Light as a Spatial Tool in an Urban Context

Previous posts have discussed how light within a building’s interior acts as both a functional and wayfinding element. Can we also apply these functions of lighting to exterior environments? Is it possible to emphasize and distinguish between places of interest with lighting? How can you preserve a sense of spatial hierarchy between zones within the same lighting system? This post explores the role that lighting plays in a wider urban context and how it encourages the use of various spatial environments.

On a local scale, lighting provides a quick, visual indicator of epicentres of activity such as building entrances, pedestrian walkaways and plazas. These focal points vary depending on the situation in which the lighting system is operative, but usually align with the main function of the area that they occupy. In these situations, light serves as both a suggestive tool that influences the flow of pedestrian traffic as well as a wayfinding solution.

In the case of The Singapore University of Technology and Design, the luminosity levels of outdoor lighting elements vary in a controlled manner in order to form different zones and functions within the space. The varied intensity of light creates a spatial hierarchy that distinguishes each individual area, with a select few focal points. The illumination of the building entrances is twice as great as their surrounding elements, whilst dimly lit landscape features prevent distraction from the main centres of activity. This is an example of a function-centric, cohesive lighting system.

The proposals for the Qatar Integrated Railway Project exterior lighting strategy show the dynamic potential for different lighting plans within the same physical space. Increased levels of luminescence highlight pedestrian routes, and social, more personal spaces develop under canopies, near trees and with lower lighting levels.

These examples both exist within relatively small-scale, controlled areas. On a citywide scale, the opportunities for light as a spatial tool become far more diverse and interesting.

Aerial images of cities at night provide an indication of where the major hotspots of activity are situated through light density – usually landmarks, social areas and public infrastructure are among the most visible. If you were in an unfamiliar city at night, you would head towards the brightest areas you could find, as these are likely to be the busiest. The above examples show how variations in light levels can create routes on a small scale. If these suggestive qualities of lighting can be scaled up to a degree that influences people’s wayfinding decisions on a city-wide basis, then a whole range of potential applications open up. Perhaps a future system of urban street lighting would have the ability to avoid pedestrian congestion in busy city centres through redirection towards lesser-known routes.

UNStudio Team: Alexander Leck