Go back to article: Light as material/lighting as practice: urban lighting and energy

Designing lights in Colombia

To flesh out our argument, we draw on a recent research project in Colombia, where we collaborated with Ove Arup’s global lighting group on a pilot research and lighting installation project in Cartagena, Colombia called Smart Everyday Nighttime Design.[1] The concept was firstly that ‘nighttime design’ needs to be treated as a specific design discipline with its own problems and solutions. Secondly, the project was premised on looking for small scale design interventions rather than big and pervasive infrastructure – small designs that could be rolled out iteratively across a neighbourhood. Thirdly, the designs set out to promote community engagement, not only in consultation, but also in allowing people to customise and choose lighting variations and then to mount them at a human scale. (See Video 1 for a short film documentary of the project. See also Arup, 2015; Arup global research, 2016.)

Video 1

Smart Everyday Nighttime Design is an interdisciplinary research project spearheaded by Arup, with Leni Schwendinger and the support of the London School of Economics, Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano and Despacio, iGuzzini, and Findeter, documented by PLANE—SITE

A photograph of Plaza Trinidad (see Figure 3), the main gathering space in our particular neighbourhood, Getsemaní, illustrates all the properties of light discussed above; relational, fluid, indexical and emergent over time and through practices. The energy use literally pulses with the life of the inhabitants, recursively reflecting it and supporting it: the lit scene is an assemblage of a vast array of interacting lighting practices, including municipally-provided sodium lights on extremely tall masts; commercially provided restaurant lights and signage; moving car lights from both private cars and taxis; bright neon from food and drink stalls run on pirated electricity; shadows (prized above all by lovers, drinkers and criminals) provided by broken lights, blind-spots, physical barriers and dimmed church lights after mass; and we can add myriad little lights such as upper storey domestic windows and lots of little smartphones (including screens, flashes and torches). On the one hand, one can look at this picture as typical failed infrastructure in the Global South, a mess of cables and chaos, unregulated, un-designed and malfunctioning, with attendant waste of energy and other scarce resources. On the other hand, what all our interviews showed was both a love of the resulting atmosphere (a love shared by otherwise diverse and often conflicting social groups) and – at the same time – an ability to read the chaotic output of all this lighting as a coherent and interpretable pattern. As one interviewee said, sitting in that scene, behind the umbrella on the right: "We all know where to put ourselves." Thus, rather than look at this scene as ‘failed’ and chaotic (and to be corrected technically), we can see instead an informational ecology: the lighting provides a wealth of information through which materials and practices can interact and mutually orient themselves. Put otherwise, the main Arup designer, Leni Schwendinger (then Arup’s global urban lighting lead), when she arrived here simply said, maybe we shouldn’t design anything, because “we could only screw this up”. Her reaction acknowledges that any design intervention aimed at energy issues is an engagement with a complex information system that both emerges from and in turn supports complex ways of life; and it needs to be an engagement with that material-semiotic complexity rather than merely the technical (or aesthetic) portions of it.

Figure 3

Colour photograph of a street scene lit by streetlights with many people socialising

Chaotic lighting and sociability in the Plaza Trinidad, Getsemaní district of Cartagena, Colombia

There is no intrinsic reason why the chaotic lighting of Plaza Trinidad should be any more or less energy efficient than some of the high-tech and ‘designed’ lighting solutions that could be imposed as part of urban modernisation in the Global South (see Figure 4, depicting a standardised ‘modern’ mall just around the corner from Plaza Trinidad). What can be asserted confidently is, firstly, that any realistic assessment of energy efficiency in a lit scene needs to take account of all the practices that generate and demand lighting. The wider social ‘chaos’ will not and in fact should not go away. Secondly, that therefore an intelligent approach to lighting needs to look at the informational ecology of the social space, the way in which material properties of light and ongoing social practices can interact in ways that support a social life in energy efficient ways. To go back to the designer’s response (and the eventually proposed lighting design, discussed below), this may require us to build on the existing forms of lighting provision, however chaotic, rather than relying on purely technical calculations of energy saving (standardised infrastructure models simply modified to use low-energy LEDs) and rather than moving to a purely ‘aesthetic’ understanding of the space unrelated to the social life that generates its atmosphere.

Figure 4

Colour photograph of a clothes shop facade

Standard shopping mall lighting in Getsemaní

This logic of working with the indigenous informational ecology (rather than simply replacing it with a ‘modernised’ lighting infrastructure) informed the design and research project. We found that the ‘chaotic’ qualities of light were crucial to ways in which people used their spaces more generally. Above all, because light is relational, fluid, indexical and emergent, it does not respect common boundaries between public and private, municipal and domestic energy use: public and private lighting had to be treated as an integrated system, as a single and integral ecology. Approaches to energy consumption that divide into public and private costs miss the ways in which energy demand is assembled.

