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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

A temporary and permeable border of light: Berlin’s Lichtgrenze

Posted by Josiane Meier

From November 7-9 2014, Berlin celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall with a light installation that first retraced and then re-erased the structure that separated the two parts of the city from 1961 to 1989. The “Lichtgrenze” – literally the „border of light“ – created by Christopher and Marc Bauder, a media artist and a film director, was composed of some 8.000 white balloons made of natural rubber that were tethered to the ends of slender carbon poles. LEDs mounted at the top of the poles gave the large balloons the appearance of being illuminated from within. Placed in an accurate line following some 15 km of the path of the Wall (not as straight as one might expect), they resembled a string of big pearls hanging in the night air.

Lichtgrenze-Norweger-StrThe Lichtgrenze provided an occasion for thousands of Berliners and visitors to engage in a sort of massive night hike along the former border. Through this, what might be considered quite a static installation was transformed into an interactive monument: people weaved between the lights, occasionally stopping to take pictures, give one of the poles a push to make it sway, to chat or puzzle over whether they were now standing in what was once the East or the West. At intervals along the way, people gathered to watch historic film footage projected on screens and paused to read stories that brought to life the Wall’s gravely threatening qualities.

 

Lichtgrenze-Brücke-v-untenEvery so often, the Lichtgrenze was complemented by informal lighting interventions, such as a group of memorial candles placed at the head of Schwedter Steg (a narrow bridge), and incidental illuminations, such as the sodium-vapour streetlight that illuminated the translucent portraits of the Wall’s victims at the memorial site at Bernauer Straße. These small – and generally not very bright – spots of light that accompanied the formal installation may or may not have been part of the plan; they certainly greatly deepened my experience by embedding the perfect-looking border of light in its imperfect context.

Lichtgrenze - Schwedter-Steg-sm

Having noticed the lights’ cool bluish hue, I was somewhat surprised to read later on that the balloons were not only intended to remind people of the dimensions of the wall, but also to symbolise the candles carried by many during the peaceful revolution in the autumn of 1989. While the cool light didn’t exactly create a candle-light atmosphere, it was likely a good choice in this case as it allowed for the luminous border to set itself apart from the significantly warmer-toned street lights. The installation was even clearly discernible from high in the air.

Lichtgrenze-RegViertel_2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

http://userpage.fu-berlin.de/geoiss/de/home.html

After being in place for two nights and two days, the installation culminated in its own dissolution: each helium-filled balloon was released into the night by its very own “Ballonpate” or “balloon patrons” following an orchestrated sequence. The balloons carried with them cards containing messages from their patrons. Unfortunately, it was quite difficult to keep track of the balloons as they went up: no longer lit from within, they immediately all but disappeared against the overcast sky, which had a glow all of its own from the city’s lights. I wonder how it would have been if the architectural illuminations and bright billboards (I hardly dare say the street lighting…) had been switched off for the half hour during which the balloons were released. Against a somewhat darker sky, they might have stood a better chance.

Lichtgrenze-Charite-Ballonflug

 

November 12th, 2014 - 13:06pm

Queueing for the dark

Posted by Katharina Gabriel

Institut für Public Health und Pflegeforschung, Universität Bremen, katharina.gabriel@uni-bremen.de

In this day and age there are hardly any places in our neighbourhood unaffected by artificial light at night. Whenever in need we turn light on as a matter of course. Darkness has become rare in our everyday life but as we don’t miss it we don’t realize.

Within the interdisciplinary research project “Verlust der Nacht” (“Loss of the Night” – www.verlustdernacht.de), we investigated the reasons for brightening the night by artificial light, as well as its consequences for animals and humans. As a project coordinator, one of my tasks was to raise people’s awareness about light pollution.Logo_VdN_neg

For the project’s open day we developed a ‘Room of Darkness’ to solicit experiences of senses other than vision for visitors. We prepared boxes for touching and boxes for smelling. Those for touching provided material of different textures such as pebbles, balloons, the bark of a horse chestnut tree, screw nuts and flakes of polystyrene. Those for smelling provided scents of coffee, lemon, basil and nutmeg. We excluded anything wet, ugly or potentially allergenic. We eliminated all sources of light with the exception of one single faint light source for security – enough for scotopic vision. After two of us had adapted our eyes to the gloom, groups of 10 to 15 people: – families, friends, couples – entered. After finding a place within the room, the door was closed and they were welcomed with a short speech about humans being day active creatures whose strongest sense for orientation is vision. In the absence of light we feel unsure and thus tend to brighten the night. However, we have other senses that can be deployed for orientation, such as hearing. Instinctively, visitors followed the speaker’s voice with their head, and sharing this observation surprised them! We then invited them to test their other senses.

