Culture & History

Celebrating Light

Dr Thanh  Tran
Dr Thanh Tran
ASA Lighting Design Studio
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Light is everywhere. It is the sunlight reflecting on a rock, the moonlight casting leafy shadows under the trees, or the starry sky of Van Gogh sparkling above the towns and cities. Light is all around us; it is always there but not something we always notice.

Light is not limited to a source to bring brightness to space; it contributes to emotion and wellness quality, magnifies our cultures, and has always been a source of inspiration for art and architecture.

Hence, UNESCO has announced the 16th of May each year to be The International Day of Light “to celebrate the role light plays in science, culture and art, education, and sustainable development, and in fields as diverse as medicine, communications, and energy. The celebration will allow many different sectors of society worldwide to participate in activities that demonstrate how science, technology, art and culture can help achieve the goals of – building the foundation for peaceful societies”.

Light celebrating lives

“Light plays a central role in our lives. On the most fundamental level, through photosynthesis, light is at the origin of life itself”_UNESCO.

The Weather Project (2003), an impressive art installation by Olafur Eliasson, features an artificial “Sun” illuminated by 200 sodium lamps emitting very low monochromatic yellow light, rendering the space and visitors colourless. In the setting flooded by monochromatic yellow light, Olafur’s giant sun rises out of layers of fine mist within the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London, giving viewers an illusion of being very close to the sun.

For some, the sight represents a bright and beautiful solar noon; for others, it is a snapshot of the end of the day, a sun dimming with its last energies. Perhaps, the point here is to say that life exists under the very “same” sun and exists as equal despite our differences.

Humanity has had a reliance on light from the very beginning. Since the invention of fire, the first artificial light source, humanity has striven to create new and improved mediums and technologies to satisfy the needs of each era. In some ways, each step in artificial lighting development reflects society’s movements, patterns, and preferences. Wherever there are people and human activity, there is light.

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The Weather Project, London by Olafur Eliasson; Berlin at night, shot by Chris Hadfield

In this photo of Berlin in 2019 taken by NASA astronaut Chris Hadfield from space, it is not difficult to recognise the difference in lighting colours between East and West Berlin. Even though Berlin has been a unified city for 30 years, the division can still be seen illuminating on clear nights.

On the right, East Berlin glows in yellow light. Meanwhile, West Berlin beams in bright white light. The contrast can be best explained through history as a legacy of the Cold War. Based on The Guardian article, the yellow light is the production of sodium-vapour lamps. On the other hand, the white light comes from the everyday use of fluorescent lamps. Additionally, through lighting density patterns, we are able to observe and identify the differences in the level of commercial movements and activities occurring in West Berlin versus East Berlin. (The Telegraph).

This photo captures the footprint of society or, as I call it, “lightprint”.

Culture sets the foundation of people’s identities, and light is a part of it.

Light Celebrating Culture

Light is a vestige of many aspects of life, such as economy, politics, and culture. Culture sets the foundation of people’s identities, and light is a part of it. In her message to celebrate the International Day of Light in 2020, Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, UNESCO Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, stated that “across cultures, light is a universal symbol of life, inclusion, and renewal.”

Around the world, people gather to speculate fireworks on New Year’s Eve night to welcome a new beginning. Light has biological and physical values, as well as great spiritual significance. Through light, people commemorate their differences as well as common interests.

In lighting design, light’s cultural characteristic helps shape the identities and mood. For example, with high-end Japanese restaurants like Sora Sushi and Sake Lounge, it is crucial to utilise minimalist and warm light to enhance the aesthetic arrangement while celebrating the formal Japanese dining customs and etiquette. In contrast, with San Fou Lou, a casual Chinese noodle bar, red lanterns are an excellent communication device that conveys the notion of “Eating as a way to attain happiness” of Chinese culture as described in I Ching.

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Sora Sushi and Sake Lounge – ASA Lighting Design Studio; San Fu Lou – ASA Lighting Design Studio

Lighting in art and architecture

Not only does light bring life to earth, capture our footprint and enrich our culture but also, from a lighting designer’s perspective, accentuates our arts and architecture.

Claude Monet is an artist obsessed with light. He created a series of paintings of the same scene many times to capture the changing of light and the passing of the seasons. Among the best-known examples are his series of Haystacks (1890–91), the Rouen Cathedral (1894), and the famous painting of water lilies in his garden in Giverny that occupied him continuously for the last 20 years of his life. Through these works, Monet attempted to illustrate the importance of light in our perception of a subject. In each painting, with different lighting, different emotions surface.

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The Rouen Cathedral (1894), Monet

When it comes to portraying the power that light and atmosphere have on architecture, Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paints the perfect example. Consisting of 31 canvases, the series depicts the historical site under different light and weather conditions. In each of Monet’s paintings, the stony material of the Cathedral’s façade appears to vary. These canvases ring true to LeCourbusier’s ethos, “Architecture is the learnt game, correct and magnificent, of forms assembled in light.” In this sense, light is an indispensable part of architecture.

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Deutsches Haus – Marcus Bredt GMP Architects

As a lighting designer, it is my role to use light to honour and communicate the message of architecture. When working on the Deutsches Haus project with architects from GMP, the ASA Lighting Design Team envisions the building as equivalent to a sculpture. Through a compact double-skin façade, Deutsches Haus is rigid in its appearance, expressing the spirit of innovative and modern Germany. As a complement factor, the façade lighting works to embrace the architecture and imbues the design with a sense of high-class elegance. Simultaneously, the interior lighting was purposefully designed to enhance space through the assembly of form, shape, and materials in light.

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Dragon Bridge – Robert Whithword

Light Celebrating Dreams & Visions

As global cities navigate forward, people will continue leaving our footprint as light illuminating buildings and spaces. The PwC’s “Cities of the future” study names the lighthouse strategy – development of an iconic cultural attraction, as one of the ways cities can attract dreamers and visionaries worldwide. For example, starting as a port city, Da Nang expanded its capabilities as a tourist destination after significantly investing in iconic infrastructure and architecture like the Dragon Bridge. The highlight of this cultural landmark is the remarkable display of pyrotechnics and rainbow-coloured light show that leave people in awe on every occasion. As a result, Dragon Bridge became not only a tourist attraction but also an iconic footprint that transformed the city and marked the rise of its potential.

Light is fascinating. As a lighting designer, my goal is to encourage everyone to understand light in different aspects. So let us all celebrate lighting and all it represents each year on 16th May – the International Day of Light.

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