Architecture did its best. You could write its history as a process of the maximization of light. Oculi, rosettes, mirrors, light skeletons, glass curtain walls, palaces of glass and steel. Architecture grew literally lighter. But light was itself never the substance of the design. It remained a desirable effect of solid matter.
Times have changed. People have now discovered that architecture can be an effect of light. Having reached this level, it allows people to design in an entirely new way. Complete buildings and whole cities can be reconstructed in pure light. The programming of light has left mass far behind it. Gravity is no longer a limitation. Light replaces, compensates and surpasses substance. Artificial light, digitally programmed with sensor, screen and projection technology, allows us to hold space open permanently. The sun has been outshone.
It is only logical that, to explain and justify new applications of light, old arguments are first resuscitated. That’s the way it always goes. The light-revolution is first explained as putting up a resistance to the fear of darkness, for example. Light in the city is praised as a good means of suppressing criminality. Light can also contribute to selling the city as a radiant habitat. Old industrial towns, grimy and impoverished, can be transformed by an ingenious lighting plan into buzzing metropoles – and that for only a fraction of the building budget once thought necessary to achieve the same end. It is surely a temptation that few civic councils will be able to resist in the future. No need for expensive urban rehabilitation schemes: at the cost of a hundred thousand Euros or Dollars, the city can bathe in salutary light and even the grimmest surroundings seem dazzling.
Measured irony is in place here; measured because it is the fate of every dream of perfection. Once the urban design has become irrevocably immaterial and its iconography has made the final break with its tectonic carriers, the cultural significance of light flips into its opposite. Once seen as the element that would lift the veils from our sight and reveal truth and beauty in all their magnificence, light has itself become a veil. It is the glossy veneer of a rather unsatisfactory life. City Beautification; the term gives the game away. There is a city in need of beautification. The less than beautiful presumably therefore exists.
But that is not the way it has to be. Instead of embellishing gloom and latent violence, the city’s own charms can be brought to light. This does not refer just to the monuments but to ordinary places, the everyday state of affairs, the random and the forgotten. With all the techniques that are available, with the creative programming of sensors, timers, dimmers, faders and all that kind of thing, there is no need to massage the city’s hardness away in an all-embracing domestication. Instead it can be given a poetry that gives due recognition to life’s hard edges. The city does not necessarily have to be a living room in the open air. Perhaps the use of lighting will in the long run help it remain what it is, an ordinary city, the substrate of public life. Light can be a retort to the progressive privatization of urban space, as a boost to the public domain. The challenge is not so much to beautify the city by means of light as to have the courage to urbanize beauty itself.