“Hopefully, with dialog, we will free ourselves from the tyranny of uniform lux levels.”

Selected Excerpts from Abhay Wadhwa’s talk at ISOLA:

“How does light and lighting, through the filter of culture and climate, help in creating a sense of place? What we’re seeing is that the world is getting flattered by the day. We have been struggling with this topic because when I first started working internationally, it was clear to me very quickly that you couldn’t take North American/European systems of lighting and use them successfully in different climates and cultures because all the systems and standards that were developed initially were done when the markets were booming in Europe and North America. Since then, they haven’t been updated and no one has addressed the fact that people are not the same everywhere. There may be aspirational elements in play — Gurgaon wants to be Dubai, Dubai wants to be New York, and so on — which remain but it doesn’t really mean that we are all the same people.

I’m also often asked by other professionals and, more specifically, project management consultants, “What is the lux level on this project?” I’m referring back to the great poet who spoke yesterday, Mr. Ashok Vajpeyi. He talked about “the tyranny of uniformity.” He spoke about it from a landscape and cityscape standpoint, but I’m going to try to address them from lux levels. Hopefully, with dialog, we will free ourselves from the tyranny of uniform lux levels.

How did we get where we are? If I can’t deliver the light levels, it’s almost a reflection of my professional capability. Getting light levels is the easiest thing to do. You don’t need a human being; the software will do that for you. But, you have to understand how it all developed.

In the ’50s, after the Second World War, the popular adage was: “more light, better sight.” Most offices were lit to +1000 lux, which for the nonmetric is about 100 feet of candles. Then the OPEC crisis happened in 1973 and there was a re-examination of required light levels. Suddenly, people decided that 1000 lux was probably too much and that it could be reduced to 500 lux. The same people performing the same tasks in the same places were okay with half the light, without any problem. Then, in the ’80s and the ’90s, light levels were further reduced in offices to 300 lux. This topic was touched on in a 2008 article “Darkness: Basking in the Dimming of the Light” by Murray Whyte. He said that “some judicious use of shadow would help humanize our over-lit lives.” It’s a beautiful title and ideal. So, the popular sentiment now is that maybe we don’t need as much light and that we need to connect it to darkness and shadow because without that we’re over-indulging and light is not really reaching its true potential.

Let us take a moment to register how light has evolved from the ’30s —chasing away darkness, chasing away shadow, more light being more power because we could afford it — to the present where many of us would say, “You know what, it’s really over lit. Why do we need so much?”

When we were doing research, one of the things we discovered in the marketing circles was the Gartner Hype Cycle, which we found was really a tremendous tool to look at how light levels are adopted by a culture. When you have a technology trigger, there’s a peak of inflated expectations: everybody is buying the newest smartphone or everybody is buying the Chinese CFL in the ’90s, or everyone’s buying whatever else comes in for the first six months. Then, there is a trough of disillusionment because there are problems with the systems or other issues related to the new technology. Slowly, the product climbs back up to the slope of enlightenment to a plateau of productivity and stability. This was developed for technology but I think it’s true for pretty much everything in life.

If we tie this into architectural lighting, we create a similar diagram looking at the hype cycle as a cascade; it’s not a static wave because it is impacted by the differences within a country —different geographical parts, different types of people, different backgrounds, and juxtapositions. Within that, when it comes to lighting, there is a solution that is impacted by culture and climate. There is function, architecture, budget, and landscape and then there is an element of biophilia that relates to climate and a craft, skill, and scale that relates to culture.

What is culture? There are many different elements of culture. One example- a crass, simplified example of culture is the model that McDonald’s follows. At all their locations, their marketing people analyze the local culture and produce variations to the burger, or new dishes for the local culture. For example, in France, they don’t call them “french fries,” they call them “fried potatoes.” If you are in East Asia you can get a side of rice because that’s how they eat. So, there’s a global concept of a burger or fast food, and then it’s tweaked for the local variation. Is this a good thing? In some ways, it is respectful to the local culture to enhance their sales. And in the bigger picture, why should I have a burger in Paris or Hong Kong, where there are many other amazing culinary traditions?

Another example is symbolism with and in lighting. Almost every festival and every culture use light symbolically. There is the Obon Festival in Japan, Hanukkah, Loi Krathong in Thailand, Diwali in India, the Paper Lantern Festival in Singapore, Christmas at the Rockefeller Center, or Ramadan. In 1936, during Nazi propaganda rallies, they would use space cannon lights to create monumental pillars of light they called “Cathedrals of Light.” This is where Hitler would hold his rallies and this was his way of showing force by using light cannons. Albert Speer was the architect who did this and his son designed the Beijing promenade at the Beijing Olympics. In 2002 at the World Trade Center Ground Zero the same light cannons were used. The idea has been around for a long time, we just forget, conveniently and the design ego tells us, “Yay, we are the first ones,” but probably not.

There is a lot to learn from how cultures have actually analyzed light. We have used light in many of our projects to represent the culture of the project’s local environment. In Dubai, we developed the lighting design for the Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Crossing, a 200m-tall, a single-arch bridge where the lighting is done to reflect the cycles of the moon. The development of this approach and its connection to the Arabic culture helped the architecture team win the international competition to build the one-billion-dollar project.”

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