Culture, No.7  Sept. 27, 2011


The anything-as-long-as-it’s-bright approach

Photo : Totsune Hirohito

Totsune Hirohito

The title “lighting designer” tends to conjure up images of people installing excessive lighting and wasting electricity. That is a common misconception.

As lighting designers, we have to be experts in illuminating locations as efficiently as possible, and in creating pleasant spaces that are also safe. When someone tells us exactly how much power they want to consume and how much they want to spend, we have the confidence to create the best possible lighting scheme in line with those requirements. Our job has nothing to do with needless extravagance. It is a question of providing lighting that people and society as a whole genuinely need. We are always very aware of that fact.

Most lighting designers have to face certain dilemmas, to some extent at least, whilst going about their work. When subcontracted to design lighting along a corridor, walkway or thoroughfare for instance, specifications require a level of illumination of 300 lux in most cases. That’s enough light to be able to comfortably read a newspaper. But is that really necessary in a location where people are just passing through? It may seem wrong, but if that’s the standard that has been set, then we have no option but to comply. There’s always a predetermined budget too, so all you can do is to bring in some cheap but powerful fluorescent lights and hook them up to produce the required level of illumination.

The finished corridor will undoubtedly be brightly lit. People will have more than enough light to read. They will even be able to see the wrinkles on one another’s faces, or dust particles floating in the air. What they won’t get however is the slightest trace of anything approaching an emotional response to that space.

From our point of view, Japan is overflowing with unnecessary, gaudy lighting. This is due to rigid standards and precedents, compliance with which is usually forced onto designers by members of staff further up the chain. Essentially, as long as the lights are bright, we don’t get any complaints. We’re never held accountable if the lights aren’t bright enough either. That non-confrontational approach has taken precedence over saving energy, or actually stopping to consider how to create a more pleasant lighting environment.

The importance of creating light and shade

Slowly but surely however, times are changing. Using one in every two or three fluorescent lights in an effort to save energy have become a common sight in recent years, probably due to increasing awareness of global warming.

When the recent earthquake hit, Tokyo became even darker than usual. Just because the lights were turned down however, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it cast a shadow over people’s spirits too.

My place of work is partway along a long arcade that leads down to the local station. After the earthquake, nearly everyone walking down the arcade at night was saying the same things. “It’s nice without all the lights.” “The place feels more relaxed.” Obviously, not everyone who lives in Tokyo feels that way, but I have heard plenty of similar comments in various different locations since the earthquake. Personally, I thought the low-level lighting on subway platforms gave them a more elegant, European feel.

Having lived so long without it, this is precisely the sort of light that we have all forgotten. For all the years we have been using electricity like there was no tomorrow, we have always thought that everything is fine as long as it’s brightly lit. There are definite advantages to bright lighting. If a room has the same level of lighting throughout for instance, you can keep on working wherever you are. We have all come to regard that sort of lighting environment as the norm. Ironically, it took an accident that put a cap on our power consumption to make us realize that everywhere was unnecessarily bright.

It’s not just a case of turning the lights down however. What would happen for example if we reduced the level of street lighting by 15% across the board? We would be left with a featureless, gloomy landscape. That is the sort of design we want to avoid at all costs. One option would be to restrict lighting wherever possible along walkways and thoroughfares, and to provide the required level of lighting in other areas.

It is crucial that we have that degree of variation, creating light and shade. After the earthquake, convenience stores in Tokyo were supposed to turn their lighting down. Didn’t they seem brighter than ever? That’s because the surrounding areas were darker than usual. When working with light, the lower the base level of illumination, the more effective a small amount of light can be. That is why we lighting designers always cringe when clients ask us to create more contrast, whilst still meeting the required illumination standards. The concept of using lower lighting in areas that don’t need to be brightly lit can save energy, but it also goes much further than that.

It may seem unlikely, but low lighting can actually be effective from the point of view of safety too. To put it another way, bright lighting on its own doesn’t necessarily guarantee safety.

