Tender is the night

Across our cities and towns, night’s natural darkness is giving way to the glare and dazzle of LED lighting – but to embrace it wholeheartedly is to risk losing more than ominous shadows.
Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night, Saint Rémy, June 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/4
Vincent van Gogh's The Starry Night, Saint Rémy, June 1889. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/4" (73.7 x 92.1 cm). Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest.
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And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ These words from Genesis have stirred the imagination of countless generations of human beings, for whom darkness contained terror and was difficult to dispel with primitive lamps and candles. This winter, I have become aware that the Creator might well have a different injunction for the twenty-first century, encouraging the world to preserve the blackness of the night. As I take my lockdown walk at twilight, I follow paths that would have been trodden in the 1870s by James Abbott McNeil Whistler as he sought out subjects for his Nocturnes. But no longer do the lights along the River Thames twinkle and glow. They are superbright and glaring. Night is transformed into day, London into Las Vegas.

This is particularly noticeable on new developments such as Nine Elms Lane, which includes the American Embassy building, or the Battersea Power Station scheme. Neither of these has been completed, but even the towering cranes of the construction site blaze forth with a searing whiteness of illumination. One tower of no architectural distinction draws attention to itself by a continuous line of light running from top to bottom of the building. To many people, the transformation of London from a medium and low-rise city, with only a few clusters of high-rise towers, to one strewn with skyscrapers was undemocratic: the policy, although pursued by both the Labour mayor of London Ken Livingstone and his Tory successor Boris Johnson, never featured in a manifesto and was barely discussed by the media. 

So it is with the relighting of Britain’s capital and, in due course, other towns and cities. Here we have a revolution in the way city dwellers – indeed, eventually, anyone within eye contact of a street light – relate to their surroundings, and the extent to which those surroundings deprive the population of the natural darkness of the night: a revolution perpetrated without any considered debate by parliamentarians, the press, or the general public. It is happening now. Once done, it will be too late to change.

Of course, were this change restricted to brash new architecture, traditionalists might be left simply to mutter into their beards about the ugliness of modern life. But it’s set to become universal. Housing estates that used to emit an amber-tinted glow are now being lit to a level that, in a country of watery skies and shifting cloudscapes, exceeds daylight. Bridges across the Thames, whose coloured lights used to add a festive note to the evening scene, are now as lurid as airport runways. In our own street, the council has replaced the modern-style lampposts with ones of an old-fashioned design that is more sympathetic to the Victorian architecture. But the lights inside the lanterns are so intense that they stop some people from going to sleep. (They also cast rainbow patterns on the pavement that I had thought was caused by a prismatic quality in the glass. A neighbour points out that it’s because the lanterns have filled with water). So the new whiteness is everywhere, or soon will be, and we had better decide what we think about it.

The reason for the sudden increase in London’s luminosity is not hard to find. LED technology is infinitely more efficient than the tungsten filaments or orange sodium light it has replaced. It’s also infinitely cheaper – which is why the owners of tall buildings, which one would prefer to be hidden by the cloak of night, can afford to make them even more conspicuous after dark than they are by day. LED makes possible some spectacular light shows whose creativity is joyous. Projected images can magically transform the facades of famous landmarks during festivals of light – such as the front of Tate Britain this past winter, or the ongoing Illuminated River project, an art installation where nine London bridges spanning the Thames are lit up; elsewhere, owners of country houses enchant their public by lighting their gardens before Christmas. There are health benefits to better lighting. It helps well-being. The elderly and poor-sighted find it safer to get around, just as the LED lights that I have installed at home make it easier to read. Unlit nooks around the city are the natural haunt of drug dealers and other undesirables. Well-lit spaces reduce the possibility of crime. Energy-sparing LED is kinder to the planet than the previous system because it uses less electricity and the bulbs last forever. One advantage is that the level of street lighting can be turned up and down, according to need.

All this is true. But how ironic it would be if the ecological advances provided by LED destroyed our ability to see the stars. The website underluckystars.com shows the wonders of the cosmos that cities around the world can no longer see, due to over-lighting. Although good lighting brings reassurance to the timid, too much glare and dazzle add to the stress of urban life. There is also an aesthetic dimension to this issue. Harmony is pleasing to the eye and spirit, whereas discord jars. Beauty is famously subjective but some common standard should still be sought, because it is not only property tycoons, wanting to draw attention to their holdings, who own the city but, in our small way, all of us. Strident lighting expresses dynamism: nature and the night sky calm our souls. We should find a consensus on what the public wants from the new lighting technology. As yet, there has been no attempt to do so. Let the debate begin.

Clive Aslet

Clive is an award-winning architectural historian and journalist, acknowledged as a leading authority on Britain and its way of life. Clive’s 'The Real Crown Jewels of England' will be published by Little Brown in September. He spent lockdown working on a book about country houses for Yale University Press.

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