Rendering is a concept drawing by lighting design firm Office for Visual Interaction, New York City, for the winning scheme
Rendering is a concept drawing by lighting design firm Office for Visual Interaction, New York City, for the winning scheme

The city of New York designs a new street light, incorporating energy efficiency and a bright, even light.

» A streetlight. It seems a simple proposition–a pole and a light source. But ask any of the entrants who tackled this challenge in the two-stage City Lights Design Competition, and they will tell you otherwise. Organized and launched in January 2004 by New York City's Department of Design and Construction, in partnership with the Department of Transportation, the competition received 201 entries from 23 countries. It was an obvious collaboration for these two agencies who are both involved in the installation, operation, and maintenance of streetlights in New York City's five boroughs. 'There was general consensus among the two agencies that the most ubiquitous fixture in their catalog, the cobra head (developed in the 1950s and installed in New York in the early 1960s) was really out of date,' explains competition advisor Ralph Lerner. To start planning for the next generation of city streetlights-fixtures that will incorporate energy-efficient design; a bright, even light; and the many pole add-ons, such as street signs and wireless elements-the City decided to hold a design competition to generate ideas.

That the City should decide to hold a competition is both a reflection of the increasing awareness of design on the part of government agencies, and a reassuring sign that this perhaps will become the norm rather than the exception. In particular it gives the City an opportunity to step forward and compete with other international venues, like London, Paris, and Barcelona, as a leader in urban streetscape design.

Equally important is the competition's more subtle result: the fact that it inspired a process of inclusion and collaboration between groups that do not normally begin the project process together and continue to communicate throughout. The first stage was an open call. 'We were really seeking people who might take on this problem from a number of points of view,' says Lerner. The second stage required the finalists to fulfill a number of technical specifications, requiring multi-disciplinary teams to draw on each other's expertise in architecture, structural engineering, optics and lighting design, and the manufacturing process. In particular, for lighting designers, who often feel reduced to a role that does not acknowledge their expertise and design skills, the competition offered a chance to step forward and prove that lighting design is about more than just the number of luminaires installed in a space.

The proposed designs are not meant to replace every streetlight in New York City, but instead act as a twenty-first-century representative to the City's existing catalogue of fixtures. In May, three teams (Thomas Phifer and Partners, Atelier Imrey Culbert, and SOM) were selected by a jury of their peers to further develop their designs. Although the Phifer design was selected as the winner-meaning the City will go forward with development-each luminaire concept offers innovative design and technical solutions that far exceed the current streetlight offering.

The competition considers a seemingly mundane object-a streetlight-and evaluates its potential, not only as an entity in and of itself, but also as a catalyst for discussion about the urban streetscape. As the 'City Lights' process proves, with dialogue and a collaborative design process between government agencies, architects, lighting designers, and engineers, innovative design and technology can coexist. In fact, they rely on one another, and this reality has an increasing importance in the everyday public realm. elizabeth donoff

FIRST PLACE: Thomas Phifer and Partners, New York City
structural engineer: Werner Sobek lighting design: Office for Visual Interaction photovoltaic engineering: Transsolar manufacturing partners: LED Specialists, Fraen, and Erco renderings: dbox
design features: LED technology; extruded aluminum pole, T-shaped slots for slide-and-lock system to incorporate add-ons; new asymmetrical base design; and photovoltaic component.
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SECOND PLACE: Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Chicago
manufacturing partner (stage two): Selux
design features: Pole fabricated from a cylindrical steel tube flattened into an elliptical shape; integrated technology (the standard add-ons fit within the pole); lampsource is a standard color-corrected high-pressure sodium lamp, a metal halide lamp could also be accommodated.
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THIRD PLACE: Atelier Imrey Culbert, New York City
structural engineers: RFR lighting consultant: Tillotson Design Associates optical design: Kilt Planning manufacturing partners: Valmont Poles USA, Feralux, and Lumec-Schreder, Canada
design features: Arced pole; innovative re-examination of high-pressure sodium lamps (refined optics, eliminates glare, full dark-sky cutoff); lens and lamp as one sealed unit.
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