Lighting in the Townscape
Pirelli Garden, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
When it comes to exterior lighting, the first question that people
still quite justifiably ask us is why light at all? With the exception
of street lighting, is not most exterior lighting a decorative indulgence,
consuming valuable energy resources and offering the constant danger
of glare and 'light pollution'? The answer is firstly that it is
only badly-designed lighting that puts light where it is not wanted
and wastes energy unnecessarily. Better designed lighting is the
solution, rather than no lighting at all. Secondly, imagine how
drab, depressing and visually uncomfortable our towns and cities
would be, if they were only lit by functional, statutory road lamps.
Conventional municipal road lighting is designed primarily for vehicle
visibility and is most inimical to the rest of the environment.
In many cases, pavements and building facades remain unlit or poorly
illuminated; and in Britain, predominantly high pressure sodium
road-lamps (and even worse the older low pressure sodium type) bathe
everything around them in an undifferentiated orange pallor, with
heavy downward shadows and little or no colour discrimination.
By contrast, good exterior and area lighting can play a hugely positive
role in the way people feel about their environment: it can reveal
and enhance our buildings aesthetically, improve our sense of local
identity, safety and civic pride; and make people more willing to
use the streets, squares and parks after dark, thus boosting an
area's night-time use and commercial viability. For all these reasons
it is generally accepted that effective, varied lighting of buildings
and townscapes, both public and private, is a sound investment that
well justifies the relatively small capital and energy costs involved.
Of course, for better or worse, many individual buildings, both historic
and modern, are already illuminated. But most schemes are still
high on light quantity and low on designed quality. Ninety per cent
of exterior schemes are created and executed by non-lighting design
specialists. The result is most often the dreaded orange splodge
effect, with widely spaced, wide-angle, high-pressure sodium floods
located along the facade at ground level, giving an intense, undifferentiated
orange wash to the whole building, flattening out the structural
details and probably dazzling half the neighbourhood. Cheap it may
be, cheerful it is not. Even where luminaires are mounted on the
building as uplighters, they are invariably too powerful, so you
get blinding 'hot spots', or a light pattern which is unrelated
to the architectural form of the building. Public houses around
the country are major offenders.
By contrast, using the most modern sources, luminaires and control-systems,
specialist practices like LDP and others have developed several
sound tenets of contemporary lighting design in recent years, based
around tight control, precise application, colour contrast and respect
for the architecture. The aim is to use lighting to enable the character
of a building or townscape to be 'read' after dark, not obliterated
Today, a new generation of smaller, lower wattage light sources and more
precise optics, mean that energy-efficient illumination can now
be applied in more discrete 'brush-strokes'. Hopefully too, that
awful word 'floodlighting', which has done so much to damage the
cause of lighting design through its 'loads-o'-light' connotations,
can be banished from the language.
For a lighting scheme to be successful, we need to understand the way
in which the architecture - including buildings and townscape features
- affect the character of the external space which we occupy. A
well designed scheme can be fun, drawing attention to key elements
and developing a new character to the space, or it can be modest,
in sympathy with the existing architecture. In both cases shadows
and darkness are as important as light.
The character of a building may be considered to be the product of its
form and the modelling of its form into vertical and horizontal
elements; the composition of its primary features, such as doors,
windows and the roof-line; and the detailing of decorative components
such as cornices, pediments as well as the primary features. By
day these elements are emphasised by shadow, surface texture and
colour; but by night they may be lost in darkness or in the general
flatness caused by a blanket of light.
One approach is to light only the most interesting features of a facade:
after all, why draw attention to the boring bits? Cornices, windows,
doorways, columns and so on can be picked out with small, narrow-beam,
close-set luminaires, leaving the rest in relative darkness. As
well as enhancing the architectural form, this largely avoids glare
to users and visitors. The lighting of the Pirelli Garden facade
of the Victoria and Albert Museum demonstrates this well: the upper
window niches are lit from within by low voltage tungsten halogen;
while the prominent barrel vaults are picked out with hidden fluorescent
strips; and the columns are gently uplit by tungsten spots on clamps,
so as not to damage the brickwork. In addition, the three roof-top
statues, the pediment and the window reveals are highlighted by
narrow-beam spotlights located on the other side of the courtyard.
Another innovation of recent years is the use of contrasting, differing
colour temperature beams, made possible by the increased reliability
and range of wattage of modern sodium and HID metal halide lamps.
