Night, light & the shades of darkness 

Copenhagen, Inderhavnen Bridge

The colours of lights and materials: reflectance, transparency, colour, texture are so many elements to play with, in an urban environment.


Indlæg af Laurence Bourghol, studerende på Lighting Design uddannelsen Aalborg Universitet, København

Cities are complex systems. Within a context of growing urbanisation, they are competing to create liveable spaces, promoting sustainability and well-being aside a cosmopolite lifestyle. The night extension of shopping and leisure activities open the spectrum of human activities to the dark hours of the cities. By making the night accessible, street lighting creates the conditions of this nocturnal urbanity. But night has its own complexity. Designing for it, one must understand its own character.  Perception, feelings, dynamics of the space: when the sun fades away, night takes over, and gives a twist to our affinities with the city. How individual relate to the space at night and what kind of relationship are we aiming to design for our city nights? With the expansion of outdoor activities, what criteria are leading to a human centred design strategy? What are the potentials offer by the emerging technologies?  How are they transforming the urban darkness into a safe, comfortable, enjoyable and responsive experience for people? Here are some thoughts about night time, to expand our vision of light beyond the functional. 


Copenhagen, Nordea Headquarter, Knippelsbrogade

A slash of warm light forms a linear but vaporous edge, giving to the architecture a feeling of weightless mass, floating in the darkness.

Night time is an integral part of the citizen's daily life.  In Scandinavia, the darkness can extend to the extremes. But still, cities remain mainly planned for daytime. The different illuminations, separately conceived, spread their glows individually in the city. Among these layers, street lighting has been, for a long time, mainly planned for functionality. The standards, primarily developed for road traffic, are largely based on visibility for drivers and mainly concerned by illuminance level and glare prevention. In parallel, public lighting for pedestrians is dominated since its beginning by discourse on safety and crime prevention. Advertisement and lit facades are casting their flickering and monumental entertaining lure on the top layer of the cities. In view of this complexity, the challenge for a conscious urban lighting is to curate a space of coherence, managing to connect all these luminous flux into a harmonious whole.


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Copenhagen, Nørreport Station

The warm glow of light spreading from the rounded-off building invite people to gather under the soft slope roof and enter into the station.


Understand the potential of lighting further away than a purely functional element, is a fantastic opportunity to explore the multifaceted realities embedded in the night urbanity. Light, considered properly, is a powerful tool to design meaningful environments. As a structural element, it gives clarity and creates hierarchy to the space.  As a caring and supporting material, it provides the feeling of safety and guide people into the different shades of the cities. As a communication layer, it engages a dialogue with the local context: enhance heritage, reveals the invisible and suggests new definitions for the urban realm.

Designing for people implies a sensitive approach. It goes far beyond the functional requirements of fulfilling standards. Understanding the site specificities, as well as incorporating knowledge in nocturnal social behaviour, determine the success of a human centered urban lighting. Night has its own rhythm interlaced to different urban practices. The shades of darkness, varying with the seasons and the geo-localization, trigger different needs for lighting. The requirements for the "social night" hours, when outdoor activities are mostly taking place, are different than the ones of the resting part of the dark hours. This temporality shall be included as a parameter to design in tune with the real people's needs and practices in the urban environment.


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Copenhagen, Opera House from Holmen

Facades can be a wonderful medium to open up an “in and out” dialogue. As a porous skin, it reveals different colours of light and let them spilling out through the darkness, as a structural and atmospheric element.

On a broader reflection about the nightshades, the environmental consequences of lighting needs to be considered with attention. Dark skies are becoming difficult to find as the gleaming fogs are spreading on metropoles. UNESCO attempts to "safeguard cultural and natural sites and landscapes that encapsulate and epitomize the relationship between humankind and the sky".  Incorporate darkness, temporarily or not, as a part of the lighting strategy can help to preserve this access to the cosmos, recognized as a "common and universal heritage".

Planning for the different rhythms of the night is within easy reach thanks to the emerging technologies. The digitalisation  of the light makes it easily controllable. Coupled with intelligent control system, it paved the way for a flexible and adaptable urban lighting strategy. Part of the growing smart technologies embedded in our cities, intelligent lighting is able to react and to adapt in real time to environmental changes, users actions, or trace data, transforming our cities into responsive environments. Applied to the urban context, these technologies have already allowed considerable progress in term of energy saving and light pollution. Taking one step further, this digital turn could unfold a new field of experimentation for designers. Introducing a behavioural logic in the design process, light has the opportunity to become a presence shaped across the temporal, with a new focus on performative responses. Reflecting on the role, function and use of the light as digital output, the threshold with the Media world is thin, but still exists. The chance to create new and meaningful scenarios in the city, might be lying here, in this hybrid space, between atmospheric narratives and interactive content. 


Copenhagen, Nørreport Station

Light allows to use colour contrast to distribute and organize the space among warm and cold tones.

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Henry Plummer writes so accurately about the "ever changing state of daylight" that "we might venture that an incorporation of luminous mutations in built space will enhance the world's "becoming" as well as man's ability to identify with the transience and feel vibrant himself. ". There is no calling for mimicking the daylight dynamism. But time might come for the man-made light, to tame darkness with an evolutive, dynamic and caring soul, revealing the city as a sensible place, to which citizens will feel connected as part of the same night ecosystem.


Copenhagen, Nørreport Station

The light columns of Nørreport punctuate the open space, giving to the place a strong and distinctive night identity.


Copenhagen, Nørreport Station

Night urbanity is also about movement, traffics of all sorts that light can help  to make safe and fluid.