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Light Research @ MMU

Picturing the dynamics of urban lightscapes

Posted by Josiane Meier

Urban lighting generally seems to be a rather static affair: When night falls, the lights are switched on – and when dawn rises, they go off. However, given that there is not only one switch for a city’s lights, but rather a whole array of larger and smaller switches and dials, it’s worth asking whether this simple and synchronised “on-off-on-off” is really what’s happening. Are there differences in rhythm and schedule between public and private lighting, between street lights, architectural illuminations and neon signs, between the lights in different parts of a city? And, if so: What determines their dynamics?

In order to gain insights into this largely uncharted territory, we are assembling and analysing a growing collection of time lapse videos. Each video portrays one night in one of Berlin’s urban centres – places that are hotspots of day- and night-time activity and that are typically expected & accepted to be especially bright. Composed of over 1.000 individual images each, and furnished with time stamps, the videos make it possible to observe what happens with individual light sources as the night progresses. The camera’s positioning and settings are kept identical, thereby allowing for the comparison of levels of brightness within and between locations.time lapse Breitscheidplatz

time lapse Alexanderplatz

Three of the locations have been portrayed in early summer nights – Alexanderplatz, Potsdamer Platz and Hackescher Markt – to allow for comparability, while one – Breitscheidplatz – is shown in the winter holiday season, providing a glimpse at the special case of festive lighting.

One thing quickly becomes very clear when viewing the videos: Urban lightscapes are not static at all – they change significantly throughout the night. It is interesting to note that there are places with a considerably more or less pronounced dynamic. The lights at Hackescher Markt, in particular, don’t change much at all in comparison to those of Alexanderplatz or Potsdamer Platz. Remarkably, the level of brightness at Hackescher Markt also appears to be significantly lower than at the other two locations – both in our videos and in a bird’s eye view of Berlin at night – despite various indicators pointing toward it being the place in this comparison that sees the most activity during the night.

time lapse Hackescher-Mkt  time lapse Potsdamer-Platz

Differences between various types of light sources are also becoming apparent. For example, public street lights and the illumination of public transport stations stay on throughout the night in all cases. Architectural illumination and lit advertisements, on the other hand, often go out in the small hours – some remain off, while others relight in the early morning. There are, however, significant exceptions: The dome of the IMAX cinema at Potsdamer Platz or the steeple of the Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz remain brightly lit all night long. The assortment of seasonal lights visible in the Breitscheidplatz time lapse follows a variety of rhythms: While the Christmas market’s lights go off at around 10:15 pm, the adornments along the street only go out at 12:15 am, and the construction crane’s decoration remains lit all night.

Overall, it has become very evident that the how, when and why of our illuminated nights is not at all clear-cut: Far from being static or homogenous, they are an amalgamation of many different actors’ actions and logics, and their dynamics are worth investigating as much as the motives behind them.

December 18th, 2014 - 13:51pm

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