To give an example: the original project brief for the Smart Everyday Nighttime Design programme was to produce lighting interventions for street-corners and doors. These assumptions (largely drawn from New York City where some of the designers came from) was that these are crucial and repeatable urban morphologies that are suitable for promoting an atmosphere of conviviality, gathering, welcome, hospitality and so on. The problem was that Getsemaní, as we discovered after the first few hours of fieldwork, had neither street corners nor doors that played a significant role in the ways sociability was performed. Firstly, the neighbourhood barely had pavements, and the meeting points of streets were rarely meeting points for people. Rather, sociable gathering (outside of the main square) was spatially organised through the distribution of little pools of light around doorways, with people sitting on plastic chairs or the front steps of their houses (see Figure 5). Hence, doors were socially unimportant (and in any case they were mainly open if there was anyone home) while doorways, on the other hand, were utterly crucial to nightlife: the little pools of light for sociable gathering were mainly defined by light spilling through the grilles that covered the doorways, light coming from internal room lights and flickering televisions. The boundary between inside and outside was drawn differently from up north, with people sitting in their front rooms as if on the street, or sitting in groups on the street lit by their front rooms.

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a residential street with women gathered around their home entrance

The distribution of lighting and sociability on a residential street in Getsemaní

Crucially, the lights and shadows thrown by interior lights were an integral part of the streetlighting and its atmosphere, as well as central to the informational system by which people spatially distributed their sociability and by which they navigated the streets and decided which streets were safe or welcoming (it is also worth noting that Cartagena, as Colombia in general, had only gradually been emerging from the decades-long ‘Violencia’, an ever-present memory of these streets as incipiently fatal). This meant that the relationship between public and private, civic and domestic energy use was not just complicated and interdependent: public and private lighting really had to be treated as one integrated system, as a single and integral ecology. People were clearly concerned about the distinction between public and private energy costs: when we asked people about who should provide lighting on their street, they answered that the council should be providing and paying of course, followed by typical and entirely justified complaints about the quality of municipal provision, as well as detailed narratives of provision failures like broken lights and power outages. Therefore, as some interviewees said, as they gathered in one of these pools of light, we contribute our own lighting and pay for it because otherwise we could not sit outside and people could not use this street. They then went on to a describe how their own domestic lights from their living room and the surrounding ones – civic masts, car headlights, shop signage and so on – worked together to construct the gathering scene that they enjoyed every night, and how the placement of themselves and their chairs related to the overall assemblage of lighting. Their own discourse clearly connects up material properties of light and its cost with the social patterns of life they were trying to sustain.

The methodology for this programme was crucial. Firstly, the multidisciplinary team included a social research team comprising a sociologist (Don Slater) and an anthropologist (Laura Mendoza) who were supported for two 10–14 day stints of intensive fieldwork, in which we were able to interview and observe an extensive range of stakeholders, and map out the social practices of local spaces (particularly the Plaza Trinidad and surrounding residential streets) in considerable detail. Secondly, a team of spatial analysts based in architecture and urban planning were able to carry out a detailed spatial mapping. And, finally, the lighting designers on the team were able to both raise social and spatial issues, and to respond to research findings in their own terms. This team and programme was, unusually, sustained across two years allowing for extensive dialogue, and iteration, between social, spatial and design thinking. Based on this kind of fieldwork and dialogue, the Arup designers sought to avoid ‘screwing it up’ by working with the relationship between this indigenous assemblage of lighting provision, the sociable practices of diverse users and the night time atmosphere that was so valuable to diverse urban stakeholders.

The design strategy that evolved from this research approach was to take up the well-loved lantern form, which is associated with a range of traditional street forms but also provides lighting that is human scaled, wall-mounted to relate to personal interactions, and producing pooled lighting rather than uniform coverage. Moreover, these lanterns could be customised by residents both in terms of colours and patterns and in terms of positioning. We piloted these lanterns through a public engagement event in one of Getsemaní’s streets, as shown in Figures 6 and 7, below. The installation looks very different from typical lighting master planning exercises and infrastructure demos mainly because it is so dark. But that darkness clearly doesn’t arise from either technical energy saving calculations or place-making aimed at aesthetic moodiness (and, in fact, the pilot lanterns actually produced requisite brightness levels, meeting normal standards). It came out of the stories that people told us about the relationships between the material properties of light and the forms of gathering that they valued. And it was very popular.

Figure 6

Colour photograph of a man in the street looking into a street lamp shade

A customisable lantern design for human-scaled lighting

Figure 7

Colour photograph of a street scene lit by pleasant artificial lighting

Pilot lighting installation in Getsemaní aiming to work with vernacular patterns of sociability


Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/180906/001