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Lessons in lighting

Alpana Chowdhury | August 09, 2003

In the beginning, there was the word...And God said, "Let there be light," so there was -- it really was as simple as that. But light, in the form of day, didn't satisfy man whose nocturnal activities increased, requiring a more complex form of lighting.

Since the discovery of fire and the creation of artificial light, that quest has still to cease. Instead, it has become all the more complex. From fires to candles to Edison's discovery in 1879 to LEDs, the lighting industry has come a long way since that first dawn.

Yet, even as different modes of lighting have evolved, it has become equally difficult to understand. And the more complicated that lighting has become, the more difficult its usage too.

No longer are electricians sufficient to devise plans for illuminating an area, for there are specialists to handle jobs that require painstaking effort.

One such lighting guru is Abhay Wadhwa, principal and partner of New York-based Available Light, as part of an overall strategy to expand his activities into India. Wadhwa was recently in Mumbai to talk on the science and art of appropriate lighting, on the invitations of design magazine Inside Outside.

Wadhwa's presentation was laced with homilies and little-known facts that, once made known, seemed common sense, even though their application in our daily lives has been incidental, even negligible.

"A good lighting job does not mean excessive or necessarily expensive hardware," says Wadhwa. "One person's sparkle can be another person's glare. A lighting designer has to understand what the architect wants to achieve, what are the human factors involved; he has to consider vision science, colour science, ergonomics…"

Armed with an unusual degree -- a master of science in lighting -- Wadhwa has clearly shown that lighting isn't about selecting lamps and shades and changing bulbs.

Instead, he has since lit up projects as diverse as bridges, tunnels, airports, museums, libraries, resorts and casinos. Over the years, he has become emphatic about appropriate lighting.

For instance, for the Ancient Near East Gallery in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Wadhwa used fibre-optic lighting, also known as cold lighting, in order to protect the delicate terracotta and stone figurines from the damaging effect of UV and infra-red radiation.

He was awarded the International Illumination Design Award for this project. "But you cannot use fibre-optic lighting in a home. You have to resist the seduction of a fad," he pointed out to the gathering of architects and interior designers.

When illuminating a tunnel, on the other hand, the black-hole effect has to be considered. "To reduce the jump from the brightness outside to the darkness within, you have to use very high-powered lights at the threshold of the tunnel. You gradually reduce the brightness as you proceed. A flicker effect is the worst thing to have in a tunnel."

Lighting up a tunnel is one thing, maintaining the lighting system quite another. Since changing fixtures in a tunnel, amidst moving traffic, can prove an extremely tricky job, Wadhwa introduced the concept of toolless maintenance in the Lincoln Tunnel in New York. "The quality of hardware used is also important as it has to withstand the pressures of tunnel washes," he elaborates.

The challenge to modernise heritage street-lights is another light game altogether.

"They have to be retro-fitted to accept the new lamp technology without destroying their historic character," Wadhwa realised when working on the lamps on Fifth Avenue, New York. (Surely, when electrifying the Mysore Palace, the powers-that-be had no clue about such issues, judging by the ugly criss-cross of wires scarring its once-impressive façade.)

"Often," stresses Wadhwa, "you find merchandise shops overlit, and can't help wondering about the goods being sold within -- are they the shop's chosen merchandise, or lights?

That lights should not distract from the goods displayed is well known, but perhaps less often put into action. Colour distortion is another common lighting mistake.

If the colour of cloth, make-up or food looks different from what it actually is, you know the lighting has not been done by a professional. White raddish should be white, and green cucumber green.

How can a customer choose the shade of lipstick she wants if the entire showroom is bathed in an orange glow, or the focus of the lights is not right? Before the energy crisis in the US, it was a popular belief that over-lit stores were high-end stores. Now they are better informed."

Of course, when lighting something on the scale of the George Washington Bridge Towers in New York, Wadhwa was more liberal in his use of hardware, but hardly indiscriminate.

His working brief was to create "a glowing tower of crystal". He first looked to the edifice for inspiration.

"The structure being a tapering one, the distribution of light was important here. I had to also keep in mind factors like light-loss due to weightage of steel, the effect of the bridge's vibration, and even nesting falcons. Maintenance, once again, was very important -- you can't have falling screws shattering the windscreens of cars."

To eliminate such possibilities, the Edison, Lumen and Paul Waterbury awards-winner did away with screws altogether. Instead, he used a clamping system with silicon gasketing.

Clearly, lighting up structures from within or without is no longer the job of your neighbourhood electrician.

Washing walls with light, daylight harvesting, painting light on architecture, accent lighting, ambient lighting, track lighting, computerised lighting…now what would he know about all this and more?

If it's any consolation, neither do the engineers entrusted with lighting up our much-touted freeways. "The lighting system they have installed on the Mumbai-Pune highway is all wrong," pronounces Wadhwa. And he should know.

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