What About Colored Light?

April 9, 2012 / no comments

Lam Partners Kera Lagios NWS Garage

The rate of growth in LEDs these days is perhaps only exceeded by the rate of growth of colored LEDs. Colored light in itself constitutes a new world, insofar as it is used in a wider architectural context. While destinations like Times Square and Las Vegas (and many rock concerts and laser light shows) have used animated and colored lights for decades, this type of lighting is quickly becoming mainstream and is adding dramatically to the total amount of light in our environments, especially when you take media facades into account. Can we expect colored light to become as ubiquitous as white light? Can our visual landscape handle it? I am both skeptical and intrigued by these recent trends. While there are creative minds out there making the most of it, there’s also a “one-liner” feeling that accompanies many applications, born out of the relative ease of using colored lights and creating effects. Given these competing observations, the topic is definitely worth some critical discussion.

Lam Partners Las Vegas Night

First, I’ll tackle my skepticism. Generally speaking, as human beings, we are conditioned to view things in full-spectrum light, as it most closely resembles daylight. Because colored light is deficient in some parts of the spectrum, it can make many things (like skin and plant life) look unnatural. Given this, it’s hard to use colored light for general illumination. I’m also skeptical of broader use of colored light because it’s visually noisy. Perhaps this is due to our comfort with the way things have been lit “traditionally” (i.e. with white light), but another factor could be that motion or animation often accompanies color. Simple color players make it easy to program fixtures to cycle through a series of routines. So the opposition is not necessarily between white light and, say, red or blue light, but between white and ROYGBIV. It’s also just one step closer to a much “noisier” kind of light: media, which, after all, is just a collection of RGB pixels forming an image. My last hesitation stems from the general lack of imagination with which colored light is most often used. Many installations appear to mostly make use of only a small fraction of colors, and almost always seem to be illuminated at a gaudy 100% brightness. Mixing of colors, subtle shading or highlighting all seem to be nonexistent.

Hong Kong Lights Lam Parters

On a cheerier note, let’s move on to what intrigues me about colored light. I’ll start with the biggest attraction: it’s new, somewhat awkward, and as I mentioned, garish. I’m not totally sure what to make of it. That’s fodder for investigation. Until now, color hasn’t been a big part of the lighting palette. To keep things totally colorless is perhaps to keep us from a challenge or a fruitful new frontier. I might be overly optimistic, but at least it will be interesting to find out.

Another appealing facet of colored light, and all of its cousins, is the way it can be employed deliberately to alter perception. In one particularly alluring approach, many media design firms (like Urban Screen) have used light to create elaborate 3d animations that are mapped onto facades, using projection. Through the deft skills of the artists and the use of light alone, these animations make the facades appear to move. Sure, this is smoke and mirrors and simple illusionistic tricks, but on the other hand, it begs the question of how much of what we know about the world around us is a factor of light. It asks us to consider how much can we change our environment by changing its lighting.

Kera Lagios Lam Partners Room One Color Eliasson

“Room for One Color”, 1997, Olafur Eliasson, Take your Time, MoMA, 2008

The last reason I’ll give for my interest pertains to all LEDs, not just the color-changing type. The delivery systems of all LEDs are increasingly varied and defy the bounds of traditional vessels. It is now possible to do almost anything, from bending LEDs to sewing them. Delivery materials, like metal mesh, make light spatially maneuverable, unlike it’s ever been before.

While the above gives a sense of some of the pros and cons that surround colored/dynamic lighting, perhaps the most valuable aspects will be seen in the areas outside its current applications. Dynamic, adaptive, and interactive lighting, quite possibly could have important implications for our environments in terms of health, safety, or post-disaster relief. Because of the ability to change and transform perceptions, it may meet demands for locations or situations where conditions change dramatically and often. The flexibility and adaptability of dynamic, colored lighting fits right into a world in which so little is fixed and constant, but if it’s going to be a lasting and worthwhile development, it is important that we find ways to use it deliberately and critically…at least when we aren’t using it just for fun.

Photo credit: Kera Lagios/Lam Partners (1), woosh2007 (2), Vasenka (3), Kera Lagios (4)

Perception and Expectation

September 21, 2009 / no comments


Light and color have historically been closely integrated with architecture and design, as they can completely change a viewer’s perception of form and space. Color around us is the simple consequence of reflected or transmitted light. It is not a characteristic of an object without light.

In Monet’s study of the Rouen Cathedral, his painting series depicts a perception of the Cathedral that dramatically changes as the lighting quality and colors vary. These different perceptions of the same Cathedral are due to the reflections of light, color, and relative brightness of the architectural form, caused by varying daylight conditions.

Light is a very descriptive tool: it creates shadow and depth, defines edges and boundaries, renders objects and people, and informs us of the conditions of our surroundings. With shifts of light, brightness/contrast ratios, and changing reflections, the “image” of the space transforms. This image or “perception” of space is an important biological need for humans, giving us not only the ability to perform specific tasks within that space, but also the important quality of visual, aesthetic, and psychological comfort.

Appropriate color of light is very important to the quality of lighting in a space. As humans, we have developed subjective expectations of what is appropriate, based upon previous experiences that have been mentally compiled. We process our visual field in comparison to other spaces that are “pleasing,” as well as to what we know of the exterior environment of that particular time of day or season. It’s important to recognize the change in color and intensity of light, from day to night and summer to winter, in artificial lighting designs, as those expectations are firmly set in our circadian rhythms.


The Amenity Curve, developed by A.A. Kruithof, illustrates the idea that a “visually pleasing environment” is directly related to the “expected” color temperature of the light source. Typically, we expect lighting color temperatures in the warmer range for spaces with lower overall light levels, such as residential environments or lounge areas, whereas cooler color temperatures are expected for more public spaces that require higher light levels. “Warm” refers to light color temperatures between 2700K to 3000K. Incandescent sources are rich in red and yellow, which is similar to the familiar light of the sun, and of common candle flames. “Cool” refers to light color temperatures between 3600K to 5500K. These color temperatures are more closely related to the bluish color of skylight, around 6500K.

When our visual expectations and our need for information are satisfactorily met, then our environment is perceived as appropriate and comfortable, meaning that we measure “comfortable” lighting not by a strict allowance of footcandles, but as a balance of brightness and contrast throughout a space that meets our expectations, both physically and mentally.

These principles of light and color in architecture are the means by which architecture expresses its form and function to its occupants. Light communicates visual information to the viewer, and establishes how we perceive our environment.