The Chelsea Market tunnel along the High Line in New York. Lighting designer Hervé Descottes uses this portion of the project to discuss how the space assumes a different identity at night from during the day. A deep, saturated blue light provides a visual cue for pedestrians and makes legible the tunnel's endpoints.
Princeton Architectural Press The Chelsea Market tunnel along the High Line in New York. Lighting designer Hervé Descottes uses this portion of the project to discuss how the space assumes a different identity at night from during the day. A deep, saturated blue light provides a visual cue for pedestrians and makes legible the tunnel's endpoints.


Unlike the vast library of architecture-focused volumes, the catalog of lighting-related titles pales in comparison. When a book is published on the subject of light and lighting, it is usually from a technical perspective, and assumes a preexisting knowledge of the subject, if only at a basic level. Fewer still are the books devoted to architectural lighting design, or, one might say, to the designing of architectural light. The recently published Architectural Lighting: Designing with Light and Space ($24.95, Princeton Architectural Press, March 2011), helps fill that void.

Written by Hervé Descottes with Celia E. Ramos, the 144-page primer is part of Princeton Architectural Press's Architecture Briefs series (it's the sixth in that series), which examines different single topics of interest to architecture students and young professionals. The series is meant to provide readers with a basic understanding of concepts and technical terms as it relates to the subject matter. The book is constructed with an architectural framework in mind and reflects Descottes's lighting practice—L'Observatoire International—in which he has collaborated with some of the most prominent design practitioners working today, such as architects Steven Holl, Jean Nouvel, and Peter Marino, and landscape architect James Corner.

From the start, Descottes is clear that this book is not meant to be a technical encyclopedia or a historical survey, but rather a reflection on “architectural lighting design in light of [my] reflections and experiences.” To that end, the book explores the materiality of light both theoretically and analytically as it seeks to provide the reader with a visual understanding about lighting's potential as a form giver and creator of atmosphere.

The book is divided into two main sections: Six Visual Principles of Light (Illuminance, Luminance, Color and Temperature, Height, Density, and Direction and Distribution) and Analysis, which is an examination of six completed L'Observatoire International projects. The first section is by far the most technical that this design-oriented book gets, and it provides just the right amount of information for someone who is coming at light from an architectural, instead of a lighting, perspective.

Descottes has built his practice around these six principles, first introduced to him by lighting designer, sculptor, and philosopher Philippe de Bozzi in 1989. As his own lighting practice has grown, Descottes has “adapted and expanded” these principles, which he says serve as the basis for “a common vocabulary through which the visual and experimental aspects of lighting can also be properly addressed.” Illustrative diagrams coupled with photographs of art and architecture installations aid the reader in visually understanding the principles being discussed.

In the Analysis section, Descottes revisits a group of L'Observatoire International projects that span from 1998 to 2009: the High Line in New York; the Newton Creek Water Pollution Treatment Plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.; the Jules Verne restaurant at the Eiffel Tower in Paris; Beige, a restaurant at the Chanel building in Tokyo's Ginza district; the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland; and the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn. In examining his own work, Descottes not only provides insight into his own design process but the also collaborative process between architect and lighting designer. These are projects where light and architecture are so interwoven that one cannot say where one discipline ends and the other begins.

Photographs and diagrams tie the projects back to the six visual principles, as Descottes explains exactly how each project addresses each of these criteria. Particularly helpful are the lighting charts that outline the specific luminaires used, their lamp type, and light output. The charts bridge the gap between design idea and real-time application—as do the appendices, which provide a final layer of accessible technical information covering such items as color temperature, basic characteristics of light sources, a lighting-symbol legend, and a lighting-terminology glossary. Looking at the six projects, it is not difficult to see how the six principles form a cohesive thread throughout Descottes's work, even though the architects and programs are not the same.

Rounding out the book's two principal discussions is a section called Essays. The section is really composed of an interview—with architect Steven Holl—as well as essays by French designer Sylvain Dubuisson and landscape architect James Corner. These writings provide a window into how other design professionals see and think about light and lighting. Corner's essay is particularly on the mark as he describes the “revelatory power of light” and the symbiotic relationship between landscape and light. Understanding the play between shadow and light is paramount, he writes, in understanding space, working toward what he describes as “a phenomenology of luminosity.”

In the introduction to Architectural Lighting, Descottes writes, “Lighting design necessitates a deep, meditative exchange of knowledge, and therefore it must be understood not as an interdisciplinary field but as a transdisciplinary one that traverses the boundaries of conventional thought.” In his unique way, Descottes's work reveals the poetic nature of light as it connects to architecture. This introduction to architectural lighting and his work will surely leave the uninitiated wanting to know more.