florens2012: light for cities of art

Florens 2012Florens2012 is an International Biennial of Cultural and Landscape Heritage taking place in Florence, Italy, November 3-11, 2012. I have been asked to participate as a blogger to report on some of the topics and discussions presented during the conference. For more information on how to attend the multitude of events, the Florens Foundation website.

On Saturday in the Sala dei Duecento of the Palazzo Vecchio, there was an interesting discussion held in Italian and French about Light for Art Cities organized by AIDI (Italian Lighting Association) and Fondazione Targetti, with the support of APIL (Association of Lighting Professionals) and of SILFI spa (Florence Lighting Company): During the night, artificial light is the only means of perception and communication in an urban space and an architectural context. An artificial element by definition, it always implies a responsibility of interpretation and design choice. Light can enhance architecture or distort it with excessive dramatization; it can make a context complex or isolate an object of excellence; it can provide security or confusion.

In cities, measures of coexistence often move from one extreme to the other with contrasting approaches. There are few cases, in both Italy and abroad, of cities which have succeeded in making informed and consistent lighting the type of which to present to the world. Their models, however, are rarely exported because they are too tied to the land or because they are just ends in themselves. The current planning tools for lighting are mostly focused on functional aspects and are inadequate from a cultural standpoint. The reading of a space would require, however, specific tools. Is it possible to create a “lighting model” which is the symbol of a town or a territory which can be recognized through this without changing its identity? What are the means by which a community can promote and guide the application, making light also an instrument of political and social engineering? What roles do lighting designers, art historians and public administrators hold in this context?

Duomo of Florence at Night
Duomo of Florence at Night

This discussion interests me because I live in a major city of art where monumental lighting is very crucial when you have an urban environment full of Renaissance architecture and sculptural splendor such as Florence’s Duomo, the Ponte Vecchio, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, San Miniato del Monte, Forte Belevedere, and the list goes on. In addition to the architectural elements, I am also interested in urban planning and the design and engineering that goes into the urban environment. Sometimes these perceptions go unnoticed by the common passer-by, but when it is done correctly, selective and studied lighting can truly dazzle and create emotion truly enhancing the nighttime experience. But there is a big difference between adequate lighting and illumination that has been correctly designed and engineered. As technology improves, how can it be done better? And how can we maintain interest in our cultural heritage in urban environments and beyond?

Light for Art CitiesLighting designer Massimo Iarussi began the presentation to an almost full house. According to Iarussi, there are 3 important goals of this type of lighting: maintain the identity of place, create social atmosphere, and respect architectonic spaces and colors. When done correctly, the lighting should be ambient, functional, and must have a good relationship with the architecture. The light should not “dirty” the building facade, but must respect it, not add or subtract from it, and shall not reinterpret the original architectural intention. The project should not be obvious. Instead, it shall be subtle and create a sensation of emotion caused by the subject rather than the lighting itself. Often, these lighting projects are poorly done and not professional. A facade can seem flat, but with correct lighting, it can look volumetric. In many ways, we should be approaching urban spaces as if they are domestic atmospheres, because we also live in and experience the city and the outdoors. These spaces become our theaters of life and therefore can be considered cinematic and kinetic, our own personal narratives, changed with our physical presence and the experience we have within the space.

Mont Saint-Michel (Lighting by L. Clair)
Mont Saint-Michel (Lighting by L. Clair)

This type of thinking first began to appear in the US during the 1930s Hollywood era. Advances in cinema and lighting from that time had specific theatrical intentions and worked largely with the power of shadow and contrast. By 1983 this cinema-graphic approach was really apparent and color became center stage with the illumination projects by French lighting designer, Louis Clair, the following presenter. With the addition of color, lighting became more animated and ephemeral.  For Clair, it is important to evoke sentiment in his projects. Think Mont Saint-Michel. Already an impressive site, at night it becomes breathtaking due to the carefully researched lighting projection. The illumination becomes spiritual as it gets brighter toward the top of the spire, bringing your eyes and your spirit closer to the heavens.

