'Transformed by Light: the New York Night,' Museum of the City of New York, through May 7, 2006

» When we look at the New York City skyline after dark, we see an urban landscape particular to modernity, one in which the significance of each building is designated not by form or position, but by light. 'Transformed by Light: The New York Night,' an exhibition coinciding with the centenary of the IESNA, celebrates this particularly American vision of the city. The show’s subject is especially fitting since, as historian Dietrich Neumann notes in Architecture of the Night: The Illuminated Building (Prestel Publishing, 2003), it was lighting engineers who encouraged architects to experiment with electric light at an urban scale in the early years of the twentieth century. Prior to the 1930s, architects seldom imagined their work illuminated at night. Only after architects like Raymond Hood picked up on the research of engineers, such as Walter D’Arcy Ryan, did the nighttime skyscraper skyline attain its iconic status.

The exhibition juxtaposes canonic images of New York City at night with demonstrations of the lighting technologies that made them possible. Without distinguishing between light’s public, commercial, and artistic uses, the show concentrates on it as an environmental condition. Organized by the Museum of the City of New York, and developed and curated by Chicken & Egg Public Projects, the exhibit enlisted the expertise of prominent lighting design firms, as well as in-kind donations and equipment loans from over 30 lighting manufacturers and distributors. The exhibit consists of a series of thematic lighting environments built around artifacts and images, all designed to explore “the definitive role of light in creating the myths and realities of New York.” These themes include Power, Work, Street Life, Desire, Security, Celebration, Wonder, Show, View, Escape, and Identity. Some of the installations are evocative: One of the most successful recreates a nineteenth-century parlor, simulating the different levels and quality of lighting produced by candles, gas lamps, and incandescent light. Another demonstrates different forms of street lighting, all hanging from a central set of lampposts. The more compelling artifacts include films of early amusement parks, lights from the 2005 Rockefeller Christmas tree, and the large neon letter 'i' from the Biography sign at Columbus Circle.

Combining historical information and objects with separate installations by lighting designers, however, leads to a confusing aspect of the exhibition, which would have been aided by a more uniform design presentation. Additionally, both 'showing' and 'telling,' especially when the subject itself is illuminated, sometimes leaves the lighting installations in conflict with the legibility of the photographs, objects, and texts. Nevertheless, the show’s central argument—that lighting engineers had a formative role in the design and subsequent experience of the modern city—is one worth making. The decision to treat the subject thematically rather than chronologically is an interesting one, acknowledging as it does the huge changes electric lighting has effected across all areas of daily life.

The conflict between light as a functional tool and light as a dazzling spectacle is more than a century old. In 1906, New York City, the paradigm of the modern metropolis, was already defined by light, seen as both a positive and a negative condition. During the mid-nineteenth century, only a few years after New York City found its iconic form in the monumental grid plan of 1811, light was imagined as an agent of both health and economic progress. Gas lighting was introduced to provide safety on the streets, to make workplaces more productive, and to make stores more attractive. Under the spell of its radiance, utopian fiction of the era imagined a future city in which “night and day are all one.” The invention and popularization of incandescent light in the 1880s lead not only to even better lighted streets, homes and workplaces, but also to a whole new industry. Electric light was a commodity as well as a necessity. It was a product for sale, one that dramatically facilitated the age of consumption in the form of illuminated advertising signs, stores and window displays. From an early period it was also used to convey information. During the 1896 presidential election several newspapers projected voter return information onto giant canvas screens hung from their office buildings. In this way, those that owned and controlled light could also control the news.

The urban landscape of vaudeville theaters, nickelodeons, speakeasies and amusement parks engendered a fear that the city was becoming a place of illusion dedicated to mass entertainment, even bamboozlement, rather than more substantial civic values. In Delirious New York, originally published in 1978 ( The Monacelli Press, 1994), Rem Koolhaas described the densely packed and brilliantly lit Coney Island as a distopian Manhattan in miniature. For architects and social critics, he wrote, it represented a curse that would haunt modern architecture ever afterwards: the danger of the city becoming impermanent and illusory, a place where “technology + cardboard = reality.” The new synchronicity between architecture and lighting indicated the failure of traditional architectural values such as permanence and stability, in favor of ephemerality and fantasy. In 1967 the French philosopher Guy Debord cast electric lighting as a primary villain in his theory of the “society of the spectacle,” where he described a culture in which the sordid inequities of capitalism are disguised by mass illusions like the cinema, organized sport and television. ( The Society of the Spectacle, 1967 reprint; Detroit: Black & Red, 1977). In this society, the city is not a place of active civic participation but passive stupor, and light is employed to distract rather than focus attention.

