POETRY IN LIGHTING DESIGN

It was a starry night in October, a few years ago. We were standing outside in the small, picturesque village of Fiskars in Southern Finland. We had darkened the whole area; all the streetlights were off. Fiskars is a 350-year-old steel mill village. A small river with a strong current runs through the middle. The river has always been the heart of Fiskars.

 

There are two small waterfalls in the very center of the village. We had built a lighting demonstration for one of the waterfalls as part of our commission to create new lighting for the area. We used just one small light caster to lift the waterfall from the darkness. Two men were there with us: our client, the Vice President of the Fiskars company, and a quiet strong man who had lived in the village his entire life. He had been helping us to build the demonstrations. The Vice President turned to ask his opinion. We were all surprised to notice that this local guy had tears in his eyes and he was staring at the waterfall. He said, whispering: “All my life I have just heard that water in the darkness; now I can also see it after 50 years, and it is so beautiful.” This experience made us think about the power of light and our responsibility as designers.

 

If we really think about it, it is impossible to work with light itself. Light is meaningless before it meets something. Light earns its life when it starts to play with surfaces, materials, places, locations. On our way to becoming lighting designers we learn about light, lamps and fixtures, but we should pay even more attention to studying the environment, places and objects, which will be our true client. Lighting a city, a town, is an extremely demanding challenge. People, past generations, have written their stories on the walls and streets. Part of the stories are written with stone and concrete, some of them live in stories and books. Then there are hidden stories which carry enormous power within: the  memories of the people. Places to fall in love, places for the first kiss, places for joy and happiness, for sorrow and loss.

 

Does a painting exist if no one is looking at it? Does a poem exist if no one reads it? Eternal philosophical questions. I have started to realize that the place where our design gets its life and meaning is not where it physically exists. We are doing our design for people to experience and feel. The space with light is created inside people’s minds and souls, where it has its final interpretation. People’s experience in our work is seen through all those personal layers of memories, education, feelings and connotations.

 

Our design is created with steel, electricity and glass; with these materials we create light. Our light meets the stones, concrete and wood the way we have determined. How well we succeed depends on our capability and sensitivity to understand the place, the location and the stories written into the common heritage of the site. We highlight something, while other things we leave to darkness. We continue the tradition of the storytellers of the place, adding our new layer to the history of the site.

 

How to be a good lighting designer? A philosophy of light – no matter how weird, sentimental or scientific, you have to have it. You have to have your own personal point of view. Then you have to be able to analyze, to read the place and your task to understand the situation. When you have all this, then you still have to be able to tell the stories of places with light. You have to be able to master the techniques at the same time. Due to these reasons we believe that a good lighting designer should understand lighting, architecture, urban design, electrical engineering physics, psychology, semiology, history, and so on. This is the reason why we believe that lighting design is teamwork. In our team we have the training of an experienced architect and an experienced electrical engineer, both with experience in lighting design. Yet even this is not enough. You have to be able to say: I do not know – let me ask somebody. With these resources we might be able to create good lighting that might rise to the level where we can talk about the Poetry of Light. The spirit, the soul, creates the poem, cities and places are our paper and canvas, and light and darkness are our pen.

 

The canvas of the lighting designer is dark black. That is where it all starts. Studies of light have made me think about the dualistic nature of things. Light and darkness, sound and silence, movement and standing still, the play of pairs. I call one the power part; the other part is the basic level, the starting point, eternity.

 

Darkness is the origin, the state of being without any life, without any concept of space. For some people total darkness is scary and threatening. For me it means peace and rest. Light is the outburst of energy, life. It is always produced, somehow. It will last as long as the reaction causing it is alive. Light has the concept of time built in it. As well as an individual outburst carries time with it, two separate lights can give a meaning, dimension, time to darkness by marking the boundaries for the indefinable darkness. An end and a starting point.

 

This approach is easy to repeat with sound and silence. Total silence has no dimensions for our senses. Sound is an outburst created with energy. Sound itself has a length, which can be measured in terms of time and quantity. Music contains many extremely powerful examples of the power of silence. Two notes marking the beginning and the end of silence: usually the most powerful moment of many symphonies, a quiet moment between two notes. The wait for the next outburst: you can almost feel the time, the anticipation. Silence gets a meaning, a length, energy, life.

 

In order to see light, study darkness. In order to hear sound, study silence. This is the poetry in lighting design.

 

Vesa Honkonen

 

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