Light has been used to bring people together since time immemorial. Tens of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals lit fires in caves, making them sanctuaries of warmth and safety for their communities. Places of worship have traditionally used candlelight to create emotion, drama and solace for their congregations, and candles placed in windows have always signified solidarity and hope in times of grief, terror and disaster. Lighthouses, beacons and flares warn people and can save lives. In happier times and the warmer seasons, sunlight draws crowds to beaches and public spaces.
The interplay between sunlight and architecture has always been a powerful and seductive force. Le Corbusier and Tadao Ando built their reputations by incorporating daylight into many of their churches and buildings with beautiful, ethereal and dramatic effect. The use of artificial coloured light, however, has long been associated with the garish, over-saturated skylines of Dubai and Las Vegas. But when used sparingly and strategically, coloured light can be just as powerful as the pure light of the sun.
London-based lighting design consultancy Nulty used strips of saturated red light in the red entranceway leading into the Nike Manchester United stadium store. Fans wearing the team’s branded red shirts seem to glow when they enter the shop, whilst the blue shirts of rivals Manchester City take on a muddy brown hue.
In Iceland’s Keflavik Airport, Nulty also designed a dynamic, interactive light installation spanning the arrivals and departures halls which references one of the country’s main attractions – the aurora borealis. The speed of this kaleidoscopic light show mirrors the actual intensity of this mystical natural phenomenon as it is linked to Met Office data in real time. Air travellers are delighted and amazed, and it’s a fantastic example of how light can enhance a space and create an emotive atmosphere if thoughtfully designed.
In cities around the world, major events have been announced and celebrated using light projected onto the urban landscape. For the Olympics in 2012, many of London’s bridges became colourful backdrops at night, whilst the Houses of Parliament were emblazoned with a projected Union Jack to support Team GB. Every year, more of the city’s landmarks including the MI6 building and Marble Arch have been illuminated in rainbow colours to celebrate Gay Pride.
In January 2016, Durham’s Lumiere Festival came to the capital, filling the streets of central London with thousands of visitors who admired a series of magnificent, free light art installations on one of the coldest and gloomiest weeks of the year.
The world is currently in the grip of one of the darkest periods in living memory, and although most city streets are devoid of people, light is being used to turn iconic buildings into powerful messages of support for healthcare workers. Washington’s National Cathedral, The Museum of Man in San Diego, the Empire State Building in New York, and Rio’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue are just some of the international landmarks currently emblazoned at night with collective thanks.
Closer to home, the OXO Tower, Selfridges, The Shard and One Canada Square in Canary Wharf light up a deserted London at night in the distinctive blue hue of the NHS. This powerful gesture of solidarity has spread across the country from Salisbury Cathedral and the Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, to the Penshaw Monument in Sunderland and the magnificent Kelpies sculptures in Falkirk, Scotland. Clearly the power of light to unify humanity in the face of a global crisis has never been more critical.