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The Importance of Handling Light

April 16, 2011


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how my experience with light has changed since moving from theatrical lighting design to architectural lighting design.  I’m three weeks away from finishing my first year of two in the Parsons MFA program in Lighting Design, and after spending increasingly long hours in the studio working seven days a week to finish all of the work left before my final presentation I finally got the chance to get some perspective the other day by (gasp!) getting out into the daylight.

As a part of our final studio projects we were assigned to build a 3/8″ scale model of the student center for which we are designing the daylighting, so that we could take it outside and measure its performance under real conditions.  This past Friday, after several weeks of planning and construction, the model had finally coalesced itself into a coherent collection of foam and paper, and it was barking at the door to be let outside for a walk.  After the amount of time I had spent inside building the thing I was ready to do the same!

So, after awkwardly squeezing the loveseat-sized model through several tiny New-York-sized doors, being questioned by a park ranger in Union Square, and being photographed by several groups of passing tourists, the payoff finally arrived: a set of gorgeous photos perfectly capturing the daylighting design for the student center’s library.

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It was then that I realized just how much time I had spent indoors sitting at a desk recently.  Being able to see the effects of my design with my own two eyes out in the natural daylight made me realize that I had fallen prey to the plague of the architecture school student: sitting inside from the time the sun comes up in the morning until well after it goes down at night, designing from a desk and a computer with little time spent physically handling light.  It wasn’t the long hours that bothered me (in fact, I hardly even notice the time anymore), it was the fact that I hadn’t challenged myself enough to break away from the deadlines and the assignments and just spend some time in the light lab like I used to in theatre.

One of my favorite parts about studying theatre lighting in college was the light lab, because it was always an open opportunity to get hands-on experience with light, to learn what it can and cannot do.  I never chose colors or lighting angles for a show sitting at a desk — I would always book a few hours in the light lab and see exactly how my ideas would come together right before my eyes.  Then I would get to sit in a dark theatre during tech for a show and play with light for hours on end, mixing color, texture, angle, and intensity in long sessions that were ten times more effective in teaching me about light than any classroom session.  Standing outside in Union Square park with the building model I realized that’s what I was missing from my architectural education — the massive amounts of hands-on experience that I got during my theatre education.

An architectural lighting design, as you can imagine, doesn’t happen in a day, or even in a few weeks as a theatrical production might.  It takes incredible amounts of planning, coordination, equipment, people, and time, and as a result, most of the work we do in the classroom is theoretical.  Yes, we do have a light lab, and yes, I occasionally use it, however, I have to remind myself to spend more time experimenting there, or better yet, getting out into the city and observing light in the real world.  Artists don’t learn to paint by reading textbooks, and lighting designers definitely don’t learn to use light by sitting at a desk all day. If I’m ever going to improve as a lighting designer, I’m going to need to challenge myself to stand up and test my theories in person more often.  As these glorious (if I do say so myself) pictures prove, it’s definitely worth the extra time it takes to see how an idea can become a reality.