In the boxes for smelling, coffee was obvious; even little children identified the right box when asked to point it out. Nutmeg and basil, however, could conjure up associated foods. Instead of ‘basil’, visitors referred to ‘tomato and mozzarella’, and instead of ‘nutmeg’, they identified ‘mashed potatoes’ – both dishes commonly flavoured with these herbs and spices! In the boxes for touching, the first challenge was to overcome the timidity that restrained people from plunging their hands inside. Most of the contents were easy to distinguish. For the screw nuts we accepted ‘pearls’ as correct answer from children, though men often answered “M8” – the correct name of the item in terms of the size of diameter, testifying to the habitual, sensual knowledge of the handyman!L

After a while the children started to run around – their eyes able to adapt more quickly to the darkness than those of the adults. However, most visitors’ eyesight adapted towards the end of the session (after 10 to 12 minutes). Occasionally, we were asked, whether we had switched on some light. Only seniors lacked the ability to visually adapt. Conversation arose about eye physiology with its rods and cones, resulting in photopic and scotopic vision. Sometimes blindness and the natural options for orientation were discussed as well as options in the built environment.

We offered the ‘Room of Darkness’ over three years and it was always well attended. I learned that in peak times people had waited in line for two rounds – to experience of darkness again they had queued for more than half an hour…

 

November 12th, 2014 - 12:49pm

Crowd Darkening: Designing darkness in a Berlin park

Light designer Sabine De Schutter is the winner of the 2013 CLU Foundation Contest for innovative lighting concepts for exterior public space. Sabine and colleagues were rewarded for devising the concept of Crowd Darkening, using an adaptive system of illumination that uses motion tracking to respond to movement and the numbers of people in a public park in Berlin. When few people were in the park, lighting levels rose to enhance feelings of security, whereas levels fell when the numbers of park users increased. Besides minimising the effects of light pollution, Sabine and the the team contend that a sense of safety is created by the presence of several other people in such a setting. Moreover, a sense of well-being and the quality of the atmosphere can be improved by producing a pleasing, comfortable setting  in which a group of friends can socialise. This is a fabulous example of the ways in which designers are increasingly questioning the need to flood public space with light, and reconsidering the qualities offered by darkness and shadow. I envisage that we are at the threshold of a bigger process through which the relationship between light and dark will be completely reconsidered

http://www.lumec.com/blog/index.php/2013/11/19/interview-with-sabine-de-schutter-1st-prize-winner-of-the-2013-clu-foundation-contest/

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November 21st, 2013 - 10:39am

Light and play

From Nona: On 17/5/13 I attended a conference organised by the Professional Lighting Design Association in Berlin and had the pleasure of listening to Maria João Pinto Coelho telling an inspiring story of an invention consisting of seven black boxes. All boxes look the same and contain items like candles, artificial light sources, mirrors, pieces of wood or card board. They also come with instructions that invite anyone who will open them to playfully explore the powers of light in space. The Game of Light will start whenever people join together round the boxes: “we’ll open them, we’ll read the instructions and… we’ll play!”

Source: http://www.eljuegodeluz.org/en/boxes/light-and-shadow

Source: http://www.eljuegodeluz.org/en/boxes/light-and-shadow

Maria  has conceived, planned and orchestrated the Game of Light.it together with her lighting designer colleague Ignacio Valero Ubierna to create a research tool that encourages a playful engagement with lighting techniques and technologies and their effects. Educative wooden toys developed by the German pedagogue Friedrich Fröbel in the 19th century – the so called Froebel Gifts – were one source of inspiration.

In her presentation however, Maria João Pinto Coelho created suspense: rather than revealing the content of the boxes , she opened the black-box of the design process for us. The boxes were developed and manufactured by seven lighting designers and seven students, grouped up in mixed teams of two. Before they could start, they were given instructions regarding the size and colour of the boxes (black with a light bulb symbol). Furthermore, the design task was that each of the seven boxes should address a specific light-related question:

  • Poetry in light – what kind of emotions can light deliver?
  • Space and perception of light – how does light affect our perception of space?
  • Light and Shadow – how can we play with contrasts, darkness and brightness?
  • Materials under the light – how does light change the appearance of materials?
  • Light and colors – how do we perceive color through light?
  • Drawing light with technology – how can you change the way in which light spreads?
  • (the box with no name) – what is lacking, overlooked or missing in lighting design?

I will not go into the details of the boxes – they become much more tangible through the images on the website of the Game of Light. The website must suffice since the only two sets of boxes still reside in Mexico. There, they were successfully tested by an assembly of 250 lighting designers during the Encuentro Iberoamericano de Lighting Design EILD 2010. The plan is to ship one set of boxes to Europe some day in order to have one Game of Light on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. “But they are heavy”, says Maria and has already moved on to new projects. The way she talks about the evolution and realization of her idea conveys another message: The game is on. The tool box is out in the world. Now, it is up to others to put it to use.

May 23rd, 2013 - 13:00pm

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