PERSPECTIVES ON LIGHT (Essay Series 3.1)

PERSPECTIVES ON LIGHT (Essay Series 3.1)


“Light in a space is easily understood when seen as the colloquial paintbrush, revealing and hiding elements in a space for comfort, productivity, safety, and an appropriate ambiance. In that way, lighting can be appropriately referred to as the art of revealment and concealment.”


I gave myself an assignment: to draw a picture that demonstrates light. You say that the white piece of paper is the illustration; what else is there to do? But when I put a stroke of ink on the paper, I realized that the black was where the light was not, and then I could really make a drawing, because I could be discerning as to where the light was not, which was where I put the black. Then the picture became absolutely luminous.

-Louis Kahn


The shadows are a condensation of something that exists in more dimensions … behind them, there can be an awful lot going on. And what is more, because it was there all along to be seen and yet was not, we are left to wonder what else we may be missing.

-Larry Kagan


With Caravaggio, light isolates; it creates neither space nor atmosphere. Darkness in his pictures is something negative; darkness is where light is not, and it is for this reason that light
strikes upon his figures and objects as upon solid, impenetrable forms, and does not dissolve them, as happens in the work of Titian, Tintoretto, and Rembrandt.

-Rudolf Wittkower


When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty … but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

-R. Buckminster Fuller


Actual space of a room could be broken down and played with by planting illusions of real light (electric light) at crucial junctures in the room’s composition.

-Dan Flavin


And yet so far as I know the West has never been disposed to delight in shadows. Japanese ghosts have traditionally had no feet: Western ghosts have feet but are transparent. As even this trifle suggests, pith darkness has always occupied our fantasies, while in the West even
ghosts are as clear as glass.

-Jun’ichiro Tanizaki


OVER THE PAST 20 YEARS

In the last 20 years, several people have looked at redefining light either through the development and adaptation of old ideologies or through the development of new theories on light. Here are excerpts from an essay I wrote in 1997 for a prominent lighting design journal:

“Light facilitates illumination and plays the role of an intermediary in making the world around us visible. Light is a form of electromagnetic energy to which the organs of sight react; it aids in seeing and recognition of people and places. I perceive light as a diaphanous unifying medium; a medium with a certain volume; a medium with a certain porosity that fills the space. Some of it you can walk through and we call that ambient light, while the other type creates boundaries and edges that define a space. It is like luminous clay; to be sculpted and colored for art, and then diagnosed and modified for function. Light is the medium, while lighting is a concept and a point of view. Light is the means to an end; lighting is the vehicle for these means, and the truthfulness of creation and sincerity to the space lit is the final goal. Light and space are mutually dependent — one cannot exist without another. Light in space is easily understood when seen as the colloquial paintbrush, revealing and hiding elements in space for comfort, productivity, safety, and an appropriate ambiance. In that way, lighting can be appropriately referred to as the art of revealment and concealment.”

Murray Whyte is a contemporary journalist from Canada, reflecting on our zeitgeist. He published an article in 2008 entitled “Darkness: Basking in the Dimming of the Light,” which looked at how we perceive our environments as spaces of light, shadow, and darkness. In the article, Whyte gives examples from Toronto where he critiques the existence of the after dark world in modern society. Whyte paints a picture of Yonge Dundas Square as blanketed by billboard televisions and flashing lights atop every building, in which it is impossible to escape what he calls “the tyranny of light.” Whyte makes it clear that he is not critiquing the commercialization of public spaces, but rather the physiological effect that results from the influx of light. In noting that we have only mastered light in the last century, Whyte makes some interesting points on how light has gone from a resource to present certainty, that not only as long ago as the era of J. Edgar Hoover were industrialists promoting the expansion of light in an effort to make streets safe. “American ingenuity and productive geniuses have provided the means of eliminating darkness from our streets, parks, playgrounds, and other public places.” Whyte points out that during this period of literal “enlightenment,” darkness was treated as a source of danger and evil like never before.


Our industrial and technological strength exerted itself thoroughly through the implementation of not only light but the perpetuation of the fear of darkness. Hoover was not alone in his ideology during this period as Whyte points out, citing humanist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s perspective on the issue through the decisive statement;

“There is no more night.” 


Whyte critiques the views of Hoover and Emerson in their lack of appreciation for the subtlety of shadow, while also accepting that they were simply conforming to the popular ideology of the time that was developed from a standing perspective on the binary of good and evil as light versus dark. Whyte also refers to the effects that the predisposition towards light and dark have on color. He mentions the relationship between “dark” and “black,” and “light” and “white,” and how the good/evil binary follows suit with a particularly humorous reference to Darth Vader’s characterization from the Star Wars films — noting that he “didn’t wear black because he found it slimming.”

