Lines of Inquiry:
Realigning Expectations of Historic Lighting


Significant as the advances in lighting technology have been, they are outstripped by our ideas of what we want historic lighting to achieve. Historic lighting is increasingly expected to fulfill a bulging portfolio ofdesires: to express the sublimity of memory; bring out detail in form through subtle plays of light and shadow; conform to LEED standards; meet the expectations of users who spend their work lives in evenly-lit bright spaces; require low-maintenance; cost as little as possible; and be programmatically flexible so as to address multipurpose needs—i.e., performance, respite, worship, scholarship, etc.

From the perspective of a lighting designer and environmental psychologist, the assumption that a skillful use of technology combined with a clear delineation of program can accomplish a satisfactory outcome has reached its limits. It is time to step back and open up a dialogue that goes beyond the usual statements about desires, needs and budget. Simply put—we are going to have to make some choices. If we don’t make them, the technological limitations will make them for us. I propose some lines of inquiry to assist in making those choices:

1. Values: Delineate the value system of the particular owners and/or users of the space. What is their philosophical outlook, world view, the lens through which they see everything? Values provide the framework that allows people to make coherent choices. 

2. Costs: What are the different costs of our various aesthetic desires and practical needs? This includes not only financial costs, but also other costs such as comfort, electrical power, aesthetic experience, usability, to name a few.

3. Psychology of Space: The physical environment has psychological properties and is embedded in larger social environments. What are the social and psychological influences that need to be considered? What are the symbolic meanings? These invisible factors are primarily experienced below the level of awareness, as is light. We need to tease them out so as to understand more deeply the subliminal role to be played by lighting, so as to use it most effectively.

Once we understand the values, costs and psychology of the space, we can make decisions about programmatic questions. By following these lines of inquiry, we can escape the no-win situation we currently find ourselves in. The clarity produced offers the necessary framework for titrating various desires and needs into a set of expectations that can be successfully met by a lighting renovation.

Linnaea Tillett, PhD

September 15, 2011