In fact, suspicious individuals tend to feel more comfortable in areas that are brightly lit at all times. People are far less likely to notice them in an environment like that. Installing some sort of sensor-controlled lighting actually makes life harder for such individuals.

There is a study by a university professor asking woman what makes them feel safe when walking down the street at night. It came to the conclusion that they are happy with streets that are unevenly lit, providing that there is some way of checking that there is nobody hiding in the shadows. That is preferable to an averagely lit street. Once again, the key is light and shade. It all comes down to how light is used.

Making a difference to the disaster-stricken area

The power shortages in the wake of the earthquake had a considerable impact on the lives of everyone living in and around Tokyo. Even so, I think that the idea of rejecting or abandoning electricity, one of mankind’s greatest inventions, would be madness. We are going to need countless new policies in the future, not least in terms of shifting the balance away from nuclear power and towards natural energy. We need to think long and hard about how we generate energy and how we use it.

In terms of lighting, I believe that we are only just starting to make real progress. I feel that we have entered an era in which we all need to think seriously about our towns and cities, so that we can maintain our comfortable lifestyles without using excessive amounts of electricity.

I kept wondering if there was any way in which I could help the areas hit by the tsunami through my work. That same thought crossed the minds of countless people throughout Japan, as we watched reports showing the devastation. The first thing that came to mind was the simple fact that, without the necessary power infrastructure in place, there would be no lights to work on.

With their lifelines effectively severed, people had to rely on candles, or at best flashlights, as their only source of light. In emergency situations like that, people obviously still need light to reassure them, and keep from living in darkness, but it is hardly the time to be thinking about lighting. Realizing that there was nothing I could do for the time being, I couldn’t help feeling somewhat helpless.

Basic infrastructure will be restored in the affected areas before long however, and urban redevelopment will require a huge amount of electricity. First and foremost, we need to demand improvements in electric storage technology and capacity, not least from my own perspective. Wherever possible, we also need to focus on technologies and solutions that aren’t reliant on infrastructure. Other key priorities include developing light sources and improving equipment. We also need to make technologies more efficient for users, through initiatives such as using LEDs to reduce power consumption.

If there’s anything we lighting designers can do to help, it will be to pool our expertise and resources and get involved in the process of developing new towns and cities. How can we light spaces and objects in the best possible way, whilst using a limited amount of power? There are no doubt countless areas in which we could lend a helping hand.

I wanted to be a performer

I grew up in Tokyo. I have moved house any number of times, but I’ve been breathing in that big-city air for most of my life, ever since I was two years old. Even as a child, I wanted to have a definite profession. I was absolutely determined to become a barber, or a carpenter, or a traditional metalworker. Without realizing it, I became gripped by the desire to make something that even children could appreciate. I’m sure that idea took shape during my childhood.

I used to love gazing at the stars too, so that was probably another factor that helped mold me into my current profession.

I went on to study at the faculty of engineering at university. When the time came to choose my major, I agonized between space engineering and architecture. I wanted to do something that was directly linked to society as a whole, so I decided to study architecture. I soon realized however that I was not cut out to design buildings. An architect is essentially like the conductor in an orchestra. The architect’s job is to bring together all of the performers as one and to get them to do their jobs according to the designs. It’s obviously an important job, but I personally wanted to be a performer, so that I could be out there on the frontline, dealing with things directly.

At the end of that process, I eventually found my calling in the world of lighting. Whilst studying various aspects of lighting, I began to realize that light, which I had always loved ever since I was a child, was the final component that put the finishing touches to any space. The way in which light is used, including natural light, can really change how a space feels. I loved the idea of working directly with light and found it very rewarding.

Back in 1997 however, when I graduated from university, lighting design was still very much a niche industry. I remember there being no more than half a dozen specialist companies. That’s how little the public was interested in lighting.

The Tokyo nightscape has improved immeasurably since then, due in part to the fact that lighting designers are involved in a wider range of areas these days. Even the light from vending machines, which comes in for a lot of criticism nowadays, is better than it used to be.

Few still have a long way to go however before we achieve our goal of creating ideal lighting. Turning off electricity deemed to be wasteful in the wake of the earthquake made me appreciate various different benefits, but that’s just hindsight at the end of the day.

