Comment> A renowned lighting designer takes a walk in the dark in search of illumination

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In October 2010 my article on the NightSeeing™ program appeared in the Architect’s Newspaper.  It was a welcome opportunity to describe the development of the program, current events and future aspirations.

Leni Schwendinger leads a LightWalk in Washington DC

Here, some excerpts:

Savor the word “light” and the interior landscape of language evokes images of atmospheric effects—mysterious, picturesque, sublime.

What is the NightSeeing™ program?

Conceptually, NightSeeing is an itinerary of group exploration and discovery, a curriculum designed for the general public and those in the architectural and planning professions. Presenting the nocturnal city of light, NightSeeing is a real-time travelogue through the culture of urban lighting in public spaces to convey recognition of one’s own environment of the shadowed vistas that define our surroundings literally half the time, and yet are so familiar they are almost unseen.

The program can stand alone, or be presented by a conference, festival, or as an event for urban planners to enhance their public outreach efforts. It provides a context to examine and decode the shadows, emanations, and reflections that define our cities’ darkened hours. NightSeeing consists of several events: the LightTalk, a LightWalk, and a Light Planning Workshop.

Why is it important?

The issues and substance of public illumination increasingly influence the global language of urban design and urban experience. Through initiatives like NightSeeing, we can learn to see shadows in a whole different light.

Stories about NightSeeing™ past…

In the article I cover the NightSeeing™ LightWalks in Manhattan’s Little Italy/Chinatown, Bryant Park and in Washington D.C.

And coverage of upcoming events

The shifting interplay of nighttime dark and light makes every city a unique destination. For London’s Architecture Retail and Commercial Lighting Show on January 12, 2012, I look forward to mapping the Angel Islington district with the International Association of Lighting Designers to find the perfect route through preserved and chic-modern alleyways and unusual paved topographies. I spent time here in the 1970s frequenting Sadler Wells Theatre, the Angel’s Chapel Road second-hand market, and a particular pub with my crowd from the East End. For me, the LightWalk will be eye-opening to the pleasures of the crowds dining, walking from bus to subway to home, window shopping the antique shops, and experiencing evocations of Dickens’ darkened muddy passageways which have existed since the dawn of public lighting.

NightSeeing is a trademark program of Leni Schwendinger Light Projects LTD

Experience the urban  light… contact Leni (leni@lightprojectsltd.com) to book NightSeeing™ in your town or city with your organization, company,  friends and neighbors.

NightSeeing™ Washington D.C.
Can you find your way at night?

In the evening Washington D.C. NW is a monochromatic blend of light.

People are the action.

The shifting interplay of nighttime dark and light make every city a unique destination. Join acclaimed lighting artist and designer Leni Schwendinger and a group limited to 35 as she presents impromptu the D.C. nocturnal city of light, culminating at the ASLA Gala. This mistress of light sculpture and installation will decode the shadows, emanations, and reflections that define the nightscape, from shop silhouettes to the phantom photons of passing cars.

American Society of Landscape Architects’ Annual Meeting (2010)  invitation

Saturday, September 11 7:45–8:30 pm, LightWalk with Leni Schwendinger –Sold Out!

The NightSeeing™ LightWalk is conducted like a treasure hunt — a diverse group of participants searching for a fresh perception, a discovery of those lights and shadows, large and minute, to delight the mind and senses.  Or rephrased for planners, designers and landscape architects; an analysis of the character of lighting in any given place.

I began the tour with a quote from the artist/engineer/planner, Pierre Charles L’Enfant from September 11, 1789.  On that date he wrote to President George Washington “to solicit the favor of being Employed in the  Business” of designing the new capital city. His became a Baroque plan featuring open ceremonial spaces and oversized radial avenues with respect for the natural contours of the land.

With my intrepid group — landscape architects, designers and manufacturers from all over the country — I sought L’Enfant’s plan, lighting detail and filigree, and found a soft undifferentiated layer of light.

NightSeeing™ Washington D.C.

Public lighting — the lighting supplied by the municipality, business improvement district/CBD, utility, or institution in the United States — is generally “designed” by engineers and manufacturers.  An increasing trend, however, is to incorporate lighting designers onto streetscape design and engineering teams to revitalize districts, neighborhoods and communities.

