Light and Public Art

I grew up near Washington, DC, so from a very early age I was exposed to light being used in artful ways, mainly the illumination of monumental buildings, which could be seen from across the Potomac, but I was (and am) more fascinated by smaller uses like the glowing lights in DC metro stations that signal the approach of a train or the competitive Christmas lights that took over India Row (E. 6th Street) in New York back in the 1990’s. People seem to find running water, fire, and other people working to be the most visually transfixing, so I am pretty positive lights are something other people enjoy (otherwise why would we have fireworks or dramatic stage lighting, and why would we watch sunsets?).

One of the things that is so compelling to me about light in cites is that what is bright is very subjective, and changes in lighting can affect how spaces feel. As an example, a portion of a street may appear to be well lit and thus safe, but when a space adjacent is made brighter, the original portion will appear dark and scary even though the level of illumination remains the same as before. You may have experienced this if a neighbor switches their front stoop light to a much brighter bulb than yours, and suddenly your stoop feels dark. These small changes in light can often dramatically change how one experiences a space.

In a couple weeks I am going to journey to Philadelphia and it just so happens that a temporary art exhibit entitled, “Open Air,” will be going on that features light. This has apparently generated quite a bit of local controversy. The controversy is related to the Dark Sky movement which advocates against light pollution. This movement appears to be made up of generally two groups, environmentalists and astronomers. With the former concerned in this case about light confusing birds and the latter concerned with excess light obscuring the night skies and thus impeding the study of the heavens. ←That link goes to an exhaustive list of links to different issues related to light pollution, very educational.

A temporary exhibit like “Open Air” by artist, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, is probably much less of a contributor to light pollution than the overall light generated by the city in the long term (see image here), so it is likely that this is a high profile event that the activists felt comfortable to use to bring attention to this issue. The 9/11 light memorial, which is similar, did have bird impacts in 2010, but there was not much controversy, probably both because NYC is already so lit up and it was a much more emotionally sensitive event. Interestingly the 2011 9/11 lights did not affect birds so dramatically due to the different weather conditions.

These larger scale light exhibits and exterior illumination of buildings are not necessarily my favorite, because they are only properly experienced from a distance. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, is gorgeous when lit and seen from a distance, but up close the lights are too bright and within the lights’ range you cannot experience the mix of darkness and light that makes it spectacular. This makes these displays grand, but distancing and impersonal. Thus, this type of thing is best done for major municipal landmarks and civic pride purposes. I am curious to see if I enjoy the Philadelphia exhibit because although it has more similarity with grandiose light exhibits, the artist has made it more accessible through the public participation element where your words control the lights which could perhaps diminish the typical austerity of that sort of display.

Lincoln Memorial/Washington Monument, Aug 2009 – 06, Photo by: Ed Yourdon

Smaller scale light exhibits can create much more intimate experiences like the 2011 exhibit in New York’s Madison Square Park. Prior to seeing the lovely piece entitled “Scattered Light” by Jim Campbell I had been rather dismissive of that park as being rather banal, but that particular exhibit provided a very different, romantic view of the park and having literally seen the park in a different light, my feelings towards it have changed drastically for the better.

Other cities have had different public art exhibits featuring light. Providence, RI is exporting it’s WaterFire exhibit to Rome, which I would dearly like to see. Water + Fire + Rome can only equal stunning.

Waterfire Providence, RI, Photo by: Heather Katsoulis

Aside from beauty, light in public art can also increase a pedestrians perception of how safe a space is. There is a piece that is planned for underneath the BQE, which will be in what is currently a very intimidating space and aims to make crossing the Hamilton Expressway a less scary experience. In a much less artful way New York City has moved towards using the ambient light from stores to help keep sidewalks better lit and feeling safer by requiring roll down storefront security gates to not be solid. While this was ostensibly to fight against graffiti, it also allows police patrols to see into a space (which makes it easier to foil robberies) and lets any interior lighting flow onto the sidewalks, making the pedestrian experience on commercial strips better lit and thus less intimidating late at night.

Often as planners we are concerned with spatial relationships and community relationships, but aside from people and buildings cities are also made up of light and shadows (and smells and sounds) and how those sensory inputs affect people’s relationships to the built environment are also important. So calling attention to light through public art is a reminder that our experience of a place is reliant on all our senses and that lighting design in the public realm, be it street lamps, signage, art, etc., should be carefully considered.


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5 Comments on “Light and Public Art”

  1. Waddell Loflin October 1, 2012 at 8:08 pm #

    Aline: I enjoyed your article on light as art; and as a functional element in city planning, also. Your examples are very educational, informative, and entertaining. Thank you.


  2. alexsommer October 3, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    I just found this interesting website about NightSeeing (trademark?). Interesting though:


    • alinefader October 3, 2012 at 1:58 pm #

      That is a fun idea – although the extensive trademarking is a little weird! I think I will be writing about a similar thing in my next post.



  1. Light and Public Art, revisited | PlaNYourCity - October 22, 2012

    […] I wrote a post about a temporary art exhibit entitled “Open Air” in Philadelphia, PA by artist Rafael […]


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