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Everything is Illuminated (with LEDs)

The rapid maturing of LED and digital technology in the hands of companies like iGuzzini is generating an explosion in what artificial lighting can do with colour, scale, screens and embedding

In a matter of seconds, the automated crane silently speeds towards us along a 100-metre aisle of vertiginous shelving, rapidly lifting itself up maybe 18 metres as it does so to one of several thousand blue plastic storage units, which it proceeds to gently extract, then rises up almost to the ceiling as it disappears off into the distance. There is row after row of these aisles in a vast, cool, hangar-like space, each with its own robotic attendant whizzing up, away, across, picking up blue boxes from their yellow shelves and scaling huge distances in complete silence. The blue boxes, containing an endless array of small parts, are delivered to the assembly floor above, where parts are extracted and delivered by robot direct to the employee who requested them. There are other hangars on either side of this one with equally impressive amounts of inaudible activity. The silent efficiency, the automation and logistical precision felt like being in Japan, but we had in fact just driven through the rolling hills of Le Marche, past at least a dozen agriturismos, and entered an unassuming industrial park, where we stepped past the factory owner’s Maserati with doors open, key in the ignition, blithely left in the middle of the staff car park. This was definitely Italy.

Aside from its factory floors, and despite being over a century old (and family owned), iGuzzini integrates design as a core aspect of its product-development process, with a continuously rejuvenated host of external designers both young and established, working with the R&D offices (into which the company will plough 5 per cent of its total revenue this year) and the production teams to generate an ever-updated range of fashionably stylised and characterful light fittings. It’s a terribly glamorous version of manufacturing, with aesthetics and technology in a very sexy Italian union, a far cry from so much of the supply-chain fodder and low-value assembly plants at which we generally excel in Britain. iGuzzini is very proud of the ground they are breaking with new LED technology, as was I, although not with their products specifically, nice as they are, rather lighting technology in general, where it’s at, and the kind of spatial and design possibilities there now appear to be for the likes of architects and interior architects, when it comes to the medium’s deployment in our buildings.

LEDs

Artificial lighting is rarely taught thoroughly during the five years of an architectural education. Light is indeed important, students are told, but it is always natural light that they are asked to modulate, imagine, draw and render. Some courses do now include lighting modules in which artificial lighting is explained, notably Steve Fotios at Sheffield, but in almost all the juries I have attended in recent years, there is still very much an implicit bias towards the lionisation of natural light as the default, and by implication superior, manner of illuminating our idealised interiors. This preference harks ideologically back to Ruskin’s Lamp of Truth, and Modernism’s moralising emphasis on ‘material honesty’. Daylight is site-specific, it is the truthful, the unadulterated and naturally-given form of illumination which changes with the seasons and time of day, and which complements and enhances architectural form. Artificial lighting on the other hand is seen as an applied effect that originates neither in the architecture nor the context and which, when allowed to break out of its circumscribed role of providing ‘enough illumination’, can all too easily take on a life of its own and overpower the architecture. Much as women’s make-up is paradoxically most lauded when it appears ‘natural’, so there is a latent desire for artificial lighting to disappear, for it to mimic daylight in the pursuit of a so-called ‘truthful’ reading of space.

iGuzzini like to emphasise the value of lighting designers, and specifically the value of including them early-on in the design phase of a project. While bringing on board specialists can be helpful in some cases, if as architects we actively appropriated synthetic light as a design tool within the very genesis of our architectural concepts, there would be a lot of fun to be had, particularly with the playful possibilities being thrown up by new LED technologies. Lighting has always been a fundamental and formative element of modern space but was notably missing from Rem Koolhaas’s list of key architectural elements in the Elements exhibition at the Venice Biennale. Together with air conditioning, artificial lighting allowed modern man to negate the seasons and the time of day, as well as all climactic considerations from the interior, permitting the architectural container to expand exponentially in scale and scope. The invention of the illuminated neon gas tube extended this expansion to the exterior and, as exemplified in Las Vegas, into a joyous, riotously aesthetic expression of commercial prowess and consumer pleasure, appreciated so much by generations of gamblers, tourists, and Venturi, Scott Brown and their students.

LasVegas

The Las Vegas Strip at night

These uses of manmade light are all about the triumphant negation of nature, but should not be seen as dishonest or untruthful. They are in fact highly in keeping with their times, with a kind of rapture in the pleasurable potentials of technology. Las Vegas’s eruption in lighting’s expressive power was a direct outcome of both the plentiful and cheap electricity provided by the nearby Hoover Dam, and a startlingly permissive and liberal attitude towards design.

There is something of a potential Las Vegas moment in lighting right now. The rapid maturing of LED and digital technology is generating a simultaneous explosion in the things lights can do with colour, scale, screens and embedding at the same time as the amount of electricity being needed to do wield these effects is decreasing at a remarkably precipitous rate. The architectural community has its neon lights and its Hoover Dam in today’s LEDs and their energy efficiency, all it needs to do is reach out, grab them, and be brave enough to use them with as much verve and panache as the architects of the Strip did in the ’50s and ’60s. New lighting technology developed by iGuzzini and others is already transforming the way spaces are efficiently and intelligently lit – soon it will transform the way they are designed.

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