As lighting designers, now is the time for us to really show what we can do. The task in hand is about more than just resolving inconveniences. It’s a question of producing ideal lighting for the urban environment. That is something that lighting professionals have wanted to do for ages. And we finally have the right environment to do it.

Low levels of public awareness in Japan

I also have an office in Hong Kong. I love getting involved in projects over there, because there is a noticeable difference in attitudes with regard to light.

The restrained aesthetics that determine how Japanese people act and express themselves is reflected in our lighting. Nothing’s ever as showy as we think it could be. We always tone things down a little bit. That’s the Japanese sense of beauty.

It is the complete opposite in Hong Kong. If left unchecked, everything would be unbelievably over-the-top. People appreciate the fact that going beyond a certain point can make things look vulgar. They end up competing to be the brightest and most glamorous however because there’s just no sense of restraint. All we can do is to put this down to national identity, and our differing in-built sensibilities. The only reason we get work over there is because people expect us to apply the brakes and hold things in check.

Having said that, the light show that illuminates the sky every night in Hong Kong is truly amazing. That is the one time that the buildings stop competing to be the brightest and come together to create a single cityscape, which never fails to capture the attention of visitors to the city. Even from a national perspective that values restraint in all things, it is an undeniably beautiful sight. You can’t help but envy Hong Kong for being able to pull off something like that.

Paris is another classic example. At regular intervals every night, the Eiffel Tower puts on a flashing light show known as the Champagne Flash. In addition to its regular lighting, the tower is also fitted with flashing white light bulbs that resemble champagne bubbles, just as the name suggests.

Whereas the tower usually stands there modestly like a refined lady, for those five minutes, it gets dressed up and really shows off. In that moment, the commotion along the Seine, as tourists come together at just the right time, breaks through the hushed reverence that surrounds Paris.

This shows just how light can be used to give people an unparalleled sense of enjoyment. It has the power to unite a whole city.

Maybe it’s because we guard our privacy so fiercely, but Japanese people tend to show very little interest in things outside their own four walls. Some of the best places in other countries are those where you can see the public and private coming together. When you blur the boundaries between the two like that, and just think about spaces themselves, towns and cities become more beautiful as a result. I believe that we need a change in public awareness here in Japan.

The first thought that I had when I started working on the lighting for Tokyo Sky Tree was that I wanted this new tower to have a presence that would bring Tokyo together as one. Having grown up in Tokyo, I have always been aware of the east-west divide that exists within the city. The uptown Yamanote side to the west represents the heart of the city’s economic activity. The downtown Shitamachi side to the east meanwhile used to be the bustling part of the city during the Edo period (1603-1868) and has more of a touristy feel. It’s good that there are different sides to Tokyo, but I don’t really like that divide.

In that sense, it was significant that the new tower is being in the Meguro area, on the downtown side of the city. I thought that it would be an ideal opportunity to pay tribute to Edo (as Tokyo used to be called during the Edo period). Tokyo Sky Tree definitely has the potential to become a unifying monument. We need something like that to bring the city together.

Lighting that captures the essence of Tokyo

Unlike the Eiffel Tower, which stands within its own park, Tokyo Sky Tree is being built right in the middle of the city. Given the building’s unusual position, it is essential to take into account restrictions in terms of usable light. That’s just another part of what makes Tokyo. If we can just match the lighting to its environment, we will be able to create a nightscape unlike anything else in the world.

I wanted to create a lighting scheme that would be unique to Tokyo Sky Tree, in the heart of a city unlike any other. I wanted the lighting to stand apart from the hustle and bustle of Osaka, or the traditional feel of Kyoto.

To come up with lighting that would best suit Tokyo, I inevitably looked to Edo for inspiration. Edo was a surprisingly new city. The one thing that thrived within the city from the very beginning however was culture. This part of Japan has always prospered thanks to a very human approach to doing things, with people flocking in from other regions to try and make a go of it in the city. That is still true today.