“American ingenuity and productive geniuses have provided the means of eliminating darkness from our streets, parks, playgrounds, and other public places.” and how the good/evil binary follows suit with a particularly humorous reference to Darth Vader’s characterization from the Star Wars films — noting that he “didn’t wear black because he found it slimming.” 

In judging the characteristics of our environment, Whyte’s critique of light moves into the residential market as well, as he looks at how we interact with light within our homes. He notes that we use light to erode barriers of time; we are no longer bound by the hours of the daylight to complete our tasks. In reality, we are a society of nocturnal creatures, existing in both light and dark as we please.


“We flood every street in phosphorescence; flood our homes and offices with a bright wash. We carve our way through the streets with halogen headlights blazing, the hour of the day providing no barrier to movement. In the face of our heavy technology-convenient culture, darkness has lost its malevolent heft, demoted to a manageable annoyance.”

We control our light with force. Since the beginning of our ability to control light, we have sought more and more control: from being able to simply start a fire, to be able to measure the intensity of the light emitting from our iPhone screens, our desire to manipulate light becomes ever narrower.


“We are a society of light-addled control freaks. And what a shame that is. The dark is, by nature, intimate and mysterious, shadows providing moody cover for secrets and rites. It is not simply cover for criminal intent. The dark can be a fertile space. And it’s our natural state, after all, once the sun goes down — something we’ve made a little too easy to forget.”

Whyte also questions the reality of our fears, noting the positives that come from experiences in the shadows or dark. He paints a picture of a pleasurable experience with friends by candlelight, or underneath the stars; he denotes a certain romantic quality that rises from the privacy given by shadow and the isolation that is acquired or shared by partners in closed environments.

“Front yard dinner parties, lit by candlelight. Legions of moonlight strollers meandering the blackened city streets. Who had ever seen a sky so full of stars in downtown Toronto? And who among us all wasn’t happy to see it? By the time it ended, we were sorry to see it go. But it was a valuable insight into the darkness we’ve worked so hard to eliminate. In the end, it posed a question:

At the end of this, what are we really afraid of? This is not to suggest that a return to pure darkness is a reasonable plan, but some judicious use of shadow would help humanize our over-lit lives.”

Perfect Accent By AWA Lighting Designers


Whyte hits the nail on the head here in his interpretation of shadow and darkness in the use of the term “judicious”. Whyte’s critique is not about favoring the absolute or “necessary” introduction of darkness, but rather the development of an intelligent measure of shadow. By engaging more with our environment in regard to the natural state of light, Whyte puts forward an agenda that requests a more tempered approach. While Whyte’s critique features a great deal of theological interest, he remains outside of the industry as a journalist. From inside the industry, few have had as great an impact as Christopher Cuttle, an architectural lighting designer who has written several books on lighting theory.


One of Cuttle’s first books, entitled Light for Art’s Sake (2007) looked at lighting in museums, with particular focus on the potential damage that light can cause to the exhibits. Cuttle’s work is a critique of light, as well as an understanding of the paradox of light and darkness. Within the museum, light is needed to see the exhibits, but beyond that, light is required in a certain manner to highlight and influence the perspectives of what we see. In applying this light, Cuttle argues that lighting designers must be careful not to cause ill-effects toward the artwork. In his most recent book, Lighting by Design (2008), Cuttle puts forward a new approach toward lighting that is much more about design and careful technique than simple illumination. Utilizing theories put forward by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, Cuttle explores the role of shadow and darkness from a more physiological perspective. Cuttle begins by introducing the three main aspects of his design methodology: observation, visualization, and realization. In his section about observation, Cuttle explores the relationship between architecture and light as they manifest together in space. He notes that people tend to appreciate architecture as they appreciate space but that they rarely associate those same spaces with light. He doesn’t critique the hierarchy, merely mentions it as a part of the process of designing light. Through visualization, Cuttle displays how designers can create freely the experience of lighting as a mental image. The designer’s ability to visualize space in this manner is a primary skill. As he moves through to realization, Cuttle states that lighting designs manifest concepts through technical specification. He talks of the leap between the cerebral and the mechanical and that during this process, the designer must not lose sight of “the principle that what matters is what can be seen to make a difference.” Lastly, Cuttle looks toward realization, in which the processes of observation and visualization converge, utilizing technical specification to manifest a design into reality. Cuttle calls this process “the leap from the cerebral to the technical,” and issues that in creating technical specifications for clients, the designer may promise: “Install this equipment in accordance with these instructions and you will have the lighting that I have described to you.” Informing technical specifications, no matter how perfect or simple the communication may seem, there will always be complications in creating a design. The designer must be able to adapt and work through these complications. Lighting by Design does put forward a new perspective in the designing of light and provides a strong methodology for any designer wishing to learn new approaches to the practice.

“Within the museum, light is needed to see the exhibits, but beyond that, light is required in a certain manner to highlight and influence the perspectives of what we see.”

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