Leni Schwendinger Lights the Way

Leni Schwendinger Lights the Way

Savor the word “light” and the interior landscape of language evokes images of atmospheric effects—mysterious, picturesque, sublime.

NightSeeing is a program rooted in my multi-year class for Parsons The New School for Design that started in 2003: “Designing Urban Nighttime Environments.” It was an interdisciplinary curriculum for lighting design, architecture, and interior design students. The final class presentation was a NightSeeing Map of Manhattan, including imaginary schemes for several key districts.

Conceptually, NightSeeing is an itinerary of group exploration and discovery, a curriculum designed for the general public and those in the architectural and planning professions. Presenting the nocturnal city of light, NightSeeing is a real-time travelogue through the culture of urban lighting in public spaces to convey recognition of one’s own environment of the shadowed vistas that define our surroundings literally half the time, and yet are so familiar they are almost unseen.


The program can stand alone, or be presented by a conference, festival, or as an event for urban planners to enhance their public outreach efforts. It provides a context to examine and decode the shadows, emanations, and reflections that define our cities’ darkened hours. NightSeeing consists of several events: the LightTalk, a LightWalk, and a Light Planning Workshop. The talk and walk are approximately one-hour long. The Workshop is two to four hours, depending on the composition of participants, and is held in parallel with other masterplanning community involvement activities.

The talk conveys a basic understanding of the systems that light our cities, and endeavors to impart new and creative opportunities in the public lighting arena. There is also a section on site-specific lighting history. This lecture offers architects and planners insight into the after-dark experience, as well as ways to create a welcoming public realm through light. General audiences also appreciate behind-the-scenes discussions of the methods and strategies that bring vibrancy to their night city.

The LightWalk route is developed with each host organization. Each LightWalk is unique: a custom NightSeeing Map is created by my company, Light Projects, for each location.

In 2005, co-teaching with urban designer Brian McGrath, the class expanded to include a summer session for deeper research funded by the New York chapter of the Illuminating Engineering Society. We initiated a public lighting theory, based on ownership of lighting—public and private—and a layer of incidental illumination that Brian and I called “found” lighting. We also gave a name, “Shades of Night,” to the framework I was developing about zones of nighttime activity, a futuristic vision of changing illumination relative to street life and open/closed hours of commerce, shops, restaurants, and institutions in a given neighborhood. At that time, Brian and I conceptualized a professional map that would offer a glimpse into the cultural stories, legacies, and idiosyncrasies of the nocturnal New York cityscape through its illumination.

After many impromptu LightWalks with Parsons students, I was offered the opportunity in November 2009 to join the Professional Lighting Design Association’s global Lightmapping program in New York City. Our team was led by Brian McGrath, Light Projects’ architectural designer Ute Besenecker, and me. This LightWalk was formulated to explore the Shades of Night framework in the environs of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan’s Little Italy district. Light changes and social activity from dusk to dawn were documented by photography and light level readings.

A further exploration of nighttime Manhattan took place in Bryant Park on a cold night in the late winter of 2009. Starting in the northeast corner of the block-square park, some 60 curious and warmly dressed light-walkers of many persuasions joined me in the freezing weather. The view from Bryant Park looking toward the edge of Times Square is breathtaking in its vista of buildings outlining the view corridor with dark hulks, illuminated by a Mondrianesque grid of windows and a sliver of sky in-between.

I pointed out the multiple bright floodlights mounted on the Verizon building, which cast a moonlight effect and, with the intervention of the famed London plane trees, create a cacophony of layered shadows. The group observed how the southern and southeast side of the park is typified by warm-toned light, punctuated by post-top lanterns, the Bryant Park Grill windows, and then, dusky darkness, within which is set a tiny charming illuminated carousel.

It was an immersion in Bryant Park’s collection of lighting effects—planned and “found”—contained within a classic park design, enveloped by an urban hardscape. Unmistakably, it is illumination which makes Bryant Park an outstanding case study of public space which supports a wide diversity of activity after dark.

More recently, for the American Society of Landscape Architects’ Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. on a warm September 11 evening, I began a LightWalk tour with a quote from the artist/engineer/planner Pierre Charles L’Enfant from September 11, 1789. On that date he wrote to President George Washington “to solicit the favor of being Employed in the Business” of designing the new capital city. His became a Baroque plan featuring open ceremonial spaces and oversized radial avenues with respect for the natural contours of the land. With my intrepid group including landscape architects, designers, and manufacturers from all over the country, we explored L’Enfant’s plan, hoping for lighting detail and filigree, but found a soft, undifferentiated layer of light.

Our journey started at the Historical Society’s floodlit, colonnaded edifice. A traditional, up-lighting method of frontal illumination, this approach results in soft ambient glow, is appropriate for classical buildings, and is inexpensive and easy to maintain. Onward we went past rows of historicist streetlight lanterns. Here, an effort could be made to differentiate street types and districts with varied types of poles. Finally, relief came in the shape of the Chinatown lanterns with their red posts and lantern tops.

We went through the Techworld canyon and surprisingly found the same “historic,” decorative luminaires, rather than lighting fixture forms referencing forward-thinking technologies, although there was one difference: induction lamps are being used, a source of white light that has a long lamp life, requiring less maintenance. Some of the endearing details that we did find included countdown Walk/Don’t Walk signals, bracketed facade downlights (cheap and easy), LED media signs, and the colorful floodlit Chinatown gate.

The most exciting part of the tour was the people on it and the interest of the D.C. residents and tourists milling about. The sidewalks were packed on 7th Street NW that evening. A small group of loungers on the National Museum of American Art grand stairs were curious about the LightWalk and we, in turn, discovered them using steps for the appropriate evening purpose of sitting on the combined stairs and classical colonnade floodlights, a staple of illuminated architecture in our nation’s capital.

The shifting interplay of nighttime dark and light makes every city a unique destination. For London’s Architecture Retail and Commercial Lighting Show on January 12, 2012, I look forward to mapping the Angel Islington district with the International Association of Lighting Designers to find the perfect route through preserved and chic-modern alleyways and unusual paved topographies. I spent time here in the 1970s frequenting Sadler Wells Theatre, the Angel’s Chapel Road second-hand market, and a particular pub with my crowd from the East End. For me, the LightWalk will be eye-opening to the pleasures of the crowds dining, walking from bus to subway to home, window shopping the antique shops, and experiencing evocations of Dickens’ darkened muddy passageways which have existed since the dawn of public lighting.  

The issues and substance of public illumination increasingly influence the global language of urban design and urban experience. Through initiatives like NightSeeing, we can learn to see shadows in a whole different light.