On Imagination and its Role in the Work of a Lighting Design Studio

…true poetics is always both poetic and non-poetic, i.e. practical.
— Jan Turnovsky, "The Poetics of a Wall Projection"

I am a lighting designer. I design for physical spaces, inside and out, public and private: bridges, trains, skating rinks, parks, pavilions, and homes. But the borderless realm I inhabit—the region where I work—is nighttime, that period of time after the planet throws the world into shade, dusk, civic and astronomic twilight, and the darkness of deep night. Nighttime is not a place or a space. You can’t step into and out of it. It is not even a particular moment in time. It’s a region of the veiled, the obscure, the half-seen, and the mysterious, where edges and shapes blur, colors shift across reds to vibrant blues and then disappear, where the world seems to fragment into tiny points of light, light poles, ads, signs and an anarchy of car and bus headlights moving in and out of view.

The nighttime is an inherently imaginative realm because to navigate, to live in a realm of shadows, obscurity, mystery, interrupted patterns of light and shadow we must imagine what we cannot see, use our memories, our fears and our desires to create a narrative of who and what is around us. In saying this, I am speaking of the imagination not as a separate mental faculty, but as a deeply subjective way the senses have of throwing themselves beyond what is immediately given to grasp and create the world. 

Operating in this realm we want to preserve the imaginative possibilities, the shadows to dream in. And when we succeed, we know it is not only the angle or intensity of the light we added that contributes the lovely shimmer or aura of fascination. Rather the play of light and shadow has linked the psyche to the surroundings, touching each psyche’s fund of dreams and memories.

So we—my studio and I—dance on a tight rope. On the one hand, we must add light for convenience and comfort, for a sense of safety and stability. On the other, we do not want to present experiences and spaces so clearly we “clip” the wings of imagination. We toggle between the poetic and the practical, striving to maintain equilibrium. We seek a balance, on the one hand, between adding a faint and delicate light that enhances or delights, leaving a space for dreaming to flourish, and, on the other, adding what the space requires, the spotlights that grab and insist on attention.

The practice of everyday imagination

As a studio, we make day and nighttime site visits, even before anything is built. We want to be at the specific site to throw our senses forward beyond what is given. We want to feel the textures and qualities that cannot be given in a drawing, a programme, or even a photograph.

When I go to a site, I go to see what I can’t see, feel what I can’t feel sitting in the office. I want to smell the site, listen to it, and feel my balance shift as I walk across it. I go to find the unexpected—flocks of bats, whiskey bottles tucked in the bushes, a certain magical tree, how stray headlights from cars brush across a bedroom window.  It is an exercise of the imagination without a goal or a design destination. People tend to think that darkness is the same everywhere but it is not. It is concrete, it is specific and it is full of possibilities—unpredictable, random, human.

Free play

In the studio, we keep our imagination limber and wild by exercising what Keats called “negative capabilities,” which is to say, we try to stay with our uncertainties, mysteries and doubts without “an irritable reaching after fact or reason.” We question whether light can make any contribution at all to a site. We imagine what qualities can be brought to a project other than lighting before we imagine that light has anything to add. We are reckless. We exaggerate. We are provisional thinkers, capable, from time to time, of seemingly pointless insights. Some we keep, some we throw away. We try to transcend the limitations of the tools of our trade—light poles, bollards, standing lamps. We pack our imaginary tool kit with fireflies, flashlights, chalk, the moon, shiny bits of copper and silver, flimsy bits of scrim…

Empathy

Empathy is a quality of the imagination that we prize—the ability to project oneself into another’s psychic space, whether it is a residential client or the user of a park or a whole community. To do what we do properly, we have to imagine what others might feel. Empathy with others’ psychic space is complex and requires greater imagination that you might think. We want to be able to imagine their inner lives with the specificity born of observation, conversation and a sense of the immediate and long-term history of a place. Keats said the poetical character “is the most unpoetical thing in existence” because it has no self and is constantly casting itself into the lives of others: “the Sun, the Moon, the Sea and Men and Women…” Empathy is that poetic/unpoetic act of casting oneself into the psychic space of others as freely—and as free of stereotypes—as possible.

Empathy shapes the free play of the imagination and delivers it to someone specific— someone with concrete hopes and fears and dreams. Empathy is imagination’s second act, constraining imagination’s free play in order to delight a specific person in a particular place and time. We don’t want to design events or experiences that awe but are horrible to live with or impossible to maintain. Thus we are constantly casting our imagination back and forth beyond the givens of the site and beyond unexamined assumptions about the user.

And then there is the question of empathy with nonhuman creatures who occupy the night with us. Thomas Nagel implored us (albeit it in another context) to imagine, what is it like to be a bat? I would argue that if only we tried to imagine the lives of the myriad nighttime creatures that live along side us, we would all proceed with far more sensitivity…

Awareness

To keep my imagination footloose, limber and wild I have to acknowledge when I’m stuck, when some aspect of the situation is shutting down the freedom of the imagination.

On the one hand, the rules and regulations that govern the operation of my practice can exhaust and bore, tiring the imagination and making simple compliance seem the obvious choice—put the light pole here and then there. To counter this takes vigorous action. We act by throwing every wild speculative thought at the condition of boredom.

On the other hand, the unpredictable, the unimaginable has happened on almost every project I have worked on in the last two years—from the disastrous effects of climate change to startling acts of vandalism. This can make me scared to take risks. Fear can constrain the imagination just as decisively as boredom. To counter this sort of situation, we must be even crazier and wilder in our thinking. If we shouldn’t put a lighting fixture in the ground because it will likely flood, we consider whether it should dangle in the air.  We cast our imagination about for inspiration. We ask ourselves what the Egyptians did when the Nile flooded every year.

Conclusion

Imagination is like dancing on a tightrope. It requires skill. Rigor. And a certain bravery. You’re gonna fall off the wire. An architect said to me about a major street lighting project that we were working on: “Everything we do here is a pilot project, a big imaginative exercise. But just remember: When anything we do fails, nobody will remember that it was all just an experiment.” Yet we insist that we approach each site and each user as fully engaged sensual experiences to be grasped and, through the alchemy of our practice—created for. Michel De Certeau once said that dancing on a tightrope requires that one maintain equilibrium from one moment to the next by recreating equilibrium at every step. He quotes Kant, who wrote: “In my region, in my village the ordinary man says that charlatans and magicians depend on knowledge (you can do it if you know the trick) whereas tightrope dancers depend on an art.”