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Light Research @ MMU

Public controversy over public lighting – a unique opportunity to study light in space

nona - electrician

An electrician wiring a newly installed electric luminaire, despite the heated public debate

Studying city lights in Berlin is quite exciting these days. Sometimes I switch on my computer and find e-mails with the subject line ‘Tomorrow’s Protest’. They are sent by the friends of the Berlin gas lights and contain detailed information about where and when gas luminaires are going to be replaced by electric lighting. There are calls for action: ‘Be there by 7.30 a.m. Bring as many friends as possible!’ The protesters aim to stop the excavators from digging holes, the civil engineers from laying out the connections for the new electric lighting and the installers from removing the old luminaires.At the moment, the ground is still frozen. But spring will come and the contractor firm, which was commissioned by the Berlin Senate in 2011 to replace 8,000 gas luminaires by 2016, will continue its controversial work. The post-war luminaires, which are now being removed, form the smaller part of the remaining 42,500 gas powered light points in West Berlin. Most of the other lantern models are supposed to be electrified soon. The civic movement for gas light keeps mobilising new allies.

nona - gas luminaire

One of 8,000 gas luminaires that will disappear, burning inefficiently in bright daylight

Irreconcilable positions

The conflict seems unsolvable: The friends of the gas light and many residents of gas lit streets argue that this outdated lighting technology creates a unique atmosphere and should therefore be considered a cultural heritage. The Berlin Senate and the administrative staff have good reasons to vote against the gas powered city lights. Frequent fall outs cause high maintenance costs. The electrification of the lighting infrastructure will cut the public energy costs considerably and reduce the city’s CO2 emissions. According to official calculations, the electrification of the 8,000 luminaires will bring down the energy consumption from annually 48.7 to 1.4 gigawatt hours – more than 30 times less.

The objectives of those who live under the light and those who pay for it, install, operate and maintain the public lights of Berlin thus look quite incompatible. In the course of my research project I have studied the case and found that the opponents’ irreconcilable positions result from the actors’ different ways of engaging with the urban lightscape of Berlin. In my analysis I distinguish experts’ and amateurs’ engagements. While the latter refer to their immediate multi-sensory experience of the gas lit nocturnal street, policy makers and lighting experts built their argumentation on calculations and estimations. From their rational and distanced perspective on the techniques and resources that produce the beloved atmosphere the result does not justify the means. While the primary focus of the amateurs is on the visible urban space, the experts (also) focus on the invisible urban infrastructures.

nona - historicised LED

Retro look: A historicised LED retrofit replaces a modern gas model

  The “retro look” solution

However, there is a ray of hope for a compromise: In order to relax the situation, the Berlin Senate has commissioned the development of a LED solution that should imitate the light and looks of the remaining 30,000 historic gas lanterns. The result is quite satisfactory.  Although gas light friends can still tell the difference, the LEDs mimic the historic models almost indistinguishably. Yet, whether Berlin can afford an extensive LED renewal is another question. Meanwhile, I wonder about two side-effects of the proposed technical compromise. 1) The goal to imitate the gas lantern has produced a LED product that does not fully exploit the innovative potential of the new technology. One advantage of LED products is that their light output can be controlled and directed to where it is needed, which improves the energy efficiency of LED luminaires. In Berlin, the LED retrofits are designed to imitate the non-efficient light distribution of gas lanterns, including the light clutter on house facades. I take this as a piece of evidence for the socio-cultural co-production of the LED innovation. 2) In some places, ‘modern’ gas light luminaires are replaced by ‘historic’ LED lanterns. Paradoxically, the success of the “retro look” innovation thus facilitates a historicising urban renewal in some parts of Berlin. With these two observations I end my non-comprehensive overview for now and will be happy to respond to comments and questions. 

For an English report on the conflict click here.

April 22nd, 2013 - 09:51am

Brilliant Beirut

Posted by Marie Bonte

Brilliant Beirut?

If you go out at night in Beirut, you might want to be careful about where you tread, so as not to stumble. With its uneven lighting levels, large areas of public space remain obscure. The weakness and irregularity of public lighting signifies insufficient public services in Lebanon, but contrasts with the reputation of the city as a party town.

1)      Beirut, the dark city?