By the time the IESNA was formed in 1906, the race was already on to wrest control of the illuminated city away from those who used light purely for commercial gain. One of the Society’s primary goals was to foster collaboration with architects, who were still reluctant to engage new lighting technologies as fundamental components of design. At General Electric Walter D’Arcy Ryan and Matthew Luckiesh promoted lighting schemes designed in accord with architecture, for example popularizing floodlighting rather than outline lighting. The architects of New York’s Art èeco skyscraper skyline were amongst the first to capitalize on this research, ordering the apparent disarray of the New York grid with monumental towers best seen at night. Working in collaboration with the first generation of engineers to call themselves “lighting designers”, they introduced night lighting as a vital component of architectural design. Together they hoped to replace the cacophonous landscape of illuminated advertising with a more harmonious world of luminescent and chromatic buildings.

Raymond Hood realized this possibility most directly with projects such as the black and gold American Radiator Building (1924) designed with theatrical lighting designer Bassett Jones. Hood’s RCA Building (1933) had simple, monochromatic facades that acted as a backdrop to a magnificent urban lighting display by Abe Feder. In equally bombastic terms, the searchlight installed on the top of Shreve, Lamb and Harmon’s Empire State Building in 1931, signaled not only the importance of the building in the city, but of New York City in the world. Finally the post-war decades saw the triumph of the illuminated, dematerialized glass and steel corporate building, realized definitively by Mies van der Rohe and Richard Kelly in the Seagram Building on Park Avenue (1958).

Despite the replication of the Miesian skyscraper in New York City, particularly along Sixth Avenue with its orderly lines of illuminated prisms, some architectural critics of the 1960s and 70s spoke against the proliferation of electric light in the urban landscape. Represented most dramatically by nearby Broadway and Times Square, critics were fearful that what might be a purposefully unique combination of architecture and lighting in some settings would give way to an architecture transformed into billboards not buildings. The only way to assume ownership of electric light once and for all was to assume ownership of the sign. In Learning From Las Vegas (The MIT Press, 1977, 1972), Robert Venturi, Steven Izenour, and Denise Scott Brown argued for the adoption of the billboard (the illuminated scourge of earlier generations of city beautifiers) as a model for architecture. Recently innovative technologies merging lighting and architectural surfaces have encouraged a new kind of architecture in which material form is merged almost seamlessly with information display and exchange. Instead of avoiding the visual eclecticism of Times Square, architects like Koolhaas have embraced it as the true basis of the post-industrial city. In his collaboration with the graphic designer Bruce Mau at the new student center at the Illinois Institute of Technology, he has taken the Learning from Las Vegas agenda even further than Venturi, Izenour, and Scott Brown imagined possible. In this way contemporary architects have sought to claim mastery over the illuminated landscape, appropriating its technologies within their disciplinary expertise.

Yet, now that light has been incorporated into urban design, what are architects and lighting designers using light to say about the city? 'Transformed by Light' focuses on the New York night as an historical landscape, but offers no comment about its status today. However, it is perhaps possible to draw some conclusions by looking at a few of the contemporary projects represented in the exhibit. The Time Warner Center (2004) and the Bloomberg Tower (2005) may be seen as contemporary versions of the Art Deco ideal, monumental skyscrapers covered with decorative lighting effects. Like earlier projects by Hood et al, these current day buildings contribute yet more glittering pinnacles to the New York skyline without contributing much to our experience of the city at street level. In contrast, the yet to be completed Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility in Brooklyn, with blue-colored Digesters lit by lighting design firm L’Observatoire, suggests that in future we might choose to monumentalize something other than office blocks. The hugely successful 'Tribute in Light' memorial (2002), designed in collaboration with lighting designer Paul Marantz, attempts to preserve some sense of urban hierarchy, giving us a twenty-first century memorial and a gathering site for the post 9/11 city. Though each of these projects is a variation on the Modernist illuminated object, others begin to propose a new kind of urbanism. The Forty-Second Street Studios (2000), with a dynamic fluorescent fa?ade to compete with its Times Square setting, comes closest to realizing Venturi’s idea of architecture as a dematerialized “decorated shed,” where exterior surface is privileged over interior volume. In this way the project goes someway to realizing the post-modernist dream city (or nightmare to some) where everything is illuminated. However, it is another project that presents a potentially more palatable case for the same idea. Linnaea Tillett’s 1997 project for East New York, designed in conversation with community leaders, lights a route between public housing and important public facilities like the library and church. In this case lighting is not symbolic or illustrative. It does not attempt to compete with the flashy worlds of entertainment and shopping, rather it is embedded into the social and street systems that support the city at a micro scale. And perhaps in this seeming modesty, this deference to the democracy of the early nineteenth-century grid, against the illuminated monuments of the twentieth-century city, it seeks to reaffirm the importance of light for the everyday rituals of public life. Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

Joanna Merwood-Salisbury is the associate chair of the Department of Architecture, Interior Ðesign and Lighting at Parsons The New School for Design. She received her Ph.D. in architectural history from Princeton University in 2003.