There is a phenomenon visible in the night sky throughout the Home Counties that combines – in a markedly more prosaic manner – the properties of the Aurora Borealis and the Pole Star. The nocturnal suburbanite is able to get his bearings by the constant presence of an amber glow on the horizon, indicating the direction of London. It is all too easy to attribute this permanent daylight to the increased density of sodium street lighting in and around the capital, but has anyone ever stopped to consider that the huge numbers of vertical spotlights – illuminating all of the city’s landmarks, tourist traps and public buildings – might also be a contributing factor?

Electricity, as this book indicates, has been employed in the illumination of buildings pretty much since the very first lightbulb lit up over Thomas Edison’s head. But it was not until the 1920s that it left the transient arena of exhibitions; the idea of permanent external lighting was mooted, for commercial benefit, by the General Electric Company. The firm conducted extensive research into the effects of artificial light on buildings, even creating a model street called (with rather dubious euphony) “The World’s Most Miniature White Way”. In one experiment, reminiscent of a child telling ghost stories with a torch, a statue of Lincoln was transformed by the simple relocation of the light source. When lit from above, Honest Abe’s facial features retained the patriarchal gravitas the sculptor intended. But if lit from below (floodlights, unlike the sun, are usually situated on the ground), his expression was transformed into one of shocked incredulity.

One can imagine a similar expression on the faces of many architects of the period when they realised that the carefully calculated interplay of light and shade on their façades could be negated at the flick of a switch. It is notable that GEC’s advocacy of night lighting coincides with the widespread adoption of a more restrained style of architecture after the baroque excesses of the High Victorians and the Belle Epoque. Of the many projects studied in this book, only the Palais d’Electricité at the 1900 Paris Exposition is characterised by a plethora of fiddly decorative elements; Art Deco and Modernism are the dominant styles here. Even the Nazi Classicism of Speer – in theory a reaction against “degenerate” Modernism – is notably pared down, without all those complicated pediments that are so difficult to light properly.

So was the advent of electrical illumination one of the major reasons for architects taking up Modernism? On the evidence of Neumann’s intriguing book, it appears so.


First published in World of Interiors issue 246. Reproduced with permission.

Architecture of the Night:
The Illuminated Building

by Dietrich Neumann  (Prestel)

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