Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Balancing light and shade in the age of darkness
Gestural, perhaps, but what an endearing, enduring image Earth Hour left us; thousands of Sydneysiders lining harbour and picnic spots, faces upturned not to the usual $1 million-plus exploding in pyromaniac smoke but to its very inverse, darkness. Hardly the bright-lights, big-city mind-set we’ve come to expect; hardly tinseltown.
What could it signify, such darkness worship? That the Age of Aquarius, when and if it happens, will be not an Enlightenment at all, but an Endarkenment? A velvety Dark Age? And, where the Enlightenment peddled reason in all things, will such a Dark Age applaud only smoky emotion – already fingered by writers such as Frank Furedi and Daniel Goleman as the guiding principle of our time?
Can’t see it, can you? Darkness as a symbol of hope is about as convincing as, well, agonising death as a symbol of love-centred religion. No, our intuitive equating of goodness with light – baggage, no doubt, from our days of sun worship – is given. The Koran, for one, makes God “the light of the heavens and the Earth”. Revelations, likewise, tells us the City of God needs neither sun nor moon and never shuts its gates since, being perfectly lit, it is perfectly safe. (Outer darkness, by contrast, is not safe at all.) Carl Hiaasen’s latest new-age character, Honey Santana, forces her dullard prisoner up a 10-metre poinciana tree at sunrise because, while “the evening news made her wonder if God was dead, the morning sun made her believe he wasn’t”.
It’s not just moral fibre. Light and dark are inherently directional. The sun rises; darkness falls. Light is knowledge, and understanding is said to “dawn” like the day. Heaven is never underground; Easter takes Jesus into the sky and higher thought is, just that, higher. Yet, as moderns, we typically see the past as dark, albeit known; while the unseen future looks airy and light. Or has, till now. Can the melting ice and warming sea change that? Can fear? And how, then, might we illuminate our lives and our cities?
The Earth Hour imperative is to switch off, period. No story, straight to bed. Pitted against it, though, is our hard-wired will to light. It’s that old fire-from-heaven thing and, combining curiosity, safety and (lacking a more concise term) God, it’s right up there with the will to guzzle. This is the quintessential eco-conflict: are we of nature or just in her? If it’s only in, and we can’t be fully green since our very presence implies planetary cost, maybe there’s some deal we can strike?
Here, light, being the medium of the middle way, offers an example. It sounds unlikely, since light is liquid drama; packed with poetic potential and teeming, as any theatre buff knows, with spatial transformation. Pour it over humanity’s greatest public art form, the city, and the play-potential is endless. Even the least romantic cities ooze poetry as dusk turns solid to void, and void to massed glow-worms.
Yet cities tend to treat light as a mere utility, for way-finding and safety, with the odd flood on heritage. Either they over-light, with all the lusciousness of a white-light convenience store, or they take the economy option: none. Which may be why city lighting remains a fledgling discipline, with no identifiable body of theory and less recognition.
Still, there are inklings of change. In 1990, for example, Glasgow wove a lighting master plan into its successful bid to be European City of Culture. Ten years on, days before the opening ceremony, Sydney adopted its own rather pedestrian lighting strategy. Focused mainly on spill-avoidance, though, it bans neons (such as the famous Coke sign) while leaving those crude primaries, the corporate reds and blues, sadly uncontrolled.
So Earth Hour’s New Dark throws the whole question into welcome relief. As the urban lighting academic Andre Tammes notes wistfully, “All these years in the shade and suddenly lighting leaps to the front page”. But the light thrown by Earth Hour is harsh and rather contrasty, missing some of the debate’s crevice-dwelling subtleties. Such as, it’s not just about switching off.
Certainly, light pollution can devastate entire ecosystems. At risk are migratory birds, moths and turtle hatchlings which, being phototactic, head for the sky’s lightest point, whether it’s over sea or over six-lane highways to the Smoke. Sydney is a relatively dark city, yet our light plume reaches Siding Spring Observatory at Coonabarabran. And there’s the effect on harbour traffic to consider, since Sydney’s city-lights fairyland can render even properly lit shipping near invisible. Not to mention the energy savings.
Too little light, however, and the night city as a vivid romantic presence simply ceases to exist. It’s like New York’s dilemma after the attacks of September 11, 2001; to rebuild may be hubristic but not to is capitulation. Imagine the film Babel without Tokyo’s night light. Less is more, until it starts being, simply, less.
Back, then, to the middle way. As designers know, painting in light is really about manipulating shadow. Shadow enhances form, enriches texture, elicits poetry. So a city lighting plan must start with imagination, working out from alley scale and in from distant city form, mindful all the way that the true symbol of hope is not darkness, but balance.
Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald.