Lighting: the good the bad and the shadowy

Desire for lighting

Much of Sherman’s lecture an the Dahl reading focused on lighting in technical terms and practical applications of windows and artificial lighting in architecture. However, it was Lam’s excerpt on lighting on human perception and experience that really caught my attention. Dahl points out:

During the day, we generally expect bright interior conditions, with wall and ceilings cheerfully illuminated, since they take the place of the sky and sunlit surroundings. At night , we expect the environment to be less bright, and luminance levels in the same space can be far below those appropriate during the daytime without making the space feel dark or generating feelings of gloom or sensory deprivation. Our eyes adapt to gradually changing luminous conditions during the cycle of the day and night, so that at night a candlelit room may be perceived as being brightly illuminated. The apparent brightness is high, even though the measured brightness or luminance is very low. (Dahl)

He considers current lighting standard codes developed by lighting engineers as fix-all solutions as blind to the truth that lighting plays a crucial part in the way we perceive an environment. He argues, instead, for quality over quantity. Without this in mind, the indiscriminate implementation of light as an end in of itself leads all to often to uncomfortably over-lit artificial spaces (ie; a 70s office building or Campbell Hall). It’s important to remember that we can use light to our advantage, intentionally manipulating it in all its aspects to create an environment and sensorial experience architecture alone cannot achieve.

Theater stage lighting

Clever implementation of lighting may be used consciously to create an experience or mood. Nowhere is this better seen than in the case of movies and theater. Color, intensity, direction and spread of light produces in the audience feelings of danger, joy, sadness or mystery. More to the point, lights have the capacity to focus the viewers’ attention on particular elements over others. That’s why the theater seating is always dark–we are allowed to be completely absorbed by the performance, forgetting our place and moment as spectator.

Unintended side effects of modern lighting

A common thread in my developing thought process fostered by this class has been to look at consequences of our modern civilization in contrast to the biological animals, we as humans, have been developing from before the advent of technology (in this instance, as early as agriculture). In the case of lighting, I have wondered how a relatively recent saturation of lighting has affected thousands of years of evolutionary body physiology. One interesting change is that of a disturbance of our earlier circadian sleep patterns. As I found in reading “The Myth of the Eight Hour Sleep” by Stephanie Hegarty, before the 17th century it was accepted fact that people slept in two segmented blocks; the first beginning about two hours after dawn followed by a two hour period of activity before a second sleep block. Virginia Tech historian Roger Ekirch found that during this period people often wrote, talked, contemplated dreams or had sex. So what happened to this delightful nocturnal reprise? “Ekirch found that references to the first and second sleep started to disappear during the late 17th Century… He attributes the initial shift to improvements in street lighting, domestic lighting and a surge in coffee houses – which were sometimes open all night. As the night became a place for legitimate activity and as that activity increased, the length of time people could dedicate to rest dwindled.” (Hegarty)


New York at night

The irony of this modern ailment resonates strongly with me as I lie in bed typing this very sentence well after midnight. I know, however that I am not alone, as the pressures and stress of the modern life affect nearly all of us (especially in the academic realm). But fortunately as we learn more about things like the effects of lighting on perception and biology we are armed with the ability to use this to our advantage and protect ourselves from its possible negative consequences. For instance, I have turned off one of my lights and kept the other indirect and in the warm spectrum to intentionally create an atmosphere of comfort and prepare my wary mind for sleep. Still, I can only imagine the long-term effects that have began to arise from the ever-lit mega city and the lamentable dwindling of visible starlight around them. We have entered an uncertain age in which too many children of the new millennium will grow up never knowing true darkness. Light pollution from millions of cars and street lights paint a picture of absolute obsession with artificial light that can be seen from outer space. Is this necessarily such a bad thing? If so, is there anything that can be done about it? Are we perhaps, too far gone?


Hegarty, Stephanie. “The Myth of the Eight Hour Sleep.” BBC News Magazine. 22 February 2012. Web.

Lam, William M. C. Perception and Lighting As Formgivers for Architecture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977.

Photo credits:

“New York at night”

“Theater stage lighting”


1 Comment

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One response to “Lighting: the good the bad and the shadowy

  1. This is an excellent post, Kevin. Very insightful. Keep the philosopher’s voice in your design research and generative making!

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