City designs and plans, are strictly limited by regulations that are based on the primacy of the automobile (e.g. street lighting) and reducing risk , recommended brightness levels, maintenance and stocking issues, and the light pole and luminaire styles that manufacturers are currently marketing.

On the positive side, this is the light that we can depend on – the base lighting that allows residents, workers and visitors to feel comfortable sallying forth into the city’s night.   Public lighting is the threshold of light, upon which private and found lighting are layered.

NightSeeing™ Map Washington D.C.

NightSeeing™ Map Washington D.C.

We started our journey focused on the Historical Society’s colonnaded edifice floodlighting.  A traditional, uplighting method of  frontal illumination, this approach results in soft ambient glow.  Appropriate for classical buildings, and inexpensive.

Onward past rows of historicist streetlight lanterns.  Here, an effort could be made to differentiate street types and districts with varied types of poles, oh! a relief, the Chinatown lanterns with their red posts and lantern tops.

NightSeeing™ Washington D.C.

We went through the Techworld canyon and surprisingly found the same decorative luminaires, rather than lighting fixture forms referencing forward-thinking technologies, although, there was one difference, induction lamps are being used — a source that is white light and has a long lamp life, requiring less maintenance.

Some of the endearing details that we did find included count-down Walk/Don’t Walk signals, bracketed facade down-lights (cheap and easy), LED media signs and the colorful floodlit Chinatown gate.

NightSeeing™ Washington D.C.

The most exciting part of the tour were the people on it and the acceptance of the D.C. residents and tourists milling about — the sidewalks were packed on 7th Street NW that evening.  The small groups of loungers on the National Museum of American Art grand stairs were curious about the LightWalk and we in turn, discovered them using steps for the appropriate evening purpose… sitting in the floodlight of the stair and colonnade, a staple of light and architecture in our nation’s capital.

Leni Schwendinger’s LightWalk drew our members through the shadows of DC’s urban streetscape, guided by the eye of an artist and technician to experience the magical interplay of darkness and light.

— Clark Ebbert, Education Program Manager, ASLA

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For more illumination, reading and pictures:

Public Lighting Theory – developing the nexus of lighting and urban design

Light Planning; Chinatown Little Italy Historic District

Accolades and Finales (and the Winter LightWalk)

Night City, The Movie

The Making of Night City

Leni Schwendinger on camera

The urban nighttime environment is a dark canvas that humans have created – our previously daytime oriented “clocks” have been extended into the night.

Lighting designers work with architects, engineers and landscape architects to illuminate city structures – including buildings, bridges, parks – to make these places visible and safe to walk at night.

But, before that act of design, there should be an urban -planning and -design phase to determine how the public spaces of our cities will be lit.  This intersection of lighting and urban design interests me.  It is important to merge the ideas of urban design with public lighting design – taking the uses of buildings, pedestrian and transportation patterns into account.  Street-scape design — street alignments, curbs, medians and street furniture — sets the stage for public lighting. I am not just talking about utility lighting – I am looking at creative lighting that exposes the built environment at night – promoting legibility (“where am I”?) but also illumination practices that encourage public connections and conversations and more usage of our sidewalks and public life.

Public Lighting Video Storyboard

Urban designer Brian McGrath and I have developed classifications of light in the public realm.

Public lighting is provided by the city or utility as the very basic in safety lighting.  It is augmented by private sources of lighting – significantly, cars themselves with their headlights.  Additionally shop windows, displays and various types of commercial buildings provide light on the sidewalk to help pedestrians find their way cheerfully and safely.

Finally the phone booths, bus shelters, light billboards and even ATMs provide what I call “found” lighting.

In addition to “designed” lighting, emergent — undesigned — systems develop as site-specific “unplanned” lighting.  Light added by users, inhabitants, building owners, etc. can help the designer understand the needs of a neighborhood by documenting the incidental additions of light.

In mid-October Light Projects will release a short video tape produced by TVGals – an on-the-street light walk – where I will reveal the concepts of public, private and found lighting in depth.