Many years ago, my first experience of nocturnal architecture was the cityscape of Paris while on a boat cruise on the Seine. The tour started from the Eiffel Tower, which itself was illuminated by the warm hues of night light. And it twinkled for five minutes every hour, like a nighttime clock tower in the latter-day city.
The cruise passed many famous landmarks in the “City of Lights”, with each historic landmark bathed in a warm glow giving it an “oil lamp light quality” of Rembrandt paintings. The cityscape had taken on a new face, but the lighting was subtle, evoking its historicity. The tone and texture of the stones that had built the monuments seemed to come alive.
Over the years, watching some of the most iconic World Heritage sites like the Acropolis of Athens lit up at night, seen from a hotel terrace in absolute silence (guests are not allowed to speak), c t was a meditation on classical architecture created by our ancients at the very dawn of civilization. It was this view of the Acropolis that gave Le Corbusier his architectural epiphany moment; the rest is history.
Historic architecture from around the world receives the same respect. Whether it is the nightscape of Rome, Florence, Venice or Istanbul, the lighting of facades is achieved with great nuance and aesthetic sensitivity, giving the nighttime cityscape a new form of art and a existence beyond its daytime reality. The heritage lighting of the Trevi Fountains, the Colosseum, the Mausoleum of Hadrian and the ruins of the Roman Forum almost recreates the power of Roman architecture and its splendor during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.
Architectural lighting has a profound effect on spaces, evoking emotions in its viewers and helping architecture and interior design achieve their true purpose. “Our job is to literally sculpt the light to highlight the smallest architectural details, thus bringing out the character and history of the site highlighted. In this way, we reveal or interpret a heritage that has been lost or essentially forgotten,” explains Toon Reynders, a lighting expert.
The beginnings of floodlight-lit buildings came with the advent of an abundance of electrical power. Europe with its ubiquitous historical monuments, squares, plazas and fountains has illuminated its cities not only to imbue them with new beauty, but also to invite greater tourist attraction. With the advent of the 20th century, the great skyscrapers of American cities like Chicago and New York created their own aesthetic. Skyscrapers needed signature tops to compete with adjacent rivals in the race to get noticed. The Chrysler building in Manhattan with its art deco roof illuminated its cathedral like a spire with spotlights. The Empire State Building lit up its upper terraces with changing colors to mark special events, anniversaries and commemorations.
Modernist architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson, who built extensively in glass, created the idiom of leaving interiors lit at night, making the building itself a mass of luminosity and a work of art to full share.
Many Indian cities and landmarks also have wonderful heritage lighting, such as Jaisalmer Fort built in yellow stone. The light makes it rise like a gigantic golden vessel floating at night on the desert sands. The sensitively crafted illumination of City Palace, Udaipur bathes the building in golden hues as it shimmers in the tranquil waters of Lake Pichola.
But lately, swept up in the enormous possibilities and instant excitement of multicolored razzmatazz enabled by new technologies, many historic sites are overwhelmed by misplaced crusades to “beautify” them in garish glitter.
On a recent visit to Central Vista, New Delhi, I noticed the grand Lutyens-Baker National Buildings on Raisina Hill drenched in pink, purple and other bright lights killing their inherent beauty of sandstone textures, classical columns, chattris, domes and cupolas. The lotus fountains with cascading pools near Vijay Chowk were covered in garish green lights. Perhaps this visual extravaganza was given especially to simulate the colors of the national flag, to mark the worthy celebrations of the momentous occasion of the country’s 75th year of independence. However, national monuments like these have great symbolism and need more aesthetic tuning in their lighting design to achieve such laudable goals. Of course, the India Gate was beautifully decorated in tricolor colors due to the flat surface available at the top for such a display.
The Capitol complex of Chandigarh adorned with the enigmatic, sculptural and playful building forms of Le Corbusier is a perfect setting for such a nocturnal light show. But alas, on the rare occasions when they are lit up and open to the public, spotlights insensitive to the colors of the rainbow drown out the genius of their artist-sculptor-architect’s palette of forms and obliterate their enigmatic individual identities. It’s a shame the city that prides itself on being a UNESCO World Heritage Site hasn’t been able to create a world-class lighting plan for its crowning glory, the Capitol, which attracts architects, urban planners and art lovers around the world.
Another disturbing trend in the current national obsession with illuminating our cities’ nightscapes is the installation of insensitive multi-coloured lighting on trees, green roundabouts and parks. The damage it causes to birds, small organisms and the biodiversity of our urban landscapes is of great concern. Sound expert advice should be taken before undertaking such senseless and gratuitous “beautification” projects.
God created the night sky so that man could connect with the cosmos and the celestial expanse of its stars and celestial bodies to transcend the routine of daily life. New technical innovations enable dynamic possibilities of the nocturnal landscapes of our cities. We must use them to create new forms of art, not the late-night phantasmagoria of today’s Las Vegas or Times Square.