We’ve all felt our pace quicken as we navigate the dark alone, spurred by the eerie feeling of being watched. Since the dawn of time, humans have feared the darkness and the dangers it hides — the invention of the light bulb diminished this fear, but will never truly banish it. The absence found in darkness causes us to see and fear what isn’t there — a pair of red, demonic eyes, a crouching predator, or maybe even a ghost-like apparition. For some, the fear is linked to childhood — lurking behind a pair of closet doors or under the bed. For the rest of us, a late night walk in the dark will always be harrowing.
For centuries, there was no greater threat to human survival than the darkness of night. The enemies it concealed, from scheming bandits to treacherous rocky paths, were palpable — a mere misstep on an uneven roadway during nighttime travel could result in a broken ankle, a serious and potentially fatal injury in ancient times. For that reason, many of the world’s most ancient roads were cut to follow the Milky Way, providing a guiding light for travelers. While torches were the first portable lights, the Medieval era saw people experimenting with lanterns. Hollowed-out turnips were filled with oil and lit, resulting in a softly glowing lantern, made possible by the translucent walls of the starchy root vegetable. As people became more curious and brave, they desired to travel to unfamiliar lands past the town where they were born. City officials often posted public bulletins that informed citizens of the phases of the moon, an important factor when planning a trip.
Each corner of the world had its own lighting solution: in Southeast Asia, it’s fireflies — late night travelers grew accustomed to paralleling the embankment of rivers, delineated by lightning bugs that congregate in the bends of the waterway. In ancient Britain, piles of chalk dotted the edges of the roads, reflecting the moonlight to produce a soft white glow. In the Mediterranean, rock cliffs were also dusted with chalk, a pre-lighthouse warning system for boats. Such a surface treatment is still found in Greece today, in addition to tree trunks painted a reflective white, another trick from the days of yore.
So much of our relationship with light has been forgotten or obfuscated over the years. Gilding, for example, so often written into history as an ornate, decorative finish that symbolized wealth, was also a means of illuminating a room through reflection of candlelight. “People really think that they see light, but they don’t — they see reflected light,” explains lighting designer and environmental psychologist Linnaea Tillett, who spent three years experimenting with urban lighting in East New York. By the time gas-lit lampposts covered our cities, the memory of our struggles with light began to fade. With the invention of the light bulb, they all but vanished.
“We expect light, we insist upon it,” says Tillett, acknowledging the drug-like power light now has over civilization. Along with fellow designer Deborah Gans, Tillet participated in New York City’s Urban Design Week last September, where she was charged with proposing newer and better ways of illuminating the city. Tillett and Gans’s proposal was unexpected. “We suggest that perhaps it is time to relieve the lamp post of some (but not all) of its burdens and reconsider the lantern and the virtues of amplifying what exists,” reads the main thesis of their proposal. The challenges and processes of historical travelers were reexamined as Tillett and Gans exhibited several city-wide lighting installations. Chalk, for instance, could be reclaimed once more as a reflective material, a perfect addition to vacant lots that need illumination. Much like the tree trunks in Greece, the underside of bridges and elevated train tracks can be painted white, a psychological shift that transforms a threatening piece of infrastructure into a warm threshold.
Now that we can banish darkness with the flip of a switch, Tillett and Gans propose we embrace our newfound bravery and establish social spaces within the nighttime urban landscape. Reflective, seasonal art installations reinvigorate dark alleys, while photovoltaic thread can be woven into fences, emanating light to indicate an area for unexpected social interaction. At the most playful end of the spectrum, performers dressed in light-emitting costumes become “animated beacons,” further quelling the fear of darkness in the crowds that gather to watch.
Such ideas might seem out of the ordinary, but much like our early experiences with turnips and chalk, cities across the world are exploring alternative methods of lighting. A personal favorite is found in Bat-Yam, Israel, where lighting designers converted a construction crane into an over-sized chandelier, through adorning it with a suspended lantern. Such an experiment could be a solution for lighting inactive constructions areas, a headache felt by all city planners. Elsewhere in developing nations, the grid is skipped altogether; in Cambodia, children delight over their personal moons — portable, solar power lanterns that provide a sense of ownership and safety.
Yet can we really start turning off city lights, ripping out the standard cobrahead lamps that guard our streets, in a rebellion against our electrical obsession? Tillet says that it’s not about less, it’s about making more with what we already have. “I’m not about turning things off. It’s unpacking how things work now and making gestures where it really counts. If we turn off every third streetlight, people are going to panic. But if we turn down every light by 25% and apply reflective materials to surrounding surfaces, we’ve created better light with less energy.” Rather than producing more light, refocusing our efforts on exploring reflective materials is a much more holistic approach to lighting — giving our eyes a chance to return to much more natural light that’s far healthier than what comes out of our televisions and iPads. The light bulb isn’t that old after all. “Over 99% of human history lived without it,” says Tillett. “The Greeks wrote, studied, and conquered so much of the world without it. Now, it’s about a gentle touch, a more thoughtful approach.”
Even now, many of us walk around with our portable lanterns — a cell phone becomes a flashlight when searching for a pair of lost car keys or when signaling to friends in the darkness of a movie theater. Maybe we can one day find a better balance, harnessing light in a much more efficient and natural manner. So what is the best lighting solution? Tillett says without hesitation, “The safest thing you can have is eyes on the street, not lighting.”