The broader colour temperature 'palette' available today allows
different building materials, such as granite, steel or sandstone
for example, to be given the most appropriate treatment. Rather
than negating the fabric's intrinsic colour and textural properties,
lighting can actually enhance them.
need for an uncluttered daytime appearance has also led to the development
of far less obtrusive equipment, such as recessed, 'direct burial'
spotlights which can be hidden below ground. The size, siting and
colour of all fixtures need to be considered carefully, including
the wiring, particularly where historic buildings and townscapes
lighting of individual features and buildings cannot be considered
in isolation from their surroundings: even the most sensitively
lit schemes can be drowned out by crass lighting next door. The
award-winning lighting scheme for the Palace Theatre in Cambridge
Circus, for example, is now marred by the gross over-lighting of
a public house just to the north. All exterior lighting takes place
in a context. Certainly the spaces between buildings need consideration
too, if illuminated townscape elements are not to appear as a collection
of miscellaneous bright spots. Increasingly amenity and pedestrian
lighting of various kinds is used to link together the night-time
environment and give it an overall coherence.
Just as the character of a facade is the product of its form, features
and details, so too is the character of the townscape as a whole.
Areas and features need to be brightly illuminated and others need
to have a lower level of illumination, in order to create a sense
of the modelling and form which gives the place its character by
day. Key features which form a cohesive focal point to the landscape
by day may become invisible at night, and the sense of structure
may be lost.
combat the growing problem of 'light wars' between commercial properties,
to instil an overall civic 'look' to the urban night-scape and to
reduce 'light pollution' in general, several local authorities have
recently commissioned city-wide lighting plans. Their aim is to
integrate all forms of urban lighting in a co-ordinated way. Plans
are generally based on assessments of different areas' commercial
and historic significance and the form and character of its architecture
among other criteria. Advisory recommendations are then laid down
for preferred lamp type and luminous intensity in particular zones.
local authorities have introduced plans already, including the influential
Edinburgh 'Lighting Vision' (now partially implemented) and other
examples include Leeds, St Andrews and Londonderry. The proposal
to develop a plan for Stratford in East London demonstrates that
such co-ordinated lighting treatments do not have to be confined
to high-profile urban centres or historic tourist locations. In
this 'City Challenge' site, comprising both a conservation area
and new build development, a co-ordinated lighting treatment (including
street and amenity lighting) is used to link the disparate building
elements within the town centre into a cohesive whole. Interestingly,
the main lit elements to have been carried out to date affect an
unglamorous office-block and a multi-storey car-park.
Britain one of the most impressive European urban lighting strategies
to date was developed by the city of Lyon in France, where over
the last five years there has been an explosion of creative lighting
applications, encouraged and co-ordinated by the local authority.
The key to its success was a broad 'loose fit' plan, subsidies for
capital investment in new equipment, and the genuine involvement
of local businesses and communities in the evolution of lighting
schemes for particular locales or sites of interest. Several innovative
lighting techniques were developed: for example, 'blue' mercury
road lighting for through routes and orange-tinted sodium for secondary
roads, give a real sense of hierarchy and order to the night-scape.
a similar fashion, the Edinburgh scheme incorporated an appropriately
'warm' lighting treatment for the old town along the Castle ridge;
while the geometric streets and squares of the Georgian 'new town'
area were given a 'cooler', more rational lighting ambience. Even
more recently, in a scheme for Trafalgar Square which was 'switched
on' last November, contrasting lighting treatments were used to
differentiate pedestrian areas, roadways and architectural elements.
At the same time the building facades on three sides of the square
were given an integrated night-time appearance they have never had
in the absence of city-wide consensus - and in the face of intransigent
building-owners happy to blast their buildings with ill-designed
lighting schemes - any plan needs regulatory teeth. Some form of
planning control on lighting, backed up by ongoing advice and education,
must come soon. Ideally each town or city would have a specialist
lighting manager, whose job it would be to oversee the introduction
of a co-ordinated approach, and to work with architects, designers,
road lighting engineers and building owners, to improve the quality
of schemes. Lighting design is no longer a private issue; it's a
matter of civic and environmental importance to all of us.
This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 1996
GRAHAM PHOENIX is
a director of consultants Lighting Design Partnership Limited.
Landscape and townscape
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