Lights; they do more than just help you see in the dark

Written by Atelier Drome Designer, Andrew Fullam

When the sun goes down, and for us here in Seattle the clouds come out, the lights go on. That being said, I know I’m not going to blow anyone’s mind when I say you’re going to notice when a light goes out in the dark. I find it a little more profound though when you notice a light that’s not illuminating the space, you’re in goes out.  That happened to me several weeks ago, back when this pandemic was just beginning. 

Looking out the window from my apartment, I’m able to see the top two tiers of the Columbia Center Tower and the string of lights that adorn them glow each night. When I first moved to Seattle last summer, the lights were red, white, and blue for the 4th of July, and then blue and green for the Sounders and Seahawks. During the holidays, they were green and red, and then a myriad of other colors all the other nights. It became a habit each night to look out my window and see what array of colors adorned Columbia Center. The ritual became so routine that after awhile I didn’t even think about it until one night I looked out and noticed that dependable glow was missing. Because the stay at home order had just been issued, I stopped and asked myself, what does this all mean? Were the two events linked, was it just a coincidence that they were doing maintenance? For several nights, I looked out again and again only to find there was darkness sitting atop Columbia Center. I found this lack of light affecting me more then I knew it probably should, its not like I depend upon it to light up my apartment each night. It’s just that the darkness made a dark time in the world only seem darker.

The situation perfectly embodied this idea we learn as designers that light does so much more then help us see when it gets dark. Light can also act as a symbol or help set the mood. When I was in graduate school my professor, Virginia Cartwright at the University of Oregon, introduced me to the designer Richard Kelly who is considered a pioneer of architectural lighting design. Known for his contributions to buildings such as the Kimbell Art Museum and the Seagram Building, Kelly made strides in lighting design in the 1950’s. He categorized light as three different elemental kinds in a 1952 lecture ‘Lighting as an Integral Part of Architecture’ as Focal Glow, Ambient Luminescence, and Play of Brilliants. 

The first two describe what we generally think of lighting and its purpose. Kelly describes focal glow as task lighting and could be best described by a desk lamp or spotlight on a performer on a stage.  Ambient Luminescence on the other hand is best described as general lighting, like the sunlight that comes through a window to illuminate a room.    

Play of Brilliants however is described as accent lighting by Kelly and is best represented by the lighting atop Columbia Tower mentioned in the beginning. Kelly describes Play of Brilliants as lighting that ‘excites the optic nerves, and in turn stimulates the body and spirit, quickens the appetite, awakens curiosity and sharpens wit’. At first, it may seem that this type of lighting can only be engineered by people, but Kelly gives several natural examples of Play of Brilliants in his lecture, such as light reflecting off of a ‘cache of diamonds in an open cave’ or sunlight bouncing off of rippling water. This second example resonates deeply with me as it describes some of my favorite memories as a child growing up on Cape Cod. 

In the summers I worked as a sailing instructor and vividly remember the warm mornings when the water was calm with the exception of the gently rolling waves across the bay that projected quick shimmers of sunlight. 

Plays of Brilliants can take several forms in architecture too.  In some scenarios the focus can be on the actual fixture providing the source of light. The work by British/German designer Moritz Waldemeyer is an excellent example of this.  His piece titled ‘Ming’ consists of two vase forms made from a metal lattice work with LED lights placed on the inside. The spaces between the steel pieces allow for the light to project outward, so bright, that the light masks the framework creating two glowing vases. The shape of the vases was inspired by ancient oriental vases, while the LED lights glow in reds, oranges, blues, and whites representing fire and water to further emphasize the oriental inspiration. Many of Waldemeyer’s pieces portray Plays of Brilliants in which the light fixture is the centerpiece, most notable are his works ‘Candle in the Wind’ chandelier and ‘Blue Typhoon’, which is akin to ‘Ming’.

Candle in Wind, Typhoon & Ming, courtesty Moritz Waldermeyer

Sometimes, Plays of Brilliants isn’t about where the light is coming from, but rather what the light is illuminating. Kelly has done just this at the ‘Four Seasons’ restaurant in the Seagram Building. The recessed light fixtures emit light upon the metal curtains making the moment more about the light itself instead of the fixture emitting it.     

‘Four Seasons’ in the Seagram Building

Light does so much more then just illuminate a dark space. It can be used to represent moments from our past as seen in Waldemeyer’s ‘Ming’, or create a feeling of sophistication like Kelly did at the ‘Four Seasons’ restaurant. In other ways, light can act as a beacon of hope. About a week after noticing the lights atop Columbia Center had gone out, I looked out my window one night to find they had come back on. I took this as a sign that we will get through these dark times and be ok. I don’t think the Play of Brilliants atop Columbia Center Tower was originally meant to represent hope but moving forward I won’t see that glow mean anything else.

Written by Atelier Drome Designer, Andrew Fullam, an east coast native who moved west to pursue his Master’s degree in Architecture from the University of Oregon only to fall in love with the Pacific Northwest and decide to call it home. He enjoys being a part of a profession that can have a positive impact on our environment and how our built environment takes shape to create meaningful places for the people that use them.