10 minute read

That's how the light gets in

By Will Jennings

Will new technology light the way, or are we better off looking at the stars?

One night last May, I looked up to the blackness above London. Where once our ancestors saw depthless constellations of shimmering stars, there was only a darkish haze, and no stars were visible at all through the cloud of light pollution. Then, into that black came a staccato rhythm of small white lights, carving through the emptiness in a straight line.

As Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites pinpricked the night, symbols of human potential and mankind’s reach into new realms, my thoughts were not taken to a sci-fi future, but instead to the flat rural Suffolk landscape of my childhood. In the 1980s, there was a growing trend to illuminate historic architectures with overblown, glaring floodlights. Framlingham Castle, for instance, wasn’t so much washed in light than waterboarded with it, flattening the subtle patina of history, and I recall a rural church relentlessly hovering in the dark at some indeterminate distance, an architectural apparition dislocated.

Putting light into the darkness is a recurring human desire. In myth, allegory, faith and landscape, shadows are something we have sought to banish in search of a secure clarity and progressive visibility. But perhaps we should stop and ask if all light is good, for whom the light glows, and what this exponential luminosity means for places we design.

Our cities have come a long way since the earliest lighting strategies. Through the early middle ages, we barely had any strategies in place – most of our activities were carried out in daylight hours, withdrawing to the family and hearth when the sun set. Anyone who ventured out into the streets after nightfall was looked upon with suspicion, a ne’er-do-well stalking the shadows. In 1383, as with many European cities, a London mayoral proclamation forbid people from walking the streets after 9pm, residents not allowed to leave their abode unless a magistrate was satisfied a good enough reasoned permitted them to be in the street. Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s 1988 book Enchanted Night explores the European urban brightening, describing how in the street, night watchmen patrolled carrying a torch to light their path, making visible the control and surveillance they provided. Over time, the permissions to venture into the streets at night were loosened, though people did have to carry a lantern with them, with a 1467 Leicester decree cited by Goronwy Salusbury-Jones in his 1938 book Street Life in Medieval England stating: “no man walked after IX of the belle streken in the nyght withoute lyght or withoute cause reasonable in payne of empresonment.”

As cities grew and laws developed, life and light entered the evening streets. Citizens still had to carry a torch (or pay a link man to guide their path) but also have a candle lantern fixed outside their home when the moon was “dark” from October to March, according to a 1599 act. The intention of this was to mark out each abode, to ensure residents were at home, though it had the accidental effect of partly illuminating the streets, and thus began the process of artificially lighting our cities, extending the hours available for both leisure and work.

The late 1600s was a period of great competition between inventors and new companies dedicated to urban lighting, and emergent technological improvements spread  light further. Glass reflectors were installed around London’s Cornhill and Piccadilly, before the emergence of oil lighting and contractors to manage the systems. By 1735, lighting was a structural part of the capital’s fabric, with new laws setting the spacing and hours of the 1,000 lamps in the city, which by 1739 had increased to 5,000. The darkness was becoming banished.

It wasn’t just British cities lighting up. Paris glowed brightest, and a 1760s competition for a new kind of street light (the 2,000 franc prize donated by the police chief) introduced the réverbère, an oil reservoir with several wicks joined to two concave reflectors and a hemispherical top restricting the light downwards. But not all welcomed this newfound visibility, and in the turbulence of an ever-revolting France, lighting was seen as an imposition of controlling powers above. Lantern smashing becoming a nightly pastime for those seeking to carry out tiny acts of rebellion against symbols of control and surveillance, but their stones were to no avail, the increase in urban lighting has grown ever since, each technological advance outshining the last, the réverbère was only the start.

San Jose moonlight tower in 1881.
© Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps in response to keeping those lanterns intact, and perhaps connected to the new centralising of power, propositions emerged which would do away with a network of thousands of lights, to be replaced with an array of urban lighthouses, perpetually lighting the night from just a few towers. The first proposition was a 1799 submission by Donde- Dupré to Napoleon, for a network of lighting towers across the city and one central sun monument in the Place de la Revolution, as recorded only through a single surviving pamphlet in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. He envisaged overlapping rays lighting the city like “an artificial meteor” – perhaps summoning the cultural memory of the Great Meteor of 1783 which shot across France inspiring scientific conversation across the continent – providing such a glow that “no shadows will remain”.

The idea for such a system never took hold in Europe, but in newly expanding America, they were erected liberally. Starting in Richmond, Virginia, “moonlight towers” of up to 150 metres spread light across growing settlements, Detroit alone having 122 in what was the largest system in the country.

While touring the USA, an electrical engineer named Sébillot was wonderstruck by the moonlight towers. Partnering with architect Jules Bourdais on his return to Paris, he designed a monument to mark the forthcoming 1889 Exposition. Their proposal was to build a moonlight tower like no other, a 360m tall column to illuminate the whole capital from a single source. The “electric lighthouse”, ideally located at the heart of Paris near the Pont Neuf, would radiate light for a radius of 5.5km and would, in Sébillot’s words, “penetrate inside houses and flats”. It was never constructed, the Eiffel Tower getting the nod instead. A beacon was added to 3 its summit.

