Use of light as

a medium of functional art,

a narrative tool,

and an immersive expression

for futuristic landscapes

GOMA Glasgow | Photo Credit: Vinishree
Photo by Lily Banse on Unsplash

The 21st century cities have seen unplanned expansion, with sporadic use of lighting in public areas, façade of buildings, retail stores and billboard lighting, thus creating disoriented mass of lighting leading to light pollution at various instances. A planned approach to exterior lighting is the need of the hour at the city planning level. This narrative can be explored by studying how the smart cities have developed their exterior lighting systems in the past 10 years. Has the progression been incremental or disruptive? The role of various participants like the city dwellers, city planners, lighting designers, landscape and façade architects, and advertising agencies is substantial and their potential to influence the holistic scheme of lighting of their city needs to be harnessed.

A city is layered.

These layers are structural defining the landscape, natural resources, and built forms. These layers are also metaphorical representing cultures, historical events, artforms, economy and much more. As a combined whole, this layered city defines its identity. Apart from the natural heritage, every city has its individual legacy of art, design and architecture which collectively influences the tourism that it entices. Through the complex network of infrastructure within a city, one can still observe an artist’s stroke or an architect’s cantilever through fortuitous encounters. Moving around the city we can see how art and architecture arise as soulful elements breathing life into the city’s visual identity. Another ubiquitous layer that envelopes a city is ‘lighting’, however its prominence is felt only after sunset. Lighting, a quintessential layer at night has the virtue of changing the perception of the city in many ways. The role of technology comes into play here, determining what type of lighting to be used, forecasting the future trends and finding sustainable ways in which lighting systems can be adopted at the city level.

Photo by Pedro Lastra on Unsplash

Light is that element of architecture which is non tactile and is massless.

Many call it the fourth dimension to a space; it is light that first enables spatial perception. As a lighting designer, I have explored how light can transform the appearance of a structure without physically altering it.

Another dimension of Lighting is that it is deeply experiential and has the ability to determine how one feels. It has the capability of evoking different emotions.

Owing to these two features of light i.e. its ability of spatial articulation and its emotive character, light has been used by artists and designers across the globe as a creative tool for making a statement.

Light art is well described by Wikipedia — Light Art or Luminism is an applied art form in which light is the main medium of expression. It is an art form in which either a sculpture produces light, or light is used to create a “sculpture” through the manipulation of light, colors, and shadows. These sculptures can be temporary or permanent, and can exist in two distinctive spaces: indoor galleries, such as museum exhibits, or outdoors at events like festivals. Light art can be an interaction of light with an architectural space.

Artists like Daan Roosegaarde, Bruce Munro, Janet Echelman and Leo Villareal combine light and technology to create breathtaking installations.

Daan Roosegaarde is a Dutch artist and founder of Studio Roosegaarde, which develops projects that merge technology and art in urban environments. 3 His works like Icoon Afsluitdijk and Smart Highway are examples of integrating light with infrastructure to create an intelligent structural installation. Icoon Afsluitdijk is an environmental art installation on a 32-kilometre dyke the Afsluitdijk as part of a Dutch government-sponsored renovation program of that structure. Smart Highway is a collaboration with the Heijmans infrastructure group to use light, energy and information that interacts with traffic on roadways. It includes the Van Gogh Path — a 600-metre (2,000 ft) cycle path between Dutch landscape of Nuenen and Eindhoven, which uses embedded lights that twinkle to evoke Vincent Van Gogh’s painting, The Starry Night

Bruce Munro’s Field of Light is yet another public light installation. Artist Bruce Munro has produced some of the world’s most dazzling and attention-getting light installations in public gardens and museum lawns. This particular project, consisting of glowing orbs connected by a series of fiber optic ‘roots’, makes for a surreal landscape at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.

Janet Echelman sculpts at the scale of buildings and city blocks. Echelman’s work defies categorization, as it intersects Sculpture, Architecture, Urban Design, Material Science, Structural & Aeronautical Engineering, and Computer Science. Echelman’s art transforms with wind and light, and shifts from being “an object you look at, into an experience you can get lost in”. Using unlikely materials from aramid fiber to atomized water particles, Echelman combines ancient craft with computational design software to create artworks that have become focal points for urban life on five continents, and transform daily with colored light.

Leo Villareal is yet another artist who blends technology of encoded computer programming and LED lights to create illuminated displays for public light installations.

These public light art installations are emotive and narrative, each transforming the obvious into an illusion for the world to decipher. However, these lighting installations are randomly scattered in different cities across the globe and mostly based on a theme or special occasion.

Coming back to the infrastructure of the city, various elements like the street lights, pavements, signage form an integral part of the city layout and planning. In the past decade we have seen how cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, and Utrecht have strived to become the most bike friendly cities in the world by integrating cycling into its inherent culture. Similarly there is a need for amalgamation of planned lighting over the streetscape for connectivity, sustainability, and enhancing the visual identity of the city.

We need to assimilate outdoor lighting into the nerves of the city, weaving the streets together into a one complete fabric of the urban environment.

Photo by Denys Nevozhai on Unsplash

Currently city dwellers and the local authorities are lighting up the streetscape in isolation, without any correlation to its impact over the structures which are 100+ meters in its periphery. Public buildings are lit up differently, the retail sector adds its own glamour to the façade lighting, and the private apartments have their personal lighting themes. Owing to this, the same streetscape transforms differently at night, and many times some beautiful alleys, a graffiti wall, or a delightful stairway gets neglected. Another reasoning for this proposition is the sustainability aspect of lighting.

Light consumes energy.

The level of energy consumption varies based on the technical parameters of the lighting fixtures, installation techniques, and control methods. A planned and thoughtful approach to outdoor lighting can lead to extensive energy saving, reduced light pollution, and brightening up the city in meaningful ways.

Can light be used as a medium of functional art, wherein the integral function of lighting be portrayed as an artistic element taking cues from the art history of that location? — Visual Connect

Can light be used as a narrative tool, sharing interesting anecdotes retold through lighting installation transcending the streetscape of the city? — Feeling / Emotional connect

Can light be used as an immersive expression, deep diving into the cultural and intellectual realms of the city? — Thinking/ Intellectual Connect

Art is inherent in our cultures, be it a dance form, or visual expressions, or sculptural renditions. It needs to be celebrated and practiced as a way of living in the city, thus literally bringing them to ‘light’. At many places, the built structures are made at different eras thus having varying styles of architecture and varied use of material and technology. The binding element can be the way they are lit up, yet maintaining their individuality.

The age old anecdotes and narratives need to be witnessed for providing identity and purpose to the context. Experience being an important element of context, needs to be emphasized, to ensure continuity of mankind and profoundly shape our future.

The stories are waiting to be told and listened. The medium of storytelling could be the experiential lighting that engulfs the city in the dark hours.

Service Designer | Practicing Lighting Designer | Industrial Designer | Architect