• Emre Cetin

Nocturnal Architecture: Facade Lighting From Past To 21st Century

“The possibilities of night illumination have barely been touched. . . . Eventually, the night lighting of buildings is going to be studied exactly as Gordon Craig and Norman Bel Geddes have studied stage lighting. Every possible means to obtain an effect will be tried—color, varying sources and direction of light, pattern and movement. . . . The illumination of today is only the start of art that may develop as our modern music developed from the simple beating of a tom-tom.”


These lines were written by Raymond Hood in an article titled "Architecture of the Night" published by the General Electric Company in 1930. It was the first footsteps of the notion of "illuminated architecture", which started in the United States in the 1920s and would cause radical changes in architectural approaches. “Illuminated Architecture”, in other words, night architecture (or nocturnal architecture) refers to the architectural approach designed to maximize the effect of lights on the facades of buildings in the 19th and early 20th centuries. At that time, this notion, which basically covered billboards and floodlights, evolved in different ways over the century and has reached the present day advancingly.


Singer Building, 1908

Section 1: From Begining to WW2


Until the late times of the 18th century, architects were mainly concerned with the concepts and material details of buildings. After the discovery and sweep of a new type of energy called electricity, major power generation companies promoted the integration of lighting design into architecture, starting with world fairs. The lighting of buildings, monuments or squares with floodlights at successive fairs was described and encouraged by lighting engineers such as Luther Stieringer and Walter D'Arcy Ryan as an effective way of displaying important or iconic structures within the city. The first attempt at lighting application of the Statue of Liberty was performed in 1886. In 1908, the Singer Building, and during World War I, the dome of the US Capitol was illuminated with floodlights. Lighting applications made one after another brought criticism in a short time. It was a result that almost every authority agreed that the lighting applications made destroyed the architectural details of the buildings. American architect Harvey Wiley Corbett harshly criticized that the angles and directions of light sources disrupt architectural characteristics. Corbett has written that “The form of the illuminated portion should be so tied in with the rest of the building that it should appear as a jewel in a setting, forming a coherent part of the entire structure." He also defined the "illuminated architecture", which should be in an ideal.


The News Building, 1944

Despite the criticisms, the lighting applications of the buildings in the USA continued to be done one after the other. Surfaces designed with bulk materials to diffuse light and avert glare were introduced at the Panama-Pacific International Expo in 1915. In 1921, the facade of the Wringley Building in Chicago was covered with lightish and reflective materials to enhance the light effects. "Illuminated architecture" had taken the rivalry between skyscrapers to another level.

New York / Manhattan, 1938

Statue of Liberty 1931 (First Illumination) / 1942 (During WW2)

In the same period, square lighting was more important in Europe. Because European cities had larger and more impressive squares than in the USA. In particular, the Paris City Council, in a visionary way, illuminated the Place de l'Opéra in 1878, reinforced its reputation as the "City of Lights". Due to European cities having almost no skyscrapers, the light spread from inside buildings and the illumination of facades dominated modern European architecture more than it did in the USA. Especially the light schemes created by adding neon light sources inside or above the huge windows of the retail shops greatly increased the possibilities for creating huge letters. In a newspaper article published in 1912 by Edith Wharton; she wrote that her house was illuminated by the city's landmarks, and perhaps for the first time in history she talked about light pollution. Yet, one by one, European capitals continued to be transformed into "the dream castle of Valhalla". German architect Hugo Häring described the “destruction of architecture by advertising” as a result, writing the following lines: “It is a fact that commercial buildings don't have an architectural facade anymore, their skin is merely the scaffolding for advertising signs, lettering and luminous panels. The rest are windows.”


In his column, Hugo Häring compared reference buildings in Germany as day and night views. One of the buildings he mentioned is the De Volharding building by Jan Buijs. In this building, the elevator shaft and stair tower are designed with glass bricks and are illuminated at night. There are illuminated signs on the roofs. Behind the flat glass windows are opal glass, backlighted at night, and inscriptions describing the advantages of insurance cooperatives are mounted. The same method was frequently applied on theaters or cinemas, especially in German cities. Even UFA (Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft) has started standard production for opal glasses. In 1932, The New York Times magazine described Berlin, which does not have a single skyscraper, to be "the best-illuminated city in Europe" due to glass brick and opal display lighting. After each new lighting application made between 1920 and 1930, dozens of articles were published and "illuminated architecture" spread all over Europe as a new marketing method.


