Culture, climate and materiality form the three pillars of light that are the bedrock for our critique of the zeitgeist. Climate and materiality are two great concerns within lighting, but while they possess enormous influence, they do have clearly defined boundaries. The broader a definition is of culture, the more accurate it becomes; the inverse for both climate and materiality. The flexible nature of culture holds a great deal of interest for design, in that how we manifest objects, systems and behaviors through design is a large part of the dialogue surrounding the question; what is culture?
The culture of lighting defines us. In an era that is increasingly segmented, with a renewed focus on site-specific, culturally aware design, every practitioner in the built environment can benefit from better understanding the implications of culture in lighting design. While the nature of culture is interesting, attempting to define or sculpt its wide boundaries is not the primary aim of this section. Rather we are interested in how culture informs light and affects how we perceive light. Becoming culturally aware is a difficult process. It takes decades of globalization, travel and education to even scratch the surface of how we as humans have all come to inhabit this green earth in so many different ways. Understanding the differing nature of culture globally as it affects light is one of the primary goals of this section.
Every culture has had a distinct relationship with light, and that continues today. As it is manifest, light defines broader tastes and styles within a culture. And, this has deeper implications than mere fashion or vogue. As more firms and practitioners begin to operate across geographic boundaries, understanding cultural drivers is critical for meeting the needs of the populous. From lighting the villages of India to designing civic, residential and institutional environments in New York City, to exploring the burgeoning and conflicted world of the Middle East. Every practitioner in the built environment can benefit from better understanding the implications of culture in lighting design. Lighting solutions internationally balance universal ideas about light with local variations. A given culture’s position in the global economic development cycle is often reflected in its use of lighting in urban, night environments. However, striking a balance between regional differences and globalization is often a challenge.
What are the elements that define individual cultures? We might list the arts, architecture, technology, economics, religion, literature, politics, tradition and ritual, human biology and physiology, local conditions, climate, and natural resources. In analyzing a culture’s unique views on lighting, we might consider light in relationship to each of the above elements. While certain elements, like the human physiological response, remain consistent cross-culturally, others, such as climate or religious traditions, can vary immensely. People the world over follow the same circadian rhythms dictated by the Earth’s exposure to the sun. Most of us use rods and cones to detect light and color in our surroundings, and blue eyes around the world are more sensitive to bright light than brown eyes. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SDA) occurs in people of all continents, as do health problems that develop from consistently working night shifts in artificial lighting. The human eye reacts within a relative degree of accuracy to changes in light intensity, distribution, color, contrast, duration, and context. Sight is always dependent in part on the qualities of the last object seen, and also on the other things in the field of vision surrounding the object of focus. It is in the interpretations of these visual stimuli and in the patterns of types of stimulation that the human response begins to differ.
Over time, we have often seen a shift in requirements within a culture or people. In the United States in the 50’s and 60’s, the popular adage was “more light, better sight”. The OPEC Energy Crises of 1973 and 1979 are perfect examples of how world economics can influence our views on the usage of light. Political turmoil and global competition for limited oil reserves have a major impact on the energy prices at home that influence our lighting decisions. Financial circumstances change our view of light usage and energy conservation, our awareness of over-lighting, and influence the emergence of more subtle lighting strategies. The “more light, better sight” philosophy wanes in favor of more strategic area lighting. Reflexively, as the ‘green’ movement gains momentum, it inspires the search for more efficient lighting solutions, which in turn leads to the development of halogen lamps, and eventually, light emitting diodes (LED’s).
The emergence of the tiny, long-lasting, inexpensive LED’s is anticipated to dramatically change the lighting situations in many developing nations where, previously, people relied more on natural light and on planning activities during times when it was available. In the last 50 years, as other areas of the world have found prosperity and technology has become more affordable, traditional constructs of light and darkness have been replaced by grossly over lit spaces. The critique here is clear, that just because technology is affordable and easy to install it doesn’t mean that it should be implemented carte blanche. All technology is susceptible to environmental concerns, and although LED’s do provide superior lighting efficiency in energy of use sense, the current rate of production to fill the gaps aforementioned cannot be sustained in the long term to meet that demand. The reality of the industry is that we have an uncertain supply of both energy and materials which should be addressed not through techno-solving, but rather through simple ethical implementation into the design process, which starts with the simple question “do we really need this?”
The tide of the ‘green’ movements influence in expanding the implementation of ethically sustainable practices into design can be seen through several different certifications and policy initiatives undertaken in recent years. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification formed by the U.S. Green Building Council is the world’s leading certification in sustainable design for architecture in the United States. Developed by the 20,000 or so members of the council, the certification is won by adhering voluntarily to the standards developed by the council for that specific year. The standards evolve and are voted on by the council every year, with the certification goals becoming ever more progressive.
The same progression can be seen through the evolution of the United States congress bill, the 1992 Energy Policy Act (Epact), in which states had to review and consider adopting national model energy standards. In 2007 the Department of Energy updated the policy to improve energy conservation by 3.7%, followed by an update in 2010 to bring the total to 18.2%. The policy debate surrounding sustainability has a large influence on the discussion about light and how we use it. Though we do see change through initiatives like the LEED certification and the Epact, the zeitgeist still turns toward techno-solving as our chosen methodology for escaping our sins. Technologies such as wind power, hydro-power and nuclear power all contribute to the discussion about how we can make our energy production renewable, however the conversation surround how much we should need and how much we are really using is still too quiet.