The story of public lighting started during the government of Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt (between 1831 and 1840). The vice regent decided to develop the city, which at that time, was only lit by domestic oil lamps. The government required storekeepers to place a lantern at the entrance to their shops after dark. Later, the administration of the Ottoman Empire was reorganized and modernized, and in March 1888, the Gas Ottoman Beirut Company began to supply public street lighting. In 1908, the first electric lighting poles were installed along with electric tramways, and public lighting of Beirut was gradually expanded to more areas. In January 1925, the Municipality upgraded the system. The number of lighting poles increased to 1500: most of Beirut streets were lit.

Yet today, existing fixtures are old, obsolete and energy consuming. There is only one street light per 33 dwellers, compared to one per 7 in France, for instance. 50% of the 10,000 street lights were installed on wall brackets and utility poles. The city has a high ratio of damaged and corroded fixtures, and even recently installed lights are obsolete, since manufacturers, mainly Schreder and Phillips, sell their old array of light bulbs. Moreover, the fixtures are subverted from their original purpose. Sometimes, lighting towers are transformed into garbage dumps, and residents make informal connections in order to acquire electricity in their otherwise unconnected homes. Photosensitive cells, devised to activate lighting, are unreliable, or are covered or paint by inhabitants in order to provide electricity round the clock. The lighting network is haphazardly activated, generating energy losses. Ratios of energy consumption are comparable to European cities of similar scale, but with a lower return rate. And the maintenance of fixtures suffers from understaffing, and a lack of technical guidance and resources. The streetlights have obsolete photometric specifications: high pressure sodium lights provide a weak yellow light, inefficiently radiating into the night sky, contributing to energy loss and light pollution. These conditions foster a sense of insecurity, a lack of visibility, and a division of the urban nightscape into different territories.



Street light used as a garbage dump

2)      Being enlightened, a privilege ? A fragmented urban nightscape.

Those remarks seemingly contradict Beirut’s reputation as a city ‘that never sleeps’, where nightlife is intense and diverse. In fact, the city is never totally asleep, and illuminated urban nightscapes are rather like micro-territories that act as a kind of relay points amongst a geography of light inequalities. Most streets are left in the dark, even in planned public areas like the seafront at Corniche where some portions of the walk remain in darkness. Those streets or districts that are illuminated are supposedly the most lively during the night. Yet this geography of urban nightscape is in perpetual motion, where trendy and fashionable places change quickly in this divided, fragmented city.

One key fragment is the symbolic central district of the city. Throughout the period of prolonged war and turbulent aftermath, this district was both the epicentre of violence and the focus of reconstructions plans. Solidere (a private company founded by millionaire politician Rafic Hariri), has been entrusted with its reconstruction and development. Creating a real tabula rasa in the city’s core, Solidere systematically razed all damaged buildings, and rebuilt a new city within Beirut, with restored Ottomans buildings, churches and mosques, and French colonial promenades. The ambition was to create a global, tourist friendly and cosmopolitan Beirut with pedestrianised streets and effective street lighting. However, it is difficult to consider this central area to be a truly public space today, with the regulation of access creating creates physical breaks in the city, reveals the fragmentation of the city at night.

controlled entry

Area of downtown, illuminated but with controlled entry by barriers and soldiers

There are other territories where lighting is private, signified by the neon signs of bars, restaurants, cafés, and shops. There are two different kinds of ‘territories of light’: where you can find alcohol and where you can’t. The districts without alcohol provision are not open all night, and are comprised of clusters of restaurants, international or Lebanese fast food outlets that target students and families. Many places are also dedicated to young and pious Muslim who strive to have fun while following moral norms in their leisure activities, and they provide restaurants and fast food, juice bars and coffee shops with soft drinks, water-pipes and traditional games.

A further territory of light is more explicitly designed for partying. Trendy districts such as Hamra, Gemmayzeh and Monnot are highly ephemeral and mobile. The streets are easy to identify, due to their neon scenography in which people are in the spotlight and act accordingly. From the car to the pub or the nightclub, a parade of people is orchestrated and regulated by ‘men of the shade’, parking valets, bouncers, and snack retailers. Part of the landscape, they stand alongside the state authorities, sometimes transmitting the urban order represented by police or soldiers. This consolidates a reading of space in which light means safety and darkness means danger.