De Volharding Building, 1932

The period that can be described as the first experimental age about "Nocturnal Architecture" is ended due to the start of World War II and the energy crises and was forgotten until the 1950s.


Section 2: From Postwar till the 70’s Energy Crises


Shortly after the end of World War II, light shows were held in various cities to celebrate the victory. On October 27, 1945, a "crown of light" was created over the Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles with approximately 100 projectors, each with color wheels attached to it. In the summer of 1946, a victory-themed light festival was held in London. Illuminated buildings, fountains, squares and independent shows aimed to transform the city into a "fairyland". In 1952, an integrated sound and light show was tested on the Château de Chambord building. Architect and painter Le Corbusier and avant-garde composer Yannis Xenakis adapted this idea to the Expo '58 in Brussels.


With the prominence of the international style in architecture and the change in habits, some technical misfortunes in pre-war buildings began to decrease. New approaches and ideas were now being introduced one after another. In the Manufacturers Hanover Corporation building, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), completed in 1954, a "light tower" was created by using glass walls. Famous architects such as Ely Jacques, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson have adopted the same idea of ​​the “light tower”. It is considered an updated method of the trans-illumination technique used in Europe in the 1920s. Art critic Ada Louise Huxtable, in her research on SOM's design, said: “The whole, viewed from the outside, is no longer architectural in the traditional sense: it is a design, not of substance, but of color, light and motion.” In an article published in The New York Times in 1958, lighting was described as “an art branch that combines function and decoration” and expressed it as the greatest progress in architecture in recent years. At the beginning of the 1960s, designers had rediscovered light, unaware of the debates that took place in the pre-war era.


Manufacturers Hanover Corporation, 1954

By the 1970s, important and iconic buildings of European cities began to be remembered with their night views. Three-dimensional lighting applications were made using neon signs on the west coast of America. Until the first energy crisis in 1973, the fascinating effect of light had surrounded all of around the world especially the USA and Europe.


Section 3: Towards the Colorful 21st Century


The revival of interest in the last quarter of the 20th century was with floodlight fixtures that could change colors in 1977. The upper facade sections of the Empire State Building were illuminated by single floodlights from 1964 to 1977. A new system was designed by Douglas Leigh, in 1977. The first successful and sustained computer-enhanced color change scenario in history was created on October 18, 1977, using blue-white colors to celebrate the New York Yankees' championship. Since then, the lighting application of the Empire State Building has continued to be used as a color-changeable on special/celebration days. In 1986, a Japanese architect named Toyo Ito experimented with a lighting system that could respond to weather conditions with a rapid color cycle in the building he designed in Yokohama, called the Tower of Winds, and designed a kinetic "wind tower".


Empire State Building, 1996

With the common use of computer-enhanced systems, modern "nocturnal architecture" examples began to come to life in different parts of the world. LED screens now replaced neon signs and messages could be transmitted interactively. With the 1980s, light festivals started to become popular again. The light legacy continued to be enriched by producing both temporary and permanent light-works.


Yann Kersalé became one of the most important light artists and lighting designers of the period. In the installation designed by Yann Kersalé to symbolize a heartbeat in Paris, he used fluorescent lamps that could flash rhythmically under the glass dome. In addition, in 2000, together with the architects Jean Nouvel and Helmut Jahn, they made a permanent installation called “extension of daylight” in the atrium area of the Sony Center in Berlin. They managed to welcome both the new day and the new century by symbolizing different colors during the period from sunset to sunrise.


Sony Center, 2002

So, the 21st century started with new possibilities, new light sources and capable control systems. The cities of the world were getting brighter(!) day by day. But lighting also had a dark side, and it wouldn't take long to realize that...