My wife often says that I may be the only lighting designer who advocates for less light. I know that’s not entirely true, but I’m sure that I’m in the minority when I say that I think there should be less façade and site lighting, in general. I’m not saying that there should be absolutely no exterior lighting. It seems quite natural to want to showcase a brand new building or site. Isn’t the owner entitled to do that? So why would I potentially insult someone by telling them that their building isn’t important enough to light?
One could argue that a lot of site and façade lighting contributes to light pollution and wastes energy in the middle of the night, but those are both secondary reasons for my argument. I would argue that by lighting absolutely everything we build, lighting too much, we are actually making our built environment less special. We are raising the bar so that, in order to stand out, we need to go above and beyond what is reasonable. Imagine if every office, condo, government, school, and any other building in every city uplit their columns and washed their walls. What makes those buildings special anymore? In order to be unique, you would have to be really creative. Searchlights perhaps?
The point is that less may be, and often is, more. By selecting a few key elements of the design to highlight, the architecture or landscaping becomes more iconic, more memorable, and more recognizable.
“The building with the blue eaves….”
“Oh yeah, I know which one you’re talking about.”
We also want to avoid simple escalation – theirs is bright, so I’ll make mine even brighter. The most famous example of this might be Times Square, where the visual noise can be so overwhelming (if perhaps more in an advertising sense) that you may actually be driven away in search of a calmer environment. Each sign in the square tries to outdo and outshine all the others. Not many New Yorkers actually go to Times Square.
So, before you move ahead, ask a few of these questions to determine if your exterior lighting is really making the most impact that it can:
Is there even anyone around to see it at night?
Is there something unique to focus on, or are you just blasting walls?
Is the exterior lighting you’re proposing different from your neighbors’?
Do you have more lighting than your neighbors? (Hint: the answer should be no)
Can you do better by doing more with less?
And my final thought – let the public buildings shine. They belong to all of us and they are a symbol of our community and country. The libraries, the universities, the state houses, and the train stations are stunning examples of American architecture at its best.