We need light to read by, not to be dazzled by, to find our way through corridors, not to be lit up like escaping prisoners-of-war
Friday 11 April 1997
Several of you suggested a campaign to reduce noise at work, feeling that this would be a realistic starting point (which it would be). Rachel Andrews recommended earplugs, but warns: "Unfortunately, a lot are bright yellow".
While thinking of ways to turn down the volume of the everyday world, I'd like to ask you another question. Do you feel we make too much use of artificial light in buildings and other public spaces? The human eye works best in conditions where there is contrast between light and shadow. In fact, we not only enjoy, but thrive, in subtly, yet ever-changing lighting conditions. This is why, for example, most of the best art galleries are top-lit, and the very best, like Renzo Piano's De Menil Collection, Houston, Texas or the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south-east London, are essentially untouched by electric light. Visitors to these delightful buildings enjoy looking at sculpture and paintings in natural and ever-changing light. This animates artworks, delights the eye and stimulates the imagination.
When we even out light, we upset the eye and deny the imagination. Many modern shopping malls, offices, hospitals, university buildings and others too numerous to mention suffer from evenly spread electric lighting. This was once thought to be a good thing, but I'm sure it's not. We need light in studies to read by, not to be dazzled by; we need light to find our way through passages and corridors, not to be lit up like escaping prisoners-of-war.
About 25 years ago, the London Underground began removing the exquisite fluted bronze uplighters (designed by Charles Holden), that bathed the cream-painted ceilings of escalator shafts in soft tungsten light, replacing them with brutal and naked fluorescent tubes. The Holden lamps offered Tube passengers a kind of warmth and a sense of privacy even in the rush- hour crowd: fluorescent light bares all, highlighting each wrinkle, stain, or speck of dandruff. Within a few years, Holden's friendly lighting had given way to a model apparently drawn from remand centres, DHSS offices or other buildings designed to belittle those who have to use them.
The same sort of lighting was then applied to buses and trains, ostensibly to make life safer and brighter, but really because fluorescent tubes are cheaper to run and last longer than tungsten bulbs.
All this ugly, even light makes us feel uncomfortable and ugly, blots out the stars (and the Hale-Bopp comet), discourages the dreamer and persecutes the poetic. You may disagree. I am sure that there must be perfectly good reasons for the evenly spread lighting applied across our towns and cities, other than safety or lower running costs. Can anyone suggest some?
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