One of the most compelling developments in lighting design is the way that new lighting technologies have encouraged the blurring of disciplinary boundaries. As new forms of illumination expand the capabilities of building systems and surfaces, lighting no longer operates as a discrete domain. Rather, the field has been making stronger connections to materials science, architecture, experience design, and engineering.
At a material level, scientific research has transformed the capacity of electric lighting, introducing novel substances like white light quantum dots, which can deliver more desirable light coloration, or projection surfaces made of micro-membranes. At a product level, luminaire design exhibits a trend that establishes more integral connections with architectural space. The result is a collection of multidimensional, sculptural objects that break away from the ceiling or wall surfaces to which they are typically adhered—allowing greater drama and flexibility, especially in the case of adaptive reuse settings.
The proliferation of LED and sensor technologies has encouraged an explosion of interactive illuminated surfaces and projection systems. These systems may be designed to respond directly to the presence and location of building occupants, or they may convey changing circumstances in spaces or times that are purposefully disassociated from their own physical sites. One type of “interaction” takes place in the form of energy-harvesting, an area of building research that continues to gain importance. As renewable power technologies become more diversified and integral to building construction, their connections to lighting design and user control interfaces will similarly increase.
Dynamic Performance of Nature
E/B Office (formerly SoftRigid)
This responsive installation by New York– and Portland-based E/B Office captures live environmental data such as wind speed, temperature, relative humidity, and seismic activity from around the world and translates it through full-color LED lighting embedded within a semi-translucent HDPE (high-density polyethylene) curtain. The installation communicates this information to museum visitors via custom processing scripts that display the information in illuminated flows of varying color, intensity, and direction, which respond to the unique geometry of the wall’s overall form. • softrigid.com
Barragan Studio + Aitken Studio
Mis Estrellas is a responsive wall system designed by Barragan Studio and Aitken Studio that displays visual feedback about a user’s physical proximity in the form of light. Translated into English as “my stars,” the system is equipped with sensors that detect local physical movements. These movements trigger constellations of hundreds of white lights that illuminate the system’s semi-transparent acrylic surface. According to the Bogotá- and New York–based designers, “this work gives an impression as though one is drawing pictures with lights. People use their bodies as tools to shape the wall, enjoy the experience, and communicate.” • barraganstudio.com/projects/mes-etoiles/
Wake Forest University
Scientists at the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at Wake Forest University have developed a thermoelectric fabric that converts body heat into electricity. The material is made of layers of interlocking carbon nanotubes and plastic fibers, and feels similar to felt. The thermoelectric technology develops electric current from temperature differences, such as the difference between body temperature and room temperature. The first prototypes of Power Felt yielded 140 nanowatts of power from 72 layers of nanofabric, and the researchers are currently attempting to increase the output of the technology. • wfu.edu/~carroldl/Thermoelectrics.html
Minnesota-based 3M, a company well-known for the development of sophisticated material technologies, has recently ventured into the rapidly transforming realm of lighting design. 3M’s Flex is a linear lighting system that incorporates both straight and curved modules, allowing the flexible integration of lighting into idiosyncratic or high-bay spaces. Designed by 3M, Flex takes advantage of the company’s technical prowess in the arenas of LED and OLED lighting. The system boasts a slim profile of less than 2 inches, and may be used to illuminate both horizontal and vertical surfaces. • solutions.3m.com/wps/portal/3M/en_US/DesignLighting/Home/Products/Flex-Gallery/
University of Tokyo/Carnegie Mellon University/University of Tsukuba
The surface of a soap bubble is commonly understood as a micro-membrane. This membrane allows light to pass through it, displaying the color of the light on its surface. Scientists at the University of Tokyo, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Tsukuba have developed an ultrathin and flexible BRDF (bidirectional reflectance distribution function) screen using a mixture of two colloidal liquids. The membrane screen may be controlled using ultrasonic vibrations, and its transparency and surface states may also be altered depending on the scales of ultrasonic waves. The researchers have also developed several applications using their new membrane screen volumetrically. • 96ochiai.ws/colloidaldisplay
Hardcoded Memory is a device that projects low-resolution photographs with LEDs through Swarovski crystal lenses. Designed by Troika, the motorized projector casts circular lights from each crystalline optic, creating intentionally blurred and pixelated images. Confronting the otherworldly quality of the projector’s ambient glow, visitors parse the light of digital memories transmitted from an analog interface. The result is an abstract melding of analog and digital realms—too precisely controlled for analog, too serendipitous for digital. • troika.uk.com
With the demise of the incandescent lamp, scientists continue to seek alternative, efficient sources of illumination. Pure white light is especially important and can be difficult to produce efficiently. Discovered in a lab at Vanderbilt University, white light quantum dots are micro-scaled fluorescent beads of cadmium selenide that convert LED-emitted blue light into a warm-white similar to the color temperature of incandescent lamps. This white color is distinct from that produced by white light LEDs, which simulate white light from a combination of monochromatic colors. • vanderbilt.edu/chemistry/faculty/rosenthal.php
Light artist James Clar approaches light as an active participant in architectural space. Rather than treat light as an immaterial effect, Clar objectifies electric illumination as a material substance. One of his most compelling bodies of research concerns work with side-emitting fiber optics which, when combined with light filter diffuser screen material, enable the construction of structural lines of light. As seen in his installation “Portal,” these glowing lines appear to levitate within space while crashing headlong into interior surfaces. • jamesclar.com and viatraffic.org
In the history of solar-harvesting technologies, flat panels have been the dominant format. However, scientists and manufacturers are exploring novel formats that exhibit certain benefits over flat panels. Barcelona-based Rawlemon has developed a technology called ß.Torics that uses large, fluid-filled glass spheres to harness sunlight. The company claims that this technology can concentrate sunlight up to 10,000 times, increasing energy efficiency by 35 percent over conventional photovoltaic technologies. Although still in the prototype stage, ß.Torics suggests new building-integration possibilities, such as bulbous curtainwalls or bubble-shaped rooftop collection systems. • rawlemon.com
Blaine Brownell is an architect and former Fulbright Scholar with a research focus on emergent materials. He is a principal of the design and research practice Transstudio and teaches at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. Brownell authored the Transmaterial series and Matter in the Floating World, both for Princeton Architectural Press.