THE ART OF LIGHT
Time for a poetic rethink

Lighting’s about more than numbers – and the lighting establishment is reappraising its obsession with codes and guidelines, says Jill Entwistle.

For such a mercurial and miraculous element, light gets horribly bogged down in mundanities: codes and guidelines, circuit watts, lux on working planes, candelas per square metre. Light is not a lumpen mass to be so easily coralled and categorised and codified. It is elusive and ethereal. It’s like pinning down a rare butterfly and counting the hairs on its legs.

There will already be people spraying their morning coffee over their desk (presumably illuminated with its statutory 400-500 lux) at the apparent feyness of these remarks. All very well being poetic but what about the real world? You can’t nancy around when there are hundreds of square metres of office to light on a low budget.

The only answer is loads of linear downlights on a grid (one of those LG7 models that squirts a bit on the ceiling), scallop a vertical surface (if it doesn’t take you over the Part L tally) and you’re away.

Quite.

We’ve reached a time in lighting history when we need a rethink of almost every aspect of illumination. Our approaches are largely predicated on 19th-century technology, working practices and thinking.

Groundswell of opinion

We’re in the 21st century, things are changing radically and rapidly and they have a bearing on lighting and how it is approached – our work tools, the way working space is used, energy usage, the transition to solid state sources, increasing knowledge of the biological effects of light, new forms of power generation – you name it.

There is a gradual groundswell of opinion that, although it’s concerned with different aspects of lighting, is adding up to a demand for a complete reappraisal. The striking thing is this is not a Young Turks movement. It is largely coming from the lighting establishment, including the older academic contingent.

Third age of the lighting profession

These things are vague in their origins and necessarily cumulative, but a good enough starting point is Kit Cuttle last year when he addressed a gathering of SLL members. He called for the end of our obsession with the horizontal plane, dubbing his new theory the ‘third age of the lighting profession’.

He didn’t exactly pull his punches: ‘We’re measuring in the wrong way, we’re calculating in the wrong way and we’re specifying in the wrong way.’ Some of his thoughts were arguably expressed by others years ago, but he presented his ideas as a coherent theory and he presented it at the right time.

Meanwhile DPA partner Nick Hoggett, SLL president Alan Tulla, lighting guru Lou Bedocs and others have criticised the simplistic measuring criteria of energy legislation such as Part L. The metering method doesn’t cut it and can be counter-productive.

Energy has to be looked at more holistically and usefully if we are to cut quantity and retain quality.

Architectural lighting is dead

Last year, at the Professional Lighting Design Convention in Berlin, French lighting designer Roger Narboni declared that architectural lighting was dead. He argued that in order to progress, lighting design had to shift from building-orientated lighting to people-orientated lighting.

Now a new slim book by Claudia Dutson, based on two years research into lighting for the RCA’s Helen Hamlyn Centre, epitomises this drive for reexamination. Light Volumes Dark Matters is a series of essays based on her findings. As she points out, its main purpose is to challenge existing thinking and prompt people to appreciate the enormous complexity that lighting represents. ‘How is something so fundamentally important to people as lighting treated with such insensitivity?’ asks Dutson. ‘Is it because the understanding of light as a symbol is greater than our understanding of the importance of good illumination?’

Call it a summary of the lightgeist.

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