Where there's light, there's hope


When the clocks go back on Sunday we’ll move deeper into the darkness of winter. Emma Cullinanlooks at buildings that shine a little light on the capital

WE’VE ALWAYS found inventive ways to lighten up the darkness that creeps across our evenings when the clocks go back. We counter winter’s longer nights right from the start, at Halloween, when we put candles in pumpkins to create a warm glow from the bright orange that nature so thoughtfully provides, and set off fireworks and “oooh” at the way the black sky provides a perfect backdrop for the dazzling explosives.

At Christmas, the light show steps up, depending on your taste, from simple white twinkly bulbs to outsized plastic santas on rooftops, while businesses club together to string lights above shopping streets (and that’s just pagans and Christians – many cultures add sparks to their winter months, from Diwali, celebrated by Hindus, Sikhs and Janists, to the Jewish Hanukkah).

We often think of lighting as functional but it has aesthetic qualities too and stirs the emotions: look at the crowds who gather to watch Christmas lights being turned on. Companies can use this fact to highlight their brand by turning their buildings into giant lanterns.

A colleague getting a taxi back from Dublin Airport recently heard tales from the Polish driver about the dazzling light shows offered by buildings across the city. He delighted in how they brightened up his night shifts.

Those arriving by boat into Dublin Port at night get the most impressive show. Where once visitors and those returning drove into the city past dim, dark warehouses along the Liffey, now rows of lit buildings – occupied by financiers, law firms, hotels (and not enough apartments) – show that the Celtic tiger did prowl these streets and they offer the idea that where there’s light, there’s hope. Beyond these, the lit tip of the Spire, poking out of O’Connell Street, marks the city centre while the race-track in the sky that is the Aviva Stadium at Lansdowne Road glows to the south.

Lighting flatters buildings if it is used well to show off their best aspects. When judging architectural competitions, we panel members are often suspicious if submissions only contain night photographs. We may marvel at the warm, glowing interior framed by a staggering glazed wall but, wait, are those not badly pointed breeze blocks hiding in the shadows? And what details are used to connect that glass wall to the rest of the facade?

The new Convention Centre in the Docklands has been criticised for its expansive, dull blank walls to the sides but who is to notice when the tilted glass barrel crashing through its front shines brightly, leaving the rest of the building out of night sight. Liberty Hall also highlights its strong point, lighting its apex while the Spire too illuminates its point to indicate its loftiness. The new ferris wheel at the O2 arena looks beautiful in the dark (don’t we all?), blazing like the structural equivalent of a Catherine wheel.

The very glassiness of many new structures turns them into night lights and the Aviva stadium’s translucent fabric, which was employed to give it a lightness of touch in a residential area during the day, transforms it into a lamp after dark. And while keeping the lights on at night runs up energy bills – with 500 70wt lights on for five-and-a-half hours costing €23.11 – it could be argued that the increased natural light brought in by expansive glazing cuts down on daytime electricity use.

Old stone and brick buildings use lighting to highlight their fabric and ornate detailing, as can be seen on the Customs House. Head-on floodlighting of such facades is dying out now says lighting designer Willie Duggan of W.TWO. “Lighting can be used to accentuate the features of a period building. If you blanket it with floodlighting that will flatten the surface: you need to light it from an angle to create shadows.” On flatter modern facades, patterns or colours can be added through lighting, he says.

There are those who see urban night lighting as sky pollution, and would prefer a chance to see the stars, but as our evenings turn back to black, such bright buildings give many people a sense of delight.