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Light Research @ MMU

Subluminal at John Rylands Library, Manchester

On Deansgate, a main artery of Manchester, lies John Rylands Library, an extraordinary, charismatic Victorian neo-Gothic building that testifies to the power and confidence of the city’s entrepreneurs during its industrial zenith. On the nights of 30th and 31st of January and 1st February, the library was the site for Subluminal, a event devised by a group of design professionals from North West England. Their aim: to transform the usual sensory apprehension of the building. blue ceiling

Visitors were invited to enter the usually unused main door, and make their way through the library’s interior, where a plethora of light effects highlighted sensational architectural features, design details, sculptures, artefacts, stairways, niches, chambers and passageways.  Initially, we lingered in the cavernous reading room, where coloured and white lights highlighted key features, punctuating the general gloom. Then, thrillingly, we descended a very narrow spiral staircase into the bowels of the building. Walking through a dark corridor lined with leather bound books, usually inaccessible to the public,  a strobe light  briefly illuminated the surroundings.

door with bars

Further along, chambers bordered by doors with iron bars were illuminated by a soulful red light, compounding the thick atmosphere. The tour was accompanied by evocative sounds, including a welcoming introduction from the statue of industrialist John Rylands himself, ambient drones and whispers, and throbbing bass notes that spread through the subterranean passageways. At points, the gloom inside contrasted with the light from outside that shone through the ornamental windows. In wholly defamiliarising and enchanting the library through the deployment of sounds, illumination and especially darkness, Subluminal made a powerful statement about the potency of light and sonic design to enrich the sensory experience of place. For more details and selection of images, see

figures sculpture trio



February 4th, 2014 - 15:39pm

Tino Seghal’s ‘This Variation’

IMayfield Depot, Manchester‘ve just been to a magical event, part of Manchester International Festival, that relies upon the power of the dark and the ability of the eye’s cone cells to gradually become accustomed to seeing in the dark.. The location is a disused and derelict part of Piccadilly Train Station, vacant for many years, that has been opened up as a venue for the festival. Visitors enter the cavernous premises and are guided to a room along a short passageway. Inside, all is completely dark, save for a faint light in the ceiling. The room’s dimensions are impossible to guess, and imagined it had areas that sloped, with perhaps sudden drips bounded by railings. In the absence of light, the mind imagines all sorts of things. In the pitch black, we suddenly became aware of chirrupping noises all around us, and then sonorous voices accompanied these sounds, along with an array of other vocal effects. These seemed to be recorded and animated the darkness with a liveliness that had been initially absent. Yet suddenly, one’s eyes start to become accustomed to the gloom. At first, only vague shadowy forms can be ascertained, but gradually the flat, square shape of the room becomes apparent, and then the figures take on more substantial form. Magically, eyes become attuned to the darkness, and it is evident that many of the figures  in the room are performers, and they are responsible for the sounds and, we notice, movements as well. The ever-changing soundscape shifts from acapella singing to better known songs, occasionally changing into spoken words, and then a romantic slow song is the trigger for the dancers to gently draw close to the visitors, embracing them in a slow dance. It becomes comical to watch new arrivals, edging into the room, arms outstretched, but we are now part of the event, joining in the dance, responding to the performers. Tino Sehgal, designer of the event, is guided by an anti-materialistic ethos, and aims to present work that moves away from the display of (valuable) art objects and towards human interaction, creating ‘constructed situations’ that cannot be recorded and exist solely in the mind and memory of the participants.

July 17th, 2013 - 15:31pm

Fireflies in Manchester

John Hyatt and Craig Martin have made a unique artwork for All Saints Park in central Manchester. Based on the concept of Fireflies caught briefly by children in jars and informed by research into the insect, a series of solar-powered sculptures hang in the trees above. These electronic Fireflies flash in four colours and play three harmonic notes. The creators believe that good design works in harmony with the intelligence of Nature, so rather than wasting resources they have  made a permanent installation from reusable materials:

fireflies 2

‘What is life? It is the flash of the firefly at night… it is the little  shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset’ (Chief Crowfoot, Blackfoot chief)

April 30th, 2013 - 12:36pm

The Grumble Point

Perusing the 1945 City of Manchester Plan, which sets out the post-war reconstruction of the city, I came across a detailed appendix outlining a daylighting masterplan for the city. Daylighting is the practice of controlling the admission of natural light, such as direct sunlight and diffuse skylight—into a building, through the positioning of apertures and materials to redirect natural light into interior space.  In the 21st century, daylighting has been rediscovered following concerns about sustainability and energy efficiency.  Clearly if we can light buildings naturally it will reduce the need for artifical light sources (Ander, 2012).  It is interesting, therefore, to find that that daylighting was also rediscovered in 1945.