South Beach in Singapore (Lighting by L. Clair)
South Beach in Singapore (Lighting by L. Clair)

Then the range of creativity expanded with candy colors and slide projections on architecture. The image became a entertainment spectacle of sorts. For example, the idea of colored and flashing lights has been part of the identity of Las Vegas for years, and the idea was to re-examine this way of returning to the city and focusing the excitement to city centers, something that in the US has waned greatly. Clair and his company Light Cibles has done amazing monumental projects all around the world, although none in the US or Italy, that I am aware. With the advancements in technology, fiber optics, color filters, and LED, the technicalities of such projects can be enhanced now more than ever, even if one still has to consider factors such as the weather, pigeons, and hiding all electrical materials to make the effect more magical.

Alessandra Marino, superintendent for Architectural, Landscape, Historical, Artistic and Ethno-anthropological Heritage in the provinces of Florence, Pistoia, and Prato spoke next. She began stating that much urban lighting illuminates the public space rather than the architecture. We should look at the historic photography of the Alinari Brothers and their photos filled with diffused light and shadows, and to be reminded that in the 1800s, lighting was generally powered by gas lights which created a much different effect. She noted that in Florence, many of the lamps are placed directly on taller buildings and aimed downward to illuminate the streets, acting as street lamps without the lamp posts. They are creating reflected light, but are not intended to light the architecture and often interfere with it. Very commonly, the grand hotel signage on Renaissance palaces found in Florence are much too strong, creating light points that are hot spots deforming the visual of the architecture. Along the Arno River, these lights usually reflect off of the water which tend to deform the architecture and is not “poetic.” This type of signage needs to be refined. One way to do this is create signage lettering from shadows rather than the light itself.

Florence's Ponte Vecchio
Florence’s Ponte Vecchio

In the context of the recent change to the illumination of Florence’s Duomo, Marino feels that the lighting was better before when it was more diffused. The lighting is too strong on the base of the Giotto’s tower. It is unclear if the lighting is for the monument or for the piazza, or for both. She prefers the lighting designed for the Ponte Vecchio where the spotlight is aimed on the Vasari Corridor and the botteghe (shops) have only reflected light. At times for festivals, there is special lighting, such as the green-white-red if the Italian flag projected to celebrate the anniversary of Italy’s unification. On these occasions, lighting is sometimes garish, but only temporary. In any case, the typology of architecture needs to be considered and the spirit of the place according to history should be studied along with the original intent of the monument. There are different ways to think about how the city is illuminated during daylight vs. at night. Illumination at night generally seems to take away fear [of darkness], but Marino likes the idea that there is poetry in the shadows – especially in a Renaissance city like Florence.

Lighting designer Susan Antico also looks at the difference between lighting in sunshine and what changes after darkness falls. We need to study artificial lighting carefully and ask: what is the culture of light and what is the criteria of the project? Street lighting for car traffic has a different goal, for example. Artificial lighting at night needs to raise our quality of life and provide safety in urban environments. The quality and quantity of the lighting should be considered, as well as the use of energy saving devices. Perhaps more sophisticated timers can be developed that are able to qualify the need for light based on weather conditions, full moons, etc. More energy efficient bulbs and power sources are continually being developed. There is a difference between having sufficient lighting and having the correct illumination — they both need to be proportional. Evaluations must be made between the quantity of lights, the cost, and the watt usage. Many types of associations are involved for these decisions, such as public administrations, but strangely enough in Italy the Beni Culturali (office of the cultural patrimony in Italy) is not consulted, but should be. One thing to remember in these decisions is that our quality of life and enjoyment of a city at night should not be compromised. We have to remember that Italy is a living museum and if you turn out the lights, the visitors won’t come back.

Florens2012, the International Biennial of Culture and Environment was conceived and is organised by the Foundation Florens, and runs through November 11, 2012. The mission of the Foundation is to promote the economy of cultural and environmental heritage, which acts as an engine of civil, economic and social progress. The Foundation is a non-profit organization, a permanent, creative laboratory. To accomplish is mission, it relies on contributions and knowledge from the worlds of economy, culture and science, encouraging dialog between them.

What is your opinion?

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