neon 4

neon 2neon 3

Lighting in the transient party districts of Beirut

In the rest of the city, there are scattered micro-territories of light, fixed or volatile, lasting or ephemeral. They are places like Souk al Khodra, a non-stop territory of light, a wholesale market place, with officially opening hours but always operating, particularly during the night. Full of fruits or vegetables, trucks arrive all night long from Syria and Egypt, supplying large areas of the city. Shops, boutiques and little groceries, quite isolated and scattered, also bring light and activity among the darkness and silence. The snack bar Barbar has three branches in Beirut. The biggest, in Hamra, is divided into specialty stores and never closes. At any hour of the day and the night, people eat on the street before going back to their offices, homes, or hotels. During the night, these multicoloured shops become a stopping and socialising venue for workers, party-goers and taxi-drivers, attracted by light and food. Such micro-territories can also be found on the Corniche. This promenade, restructured after the war, constitutes one of the rare public spaces (or more precisely, publicly accessible space) in Beirut. The colourfully dressed crowd during the day is replaced by night-time leisure and activities, quite hidden from public view. Groups of young boys lean against their cars, sitting on a carpet or on the rocks, listening to music, smoking water pipes or drinking alcohol, all activities frowned upon by the religious and social ethos of many people. In a city that never sleeps, the lack of effective public lighting doesn’t mean the end of activities but the emergence of other kinds of practice. For in Beirut, micro territories can quickly turn into territories of darkness in which people seek more independence, autonomy and more expansive behaviour. These are places where lovers can meet, where people can have discreet relationships or engage in practices like drinking alcohol. Some areas of the Corniche provide meeting points for young gay men who manage, with suggestive gazes, or evocative bodily postures, to approach other informed observers.

souk al khodra

Souk al Khodra, micro-territory of light

3)      Brilliant Beirut? Let there be light!

Trying to solve the question of lighting in Beirut, the Lebanese architectural firm, Said Bitar, have proposed the ‘Beirut street lighting Master Plan Strategy’, designed more precisely as a SDAL (Schéma Directeur d’Aménagement Lumière). The study is in response for a call for tender, made by the French Region of Ile-de-France and deals with the social role of public lighting, aesthetics, tourism, security and the rational use of energy. The first theme of the lighting plan is to establish functional public street lighting that provides security, a better nocturnal environment, improved urban circulation and the continuation of day activities, through standardised and better maintained lighting. It remains to be seen whether the municipal will to achieve this plan exists and whether it will ever be adopted. The second aim seeks to develop environmentally friendly public lighting involving low energy lamps. The creation of several ‘paths of light’ typifies the last theme of the lighting plan. For instance, Damascus Street, known as the Boundary Line separating the city during the Civil War, is proposed as the new ‘green belt’ between Pine’s forest and Martyr’s Square, and a seam between East and West, two parts of the city which still turn their backs to one another. Furthermore, the promotion and embellishment of the city in envisaged through the lighting of buildings, monuments and landscapes. This includes a strategic choice of street lights to convey the image of a ‘modern’ city or alternatively, the ‘historic city’.

brilliant beirut

Detail of the Martyr’s Monument, transformed by the sparkling light of ‘Brilliant Beirut’

 However, such schemes provide, for the visitor, a pre-formatted path through the city. ‘Essential’ points are highlighted while others, ‘not worthy’, are shrouded in darkness, creating a partial and biased reading of the city. Those proposals tend to remind us of the significance of illumination for urban marketing. One of the most striking sentences of the lighting plan, ‘It is time for our city to shine again’, announces their communication campaign. Its slogan, ‘brilliant Beirut’, means two different things. It indicates brightness, being lit up, and also someone exceptionally clever or talented. The sentence appears on postcards showing Beirut ‘by night’. Beyond simply illuminating the city, the lighting plan mobilises two key principles. First, a city that lives at night is a modern city. Urban lighting is the spearhead in suggesting a modern, global and cosmopolitan city that never sleeps, lively and trendy. The lighting plan provides ‘normative’ vision of the metropolis, forgetting the ancient and varied existence of urban nightlife. Secondly, it is claimed that Beirut must be brilliant again. This corresponds with the idea of a glorious intellectual past (for instance when Beirut was one of the centres of Nahda, the cultural renaissance that occurred in Ottoman-ruled Arabic regions). The determination to highlight a chosen part of the past in making Beirut a ‘historic city’ has little regard for what currently exists and is invented everyday in the city. For Beirut has never stopped being brilliant.