Manchester’s daylighting plans draws on the technical expertise of  T.Smith of the National Physical Laboratory Light Division and contains detailed calculations and daylight graphs for commercial buildings, assessing the amount of natural light penetrating building interiors using a formula based on building length, depth and height.

Light Factors

The Plan draws on The Ministry of Works (1944) guidance on lighting,defining the daylight factor as:

a percentage of total light available outdoors under the unobstructed sky.  Thus a daylight factor of one per cent signifies that at the point in question in which illumination is one per cent of that which would be obtained if from that point the whole hemisphere of the sky could be seen (247)

In the Manchester plan, for example, the following guidance is explained:

In living-rooms and rooms where activities such as reading, writing and sewing are carried on … 1.0 per cent

In kitchens, or rooms where cleanliness of utensils and subtle differences of colour have to be judged … 2.0 per cent

In bedrooms … 0.5 per cent

The plan adopts 1.0 per cent as the norm. This overt concern with daylight penetration masks a deep underlying planning philosophy which underpins The City of Manchester Plan.  Throughout this document is an uncritical appreciation of Le Corbusian principles of modernist planning. Le Corbusier writes:

Light and illumination are inseparable components of form, space and light. These are the things that create ambiance and feel of a place, as well as the expression of a structure that houses the functions within it and around it. Light renders texture, illuminates surface, and provides sparkle and life.

A great example of these ideas in practice is his design for The Chapel of Notre Dame at Ronchamps.  Le Corbusier’s broader intention, however, was to both metaphorically and literally bring the masses into the light, arguing that bodily and spiritual health were connected to exposure to natural light, ideas perhaps expressed in The Radiant City in which he calls for greater use glass walls and facades, together with the spacing apart of tall buildings as practical ways in which to maximise daylight peneratation. Through “slum” clearance and mass redevelopment, Manchester therefore, attempted to put these ideas into practice.

 Grumble Point

According to the Manchester plan the Grumble Point is a level “at which complaints are that visibility is difficult … reached when the light factor sinks to 0.2 per cent”. This exact scientific rationalisation of the availability of lighting is perhaps only to be expected from modernist urban planning.  The document doesn’t mention the qualities of light nor the affordances of darkness and gloom.  The assumption that the more light, the better, is perhaps challenged by contemporary understandings of lighting and architectural design.


Bullock, N (2002) Building the Postwar. Routledge, London

Chynoweth, P 2005, ‘Progressing the Rights to Light Debate Part 2: The Grumble Point Revisited ‘ , Structural Survey, 23 (4) , pp. 251-264

The Ministryof Works (1944) The Lighting of Buildings Post-war Building Studies No.12. HMSO.


April 19th, 2013 - 10:56am

Christmas Lights

There seemed to be fewer Christmas lights adorning the houses of Manchester this year. Perhaps this is due to austerity or perhaps they are becoming less fashionable.


In the UK, the spectacular array of these gaudy illuminations, typically red, gold and green, often seemingly thrown up in an ad hoc fashion, are strongly associated with expressions of class and taste, though this may be different in other parts of the world. Finding these displays jolly and seasonal, we researched what motivated people in Manchester and Sheffield to put them up each year. Before carrying out these interviews though, we were struck by the vicious criticisms to which they were subject on websites, and in articles and letters in national and local newspapers.

Critics point to what they regard as the selfish disregard for neighbours, the lack of environmental awareness, and above all, their bad taste. These supposed failings were often allied to assumptions about other negative characteristics, including laziness, scrounging benefit, and excessive breeding, and often included references to that most recent signifier of working class horror, the ‘chav’. Yet following our interviews with the displayers, it was clear that they are not concerned with the display of ‘good taste’ but the production of a festive atmosphere for the neighbourhood. Generously, they want to promote communal and family conviviality, and seasonal good cheer. At many displays, there are invitations to contribute to charitable causes. For us, the vitriol expressed by the critics cannot recognise how such forms of lighting can create shared enjoyment and a sense of place. Sadly, an obsession with what constitutes ‘good taste’ prevents them seeing the brightness, colour, silliness and fun that such displays bring.

February 11th, 2013 - 13:57pm