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Shine a light

27 Feb 2009

Can lighting ever be a substitute for bad architecture? Many apparently think so &ETH; with a host of projects designed to add grace to even the grimmest of faades, and colour to the bleakest of enviroments. Prospect investigates.<br/>

Can lighting ever be a substitute for bad architecture? Many apparently think so Ð with a host of projects designed to add grace to even the grimmest of faades, and colour to the bleakest of enviroments. Prospect investigates.

Glasgow has witnessed many successful lighting initiatives, notably the cityÕs biennial Radiance festival and the progressive replacement of sodium bulbs with high visibility clear light.  As the city labours under a cloak of seasonal darkness however, attention turns to the future as these past successes spawn several audacious interventions of light which promise to set the city aglow.

An innovative approach to lighting is being undertaken in Castlemilk by Collective Architecture with support from Castlemilk Tenants Association. This arises from a wider shift in strategy from Glasgow City Council who are now keen to divest their lighting strategy with social and educational gain.  Such a move differentiates current work from mere cosmetic beautification and provides a useful tool in the regeneration armoury.

Lighting is seen as a near instantaneous and customisable solution to enhancing the look and feel of disadvantaged districts, not merely city centre landmarks.  The ephemeral nature of these wispy glows allows an evolving solution to the changing needs of a community in contrast to the static product of bricks and mortar.

CollectiveÕs installation makes use of the dramatic stairwell spaces in three tower blocks at Dougrie Place.  Located due south of Glasgow city centre, part way up the Cathkin Braes, they enjoy favoured aspect across Glasgow.  Each stairwell will be transformed into a column of light addressing the city, their geometric precision akin to a set of cricket stumps.

Each ÒstumpÓ will symbolically represent a key component of meteorology Ð wind velocity, precipitation and temperature Ð using an ingenious colour coded scale to inform the city of tomorrowÕs projected weather patterns

Precipitation is set against a light blue background, the projected severity of coming rains is communicated by falling bands of colour, liable to quickly become a constantly pulsing reminder of GlasgowÕs sodden climate.

The 20 storey height of the symmetrical blocks lend themselves to ready conversion into an ad hoc thermometer, a spectrum of colour fades in from white through yellow and orange to rare purples at the summit.  Lights will be switched off on that floor closest to representing tomorrowÕs temperature as measured in degrees Celsius.

Wind presented a trickier proposition to display visually, bands of greens will traverse a backdrop of yellow to signify the anticipated source of the next days winds.  With north attributed to the top of each tower, direction can be instinctively discerned from a cursory glance.

Key to the success of any lighting installation is energy efficiency, the greater the degree of self sufficiency attained the greater the long term viability of the project.  With this in mind Collective are sourcing high specification LED lights to reduce power consumption, a series of vertically rotating wind turbines derive power from the fluctuating vortices of air movement around the towers.

It is hoped to have the project go live by the end of March.

Another such display is Multicolours, an interactive light installation powered by LED lamps housed within the derelict homes of condemned multi storeys, but has been shelved due to time restraints and financial problems.  Funding from The Scottish Arts Council was not enough to keep the show alive and out of the blue as the balance sheet turned red, the display has gone black.
Instead a block at Petershill Drive, Red Road, will crumple in anonymity, an uncelebrated casualty of current housing policy.
Brainchild of architect and lighting designer Peter Smith, this unique confection of ambient light and urban decay promised to re-animate the skeletal hulks of failed housing policy with the ghostly glow of a hundred lanterns, each symbolising the presence of a departed tenant.

Smith remains optimistic for the future prospects of his work despite this set back: ÒWe hope to run the Multicolours project again with another building sometime in 2009.Ó

The lighting engineer is keen to ameliorate a sense of dissatisfaction with this housing type by focussing  on GlasgowÕs most infamous, the  Red Road estate.  Eight of the tallest social housing towers outwith London are slowly being emptied of humanity, as these empty husks fade into the night one last flicker of life is promised as hundreds of individual lanterns populate empty landings, deserted living rooms, abandoned bathrooms and silent bedrooms. 

Each lamp can be interconnected to turn the building into a giant screen, this dynamism granting opportunity to coordinate specific patterns and effects. A possibility being actively explored is to turn one monolithic block into a giant graphic equaliser for concerts staged in the grounds.  So versatile is the system under consideration that citizens will be able to send and display text messages across the faade or even partake of the ultimate in widescreen Tetris. These would burnish the city with its most strident illuminations since TateÕs Tower faded into the darkness of war in 1939. 

Health and Safety legislation does not permit advertising of demolition dates, meaning the lights must be turned off in advance of any blowdown, but the investment in lighting and technology can be reused and transferred to similarly befated towers elsewhere thus generating a rolling roadshow of illumination across the city. The transient nature of these displays will be augmented by a permanent lighting installation on refurbished towers, luminescent tombstones to fallen comrades.

This potential for coordination could be taken to its logical extreme by employing a centralised lighting strategy across the approximate 167 city tower blocks of 12 storeys and more within the city limits. Smith hopes to initiate patterned pulses and waves of light that could wash and bathe the city in celebratory light for significant occasions such as the Commonwealth Games, searing an unforgettable display upon the retinas of tourist and local alike.

Behind all this fun, frolic and frivolity resides a serious desire to commemorate the end of an era as the demise of some fifty high-rise blocks transforms the skyline and fabric that has defined Glasgow for good or ill since the 1960s. In staging such a grand send off the organisers hope to indelibly invoke a positive reflection of life in the high flats, one that has been stigmatised by neglect, dislocation and lack of amenity in recent years.

Smith reflects: ÒThereÕs a sense of shame about them which I am keen to negate. These homes provide many happy memories to former occupants.Ó

Organisers are keen to stress the community engagement opportunities afforded by such a venture which by their nature will often take place in disadvantaged wards. The universal pleasure of light should prove illuminating to those in attendance, providing a comforting blanket of colour over the bleak mid winter landscape.

Such innovation is not limited to arty one offÕs however as the cityÕs lighting strategy is slowly beginning to reap a profound effect upon the night landscape as nary a development now slips through planning without some consideration afforded to the defeat of the forces of darkness. 

In this regard DO Architects have taken something of a lead by promulgating the countenance of sector innovators with a flurry of flashy showstoppers. Unveiling his latest work in Maryhill for the Burgh Halls, Adrian Stewart was keen to shine some light on the chequered history of a local landmark. An incandescent overcoat of dynamic light bathes the historic faade in a rainbow of changing colour granting a new lease of life to what had become a tired and surplus slice of gloomy Victoriana. Making use of the original Stephen Adam stained glass windows by projecting the designs as an overlay the work successfully utilises contemporary technology to honour past artistry.

  As society and technology advances such schemes will come to be regarded as the norm rather than the exception.  Whatever tomorrow brings one thing is certain, the futureÕs bright, the futureÕs light.

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