Miyabi (left) and Iki (right). ©TOBU Railway CO., LTD and TOBU TOWER SKYTREE CO., Ltd

Inspired by Edo culture, I came up with two key concepts. The first of these is Iki (spirit), reflecting the attitudes of those born and bred in Edo. The second is Miyabi (aesthetic ideal). Edo was always coming up with refined ways to express beauty, through paintings of beautiful women or kabuki theater. That is another thing that remains unchanged to this day.

Although I had the basic concepts in place, I struggled with what to do next. I was unsure how to combine the stronger image of Iki with its polar opposite Miyabi. After a process of trial and error, I settled on the idea of expressing the two concepts separately, rather than mixing them together.

Tokyo Sky Tree will consist of a steel frame wrapped gently like a silhouette around a concrete pillar running through the center of the building. Making the most of these features, I have tried to capture Iki by chiefly highlighting the central pillar, and Miyabi by drawing attention to the steel frame as if it were an item of clothing. The two lighting schemes alternate from one day to the next. Although this is probably the only example of this style of lighting in the world, it isn’t something that I deliberately set out to achieve from the beginning. Rather, it is the inevitable conclusion that I arrived at in order to capture the two faces of Tokyo.

I have incorporated new techniques into the lighting itself too. In addition to being “lit up”, Tokyo Sky Tree will also feature “downlighting”, directing light downwards from the top. Looking down from either of the two observatories, it will seem like the building is giving off an aura of golden light. It isn’t just a case of using this technique because it’s new however. Once again, there is a good reason.

In paintings, Edo is often pictured with the snow-capped peak of Mount Fuji in the background. That is the feel I wanted to achieve by using downlighting.

If looking from the Yamanote side of the city, I think that the top of the tower will appear to be floating in the background, beyond all the other buildings around Tokyo Sky Tree. That is the effect I wanted to create by using downlighting. I thought that, if the tower appeared to taper out from top to bottom like Mount Fuji, it would tie in better with the overall Tokyo landscape.

Creating lighting that symbolizes the modern era

A little earlier, I mentioned the importance of varying intensity and creating light and shade. This applies to all forms of lighting, even when illuminating the exterior of a building. Exterior lighting used to be based on the principle of clearly illuminating every inch of the building or structure. Of course that produces beautiful results, but it is perfectly possible to achieve 100% of the impact with 50% of the lighting, if you just create the right balance in terms of light intensity.

As Tokyo Sky Tree is going to be almost twice as tall as Tokyo Tower, I knew from the outset that it would be unfeasible to go down the route of illuminating the entire building. The design concept is aimed at capturing the beauty of such a symbolic building, whilst at the same time keeping the amount of light to a minimum. During the initial stages, I had to rack my brains to work out which parts should remain unlit, and how to give those unlit parts meaning.

Compared to other buildings, Tokyo Sky Tree might give the impression of being slightly less illuminated. If people look carefully at the building as a whole however, I hope they will realize that the level of lighting is just right. That is the intended effect I hope to achieve with the overall design.

No matter how much I tone down the lighting however, there is no escaping the fact that it will still use electricity. If someone were to ask me to justify illuminating a building in this day and age, I would say the following. “I want to get as many people as possible to look up at the tower and realize that you can create pleasant lighting without using excessive amounts of electricity.”

We all want to lead comfortable lives, whilst also reducing energy consumption wherever possible. It’s not something I had envisioned until the power shortages in the wake of the earthquake, but I believe now that the tower could become a symbol of a new modern era.

It goes without saying that I want people to compliment me on my lighting, but I know that it won’t be to everyone’s taste. As long as Tokyo Sky Tree’s lighting stirs up debate however, I will be more than happy. Best of all, getting people interested in light and encouraging them to think about light is the first step on the road to achieving ideal lighting.

Tokyo Sky Tree will open in May next year. I wonder how light will spread across the Tokyo nightscape in the future. Now it’s my turn to sit back and watch.

ranslated from “Sukunai denryoku de utsukushii yakei wo,” Chuo Koron, August 2011, pp.122-129. (Courtesy of Chuo Koron Shinsha) [August 2011]