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Rather like most things in life in the 21st century, lighting has become rather more complicated than it used to be. It has also become considerably more exciting. The upheaval triggered by the switch from incandescent to solid state sources (LEDs) and the increased sophistication of electronics are probably the most tangible catalysts for the continuing shift in the way we light our buildings and environment. But to leave it at that would be a little simplistic.
These technological developments have taken place against the background of a rising awareness of the importance of lighting itself – witness the extraordinary evolution of the independent lighting design profession in Europe, especially since the 1980s. That awareness has encompassed a range of issues.
Perhaps most significantly, there has been an increased understanding of the importance of lighting quality – most would prefer the warm, intimate glow of the quality restaurant to the colder, harsher insistence of the fast-food fluorescent. Similarly in the workspace we have come to appreciate that uniform downlighting from ranks of ceiling fittings is oppressive and montonous (to say nothing of wasteful, when much of the light falls pointlessly on flooring and empty desks). We recognise that seeing the space as three-dimensional, with brighter ceiling and walls, together with plays of light pattern and shadow, is much more pleasing and stimulating to the human visual system.
Since the discovery in 2002 of a third photoreceptor in the eye not linked, like rods and cones, to that visual system, but to our circadian system, we have also learned that light has a crucial influence on our body clocks. While research continues in this sphere, we already recognise the profound effect that lighting has on health and wellbeing. Biodynamic systems for offices – changing colour temperature from cooler to warmer whites throughout the day – are an initial, perhaps crude attempt, to approximate the natural light in which human beings have primarily evolved and to which we still respond.
We have also begun to see our public spaces literally in a new light. While before exterior lighting was viewed as strictly functional and to a certain degree a crime deterrent, now it is seen as a tool to bring the city to life and even regenerate whole neighbourhoods. Underlit street furniture, dappled shadow gobo patterns on piazzas, carefully lit facades that delineate architectural features after dark all encourage people to gather in urban spaces, and as a result boost the night-time economy. The proliferation of light art and light festivals have not only introduced both public and local government to the fun rather than purely functional aspects of light, but also its creative possibilities.
Simultaneously, we have become more conscious of light pollution and energy usage. The answer, of course, is not a blanket switch-off. The solution is carefully considered strategies and carefully controlled lighting schemes, allowing darkness to play a role where appropriate. A good quality lighting design, interior or exterior, will fulfil all the above criteria, including energy efficiency and environmental care.
Where the technology comes in is in the way it has made it easier to meet those criteria. While there are still issues with poor quality LEDs, they have evolved at a hectic pace to simulate the good points of energy-profligate incandescent sources, and their qualities are indisputable, especially efficiency, longevity and controllability (namely, dimmability, colour-changing, scene-setting and switchability for energy saving).
What's more, the miniaturisation of light sources has allowed a more radical approach to luminaire design which means that fittings have become ever more slim and discreet. The architectural integration of lighting has been a key outcome of those last two qualities in particular, though requires the cooperation of architect/designer and lighting professional at a very early conceptual stage. Light is often at its most magical when it seeps from the structure of the building, producing glowing surfaces and stripes of light that delineate its form and fabric. Ingenious optics, such as that employed in iGuzzini's Trick luminaire, can now produce powerful light-bending effects from one small fitting.
These developments are affecting every sphere, including the residential, where traditional sources and techniques have been most persistent. Smart LED lamps that can be addressed (dimmed and switched) by mobile devices; colour-changing luminaires such as the Philips Hue range, and LED strips for concealed cove or floor lighting are all now readily available to consumers, allowing them to create and shape interior spaces in a much more stimulating and mood-related way. Sony's Multifunctional Light, co-developed with Toshiba, to be launched in Japan later this year, combines a large donut-shaped LED ceiling light with a Wi-Fi-enabled unit that can be controlled with a smartphone app. The unit includes sensors for motion, light, temperature and humidity, as well as a speaker, a microphone and infrared capability for remote control of TVs and air-conditioning units.
With continuing developments such as LiFi, where light fittings will be used to transmit data 100 times faster than WiFi, and Power-over-Ethernet smart luminaires that detect the presence and preferences of shoppers or office workers, lighting will only get more complicated – and more compelling.