There is a scene in Blade Runner 2049 where Officer K walks through dystopian Los Angeles to his apartment, skyscraper-high video screens jostling for attention with holograms and neon-esque LED tubes. Once inside, glaring lights from vast projected adverts and passing drones blast into his room, a reminder of the same perceived oppression and control as the Parisian lamp-smashers. Will such imaginaries of cyberpunk-noir urban lighting become true? Certainly, we will see a rapid rise in LED-wrapped architecture and “media facades” of such scale to render Piccadilly Circus a quaint artifact. These are already appearing in the rapidly growing Asian Tiger economies – a 3000m 2 LED screen envelopes the 125m height of the Chongqing’s Maoye Department Store, while the Mall Taman Anggrek in Jakarta is wrapped in a 357m long undulating screen capable of being seen 10km away. But 10km is nothing if Russian startup “StartRocket” has their way. With a remarkable tagline – “Space has to be beautiful. With the best brands our sky will amaze us every night” – their project “The Orbital Display” would be a 50km 2 “spaceboard” fixed in the night sky 500km above, available for you to advertise your brand to a “potential audience of 7 billion people” for only $200,000 per 8 hour slot. There are also reported plans in Chengdu, China, to replace the city streetlights with an “artificial moon”, eight times as bright as the one we have now and capable of lighting an area 80km wide by reflecting distant sunlight from a satellite. Soon, not only will we see no stars, but the lights we can see will be mechanisms of power looking back at us. Observing, illuminating and marketing.

4. Taman Anggrek mall is wrapped in a massive digital veil employing the design of multiresolution ribbon that became the world’s longest LED screen. StandardVision curated site specific work from a team of international artists.
© StandardVision

These are grotesque conflations of spectacle, capitalism and control of nature, and whether these speculative propositions happen or not (and both schemes have gone quiet of late), the drive to put lights higher and brighter will continue, likely driven by the two powers of advertising and surveillance. What would George Orwell have thought of such an illuminated imposition? What would the archchronicler of society Charles Dickens have made of such grandiose plans to watch over citizens below?

Dickens was fond of a night walk, the hazy lamplit streets helping brew stories in his head, characters emerging from shadows. In his book Nightwalking, Matthew Beaumont considers historical “noctambulists” such as Blake, Poe and Dickens (the flâneur is nearly always a cis white man) and the creative invention exuded from darkened, emptied cities. One sees a different city at night, the same streets and architectures but a different place. The towers of financial centres are not populated by bankers and managers, but minimum-waged workers cleaning, keeping secure and maintaining the systems with invisible labour.

But what kinds of stories could writers of the future imagine in a city without shadows, where artificial moons and “Blade Runner” LEDs have removed the crevices and shadows from which ideas are dreamt? Trapped between the surveillance and lighting coming from both above and the screens in front of our faces, what space is left for what Horace Walpole named gloomth, that Gothic ambience of just enough light to get by, and plenty of darkness for imagination to play in. If, as Jun’ichiro Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows, Japanese lacquerware reveals a depth and richness under the flickering light of a candle’s flame that is unobservable when lit by harsh electric lamps, then should we not think in a similar vein of the surfaces and landscapes of our built environments?

But then the damage of light pollution and over-illumination to our creative spirit is perhaps the least of our concerns. In our age of climate breakdown, the imagery of falling icecaps and floods may make iconic headlines, but a real impact of the Anthropocene is smaller and more local, with devastating effects upon the ecosystems of which we are a part. Countless species which depend on darkness, including glow worms whose communication is lost with light, or moths who feed and mate in the dark, are affected by our drive to illuminate. Frogs carry out their night-time mating calls less often, bats are abandoning or never leaving their roosts, and birds have lost their sense of the seasonal clock, their chicks hatching and dying before food is available.

Light fitting outside the Mansion House, City of London.
© Paul Lincoln

Some of these impacts can be reduced with new technologies, such as “wildlife-friendly” wavelength light developed for the Netherlands town of Zuidhoek-Nieuwkoop, home to rare and vulnerable species, and latterly installed along the A4440 near Warndon Wood nature reserve in Worcestershire. The future of Smart Cities may carry concerns of surveillance and data-scraping, but systems including AI streetlighting can regulate when and where is illuminated, saving money and lowering the glow of our urban footprint. In a world of climate breakdown and

Sign in Leeds 2014.
© Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps we don’t always need new technology to save us where traditional methods can work – in Leeds certain street lights are turned off between midnight and 5.30am to reduce carbon emissions and save money. Where it is safe to do so, could we lower our lighting as much as possible, and as we currently design green corridors, could we not also have dark corridors? If bright light is a symbol of modernism and progress, now that we are in an age of climate breakdown, should we not demand a new kind of progress, one which repairs the errors of our past and questions the trajectory of human desires? As we consider an idea of progress rooted in degrowth and dismantling systems which we recognise have taken us to the brink of extinction, could we not also consider lowering our brightness and once again looking at the stars?