August 2009

The Nation Reviewed

City lights

By Alan Saunders
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“We’re in the renaissance period of artificial light at night,” says composer and light designer Mary-Anne Kyriakou. “If the city at night is only a place where people drink, what good is the city?”

On this warm June night, the crouching pug dog of a building that is the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney looks whimsical, playful and – well, downright interesting. Its usually bland stone façade has become the canvas for a constantly changing play of light: at one moment curvy and organic; then architectural and rectilinear; and suddenly a neat red-brick design emerges. This is, as Mary-Anne tells me, a “faux architectural expression of the building”. Darkness and shadow are part of the play, too: the whole building becoming more dominant on the skyline even though only part of it is lit.

I’m standing with a crowd of admiring onlookers, including a small group of architects and members of the city council. Mary-Anne, the young woman who is more or less responsible for what we’re enjoying, is here as well. She could be taken for a creature of the night herself with that raven hair and those black leather pants, but her dark eyes are appropriately bright with enthusiasm. She’s both founder and artistic director of Smart Light Sydney, a showcase of dynamic light sculptures that use smart technology. The idea for her artistic project came to her on a trip to the world’s largest light fair in Frankfurt.

Festivals of light are, of course, known in many cultures – Jewish Hanukkah and Hindu Deepavali being a couple of the brightest and biggest – but a light ‘fair’? Equally suited to the dark winter months, these fairs celebrate electric light rather than candles.

In his 2002 book, Architecture of the Night, Brown University academic Dietrich Neumann remarks that on special occasions in the pre-electric past, buildings were illuminated by fireworks, and towards the end of the eighteenth century St Peter’s in Rome was annually lit with oil lamps. It was electricity, however – first the incandescent bulb, then the floodlightthat brought us the light fair. In the 1920s, these were held all across Europe. Cities were transformed at night through communal and commercial lighting installations. It was a time of optimism: artists predicted the dawn of what Neumann calls “luminous urbanism”. The architecture of night would be a new art form: city lights would be scored as a nocturnal symphony and projected into the air above the rooftops. “Space–light architecture” would be born.

In Sydney today, light-art installations and sculptures are changing the way we can view our cities at night: the transformed Museum of Contemporary Art; the hugely popular luminescent cubes – children crawling all over them – in front of Customs House; the rainbow sandstone wall in the Rocks (a happening place to have your picture taken); and the Opera House, as illuminated by Brian Eno’s projections. But this, of course, is an issue that was long neglected in this country, where bedtime was too early and the centre of town too little regarded to matter very much.

A couple of weeks later I talk about this to Mary-Anne in the undifferentiated but not over-brilliant light of a bookshop café. Outside, the sources of light (I’m becoming sensitive to this now) are typically urban and jumbled: cars, shop windows, street lamps reflected by the wet road.

“I believe there is a real relationship between music and sight,” she says. “Both of these things are intangible.” In music, there is pitch; through sight, we detect brightness. Music can be staccato or legato, so too can light. Both require space – space to echo and resound, space to illuminate – and light is about the construction of space.

An intelligent approach to planning the light environment of our cities has to mean something other than the undifferentiated and often fluorescent glow in which we spend so much of our nocturnal lives: as I walk Mary-Anne to her car afterwards, she remarks on the 1970s ugliness of the lights under which it is parked. What we need are architects who think in terms of light as well as built form. As Neumann points out, light architecture is about more than the illumination of buildings: it is about the use of light to create architectural effects – something in which architects have not often been interested.

Perhaps, as Mary-Anne believes, we can learn from the stage: architectural lighting designers used to be snooty about theatre lighting but theatrical techniques can be used to express urban space.

There is an environmental, not to say political, context to all this. From November next year, you will no longer be able to buy an incandescent light bulb; you will have to say goodbye to light produced by the passage of electricity, and therefore of heat, through a thin filament. The cool alternative, the LED (Light Emitting Diode) lamp, offers intriguing possibilities: miniaturisation of the light source, directional light, safety, mood, contrast and colour. “It’s another way of communication after dark,” Mary-Anne tells me. “You get coloured shadows with LEDs.”

So we should see Smart Light Sydney less as an art exhibition and more as a showcase of nocturnal urban possibilities. “One thing the festival achieved is that people were aware of light,” Mary-Anne remarks. Being more aware of light, they became aware of the city as an accessible space, open to the whole family and not just to those in search of sex, drugs, drink and other midnight pleasures. “This is an important time we’re in right now,” she adds. “This is the beginning of the digital light movement.”

But can you have too much light in the city? One thinks of Las Vegas, where night is turned to day. Or Times Square in Manhattan, which was dark and threatening when I first went there in the early 1990s. Now, thanks to the Disney organisation and others, it is often brighter at midnight than at noon.

Mary-Anne has her doubts about such places. This is mall lighting, she says; she likes to shop but she doesn’t like malls with their carefully achieved lack of genuine daylight. Relative luminescence is important: you need to reduce the light to create contrast.

And what of the total absence of light, from which we all emerged into the world? Says Mary-Anne, “I love, love, love, love darkness.” She likes to go to the ocean at night to see where the sky and the sea blend into one. Grey meets black; black envelops us. Without the grey and the black, we could never learn to love the light.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

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