Bathed In the Right Light
Sunday, August 26, 2007
At night, there is a second city that emerges in Washington, more beautiful and more intelligible than the city by day. The great monuments on the Mall glow a warm white, the grass and trees that surround them sink into inky darkness, and the city itself seems larger, more dramatic and more logically laid out. The Capitol dome looms over the Mall, the Lincoln Memorial defines the end of the axis stretching to the Potomac River, and the White House is a modest but assertive presence across the Ellipse to the north -- as if the executive is standing watch, on the edge of camp, while the city sleeps. The republic, at night, is properly ordered.
The strange thing about Washington's nocturnal beauty is that none of it was planned, yet none of it was accidental either. A sense of hierarchy has grown up around the buildings that glow, though no policy has been written to perpetuate it. Various commissions and oversight groups are engaged with issues of lighting, and over the years strong-minded individuals have helped steer critical aesthetic decisions. But in the end, Washington at night resembles the British political system -- a messy but accepted collection of agreements and understandings -- more than our own, clearly articulated constitution.
At the Lincoln Memorial, for instance, there was for years a little piece of paper stuck next to a rheostat that controlled the lights.
"Approved by the Fine Arts Commission, 1952," it read, showing the proper lighting level.
The Lincoln Memorial, along with the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument, is one of the "big three" memorials that, along with the Capitol and the White House, are generally considered the top tier of the lighting hierarchy. But as lighting designers who have worked on the Mall discover, that hierarchy is an informally acknowledged rule, not a written one.
Claude Engle, a lighting designer who has lit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial and the East Wing of the National Gallery, remembers a significant change over the years that he has been working in Washington. In the 1970s, when he lit the new I.M. Pei East Wing of the gallery, he just did it by feel, by instinct.
"We decided -- and that was just us -- that it should be less bright, maybe 80 percent as bright, as the Capitol dome," he says.
But later, in the 1980s, when he was asked to light the Hirshhorn Museum because of security concerns in the public spaces around the building, it wasn't so easy. His first plan -- and the one that was eventually adopted -- was to illuminate the building itself, but he had to prove to various interested parties, including the Fine Arts Commission then led by J. Carter Brown, that it wouldn't damage the lightscape of the Mall.
"We had a night session," Engle says. They lit the building and showed the results to various officials and got permission to make it permanent. Among those present, says Engle, was John Parsons of the National Park Service, who "has been a very, very significant guiding force in this."
It was Parsons who helped bring the de facto rules of lighting on the Mall to public attention recently when a new building planned for the western end of Constitution Avenue was going through the public approval process. Architect Moshe Safdie's design for the U.S. Institute of Peace calls for a large, translucent roof, which will glow at night as interior lighting shines through. It will be built close to the Lincoln Memorial, on the north side of the avenue, next to more traditional buildings that have none of the new institute's glassy luminescence.
Throughout the approval process, it was Parsons (who will retire later this year after three decades leading the local Park Service) who raised concerns about the building's nighttime competition with the Lincoln Memorial. In the end, the building passed through both the Fine Arts Commission (which deals with buildings on or near the Mall) and the National Capital Planning Commission (which is the federal government's urban planning arm in the District and surrounding areas). But it passed only after a lot of hurdles -- and explicit assurances that its lighting scheme wouldn't be distracting.
The architects had to submit nighttime simulations, showing how the institute will look from various views, and how it will relate to other illuminated buildings in the vicinity (the Kennedy Center, a big, bright behemoth, is another neighbor). Those simulations were compared with an intricate diagram of light coming off the Lincoln Memorial, which detailed the established lighting levels: 30 candelas (a measure of luminosity detectable to the eye) per square meter to make the president's statue glow, 11 on the bright parts of the facade, six at the base of the columns. As the building is finished, there will also be outdoor sessions, just as there were at the Hirshhorn, and, more recently, at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is being relit for security and aesthetic reasons.