little like when computer graphics first came out; there was a huge wave of experimentation and trying things just because you could. You know, every font in one sentence, every background you could possibly do.

People are playing, but without much critical facility. Which is another reason for the NightSeeing: to invoke a language of light on a higher level of discussion.

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