Territories of Light in Beirut’s nightscape (L.Le Douarin, M. Bonte)

April 22nd, 2013 - 09:27am

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

Modernity, municipalism and light: 100 years of Blackpool Illuminations

I have been working with the Manchester Modernist Society , North West Film Archive and Manchester City Art Gallery, curating a season of monthly archive film screenings as part of the Gallery’s Thursday Lates programme.

Entitled The Changing Face of the North West: Modernist Dreams and Utopias, the films chart the transformation of the North West landscape through the aspirations of 20th Century dreamers, citizens and planners.

This evening I showcased three films about Blackpool, sourced from the NWFA: Blackpool: A Nation’s Playground(1939); Holiday!(1957); and Northern Lights (1959).

A Nation’s Playground

Blackpool: A Nation’s Playground (1939) was made by the London Midland & Scottish railway Co, which made over thirty films between 1934-1939. Playground was probably shot in the last summer before the outbreak of WWII to promote Blackpool, which they hoped people would then travel to, using the company’s trains of course.


Holiday! (1957). With the coming of peace and the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, individual railway film units, such as, the London Midland & Scottish railway Co, became part of the British Transport Commission. Made by British Transport Films in 1957, Holiday is one of over 1300 educational and promotional films commissioned made by the BTC. In 1955 the film unit had travelled to the North West to work on a promotional film for the region’s resorts entitled Lancashire Coast. But with so much good material available, another film was created, said almost to have been made up of the ‘leftover trims’. With the addition of a jazz soundtrack by Chris Barber and his band we end up with a film simply called Holiday!

The pre-war art deco landscape is submerged by resolutely post-war design, where concrete, colour and pop-cultural stylings contrast starkly to pre-war Blackpool. In 1950s Britain, the post-war optimism of the new Welfare State and the 1951 Festival of Britain continue to resonate in Holiday!, which foregrounds progress, technology and change. The shots focusing on the Illuminations, in particular, underscore these themes, as the lights themselves were reinvented.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights (1959), features both Morecambe and Blackpool illuminations. The film includes footage of the 1959 switch-on ceremony, noted for how the Mayor deals with the sexual presence of Hollywood superstar Jayne Mansfield. Thisceremony remains a key event in the Blackpool Calendar. Whereas other resorts shut up shop after the summer season, the switch-on event at the end of August marks the beginning of Blackpool’s busy period. In recent times, the event has been reinvented as a televised extravaganza, featuring chart topping pop-stars and TV celebrities.

The array of ‘people’ who have switched on the lights is bewildering, from George Formby to Red Rum. The chosen personality is often figure at the centre of British popular culture at the time. And so Stanley Mathews in 1951 is no surprise. And neither should we be surprised that in 1971 it was the cast of Dad’s Army, whereas in 1991 the stars included Judith Chalmers and Derek Jameson.

In the 1950s, however, the ceremony became particularly fascinating as a balcony attached to a municipal town hall in North West England, become the focal point of the Cold War. For reasons, we still can’t quite understand, a delegation from Soviet Russia visiting housing developments in Manchester, were invited to switch on the lights in 1955. This party included the Soviet Ambassador, Jacob Malik, who was to become a key figure in the Cuban Missile Crisis. To restore international diplomatic balance, US ambassador, John H Whitney was invited to switch on the lights two years later. But typically for Blackpool, sandwiched in-between these two global political figures, was Reginald Dixon, inventor and long-time player of Blackpool Tower’s famous Wurlitzer.

The film concludes with an interview between the technical director of the illuminations, Harry Carpenter, and Professor Stanley Unwin, a British comedian fluent in the language of Unwinese, or “Basic Engly Twenty Fido”. Carpenter was appointed in 1950 and become a key figure in transforming the lights during this decade. Carpenter introduced fibre glass mouldings, which enabled the illumination’s team to create and shape a much greater menagerie of three dimensional objects and figures. This material also enabled them to create plastic panels that could be illuminated to create new forms of animated tableaux. Both these technologies remain significant elements of the Illuminations today. Gone, however, are Carpenter’s huge theatrical animated tableaux, which dominated the North Shore, including a huge 650 ft long Merry England display. Tableaux remain important, but many of the traditional displays, including the wonderful Alice in Wonderland tableaux, were damaged beyond repair during recent bad weather, leaving huge gaps along the seafront. Unfortunately in age of austerity, we are unlikely to see large scale displays like this return to Blackpool in the near future. At least Northern Lights gives us some indication about what these spectacular displays were like.

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Thursday Lates

February 21st, 2013 - 14:25pm