The Washington Monument and the Capitol are among the most brightly illuminated landmarks in Washington, reflecting their importance in the capital.
The Washington Monument and the Capitol are among the most brightly illuminated landmarks in Washington, reflecting their importance in the capital.
Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post
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Bathed In the Right Light

The Lincoln Memorial, one of the big three along with the Jefferson and Washington, long had a little piece of paper next to the controls that gave lighting levels
The Lincoln Memorial, one of the big three along with the Jefferson and Washington, long had a little piece of paper next to the controls that gave lighting levels "approved by the Fine Arts Commission, 1952." Recently, construction of a nearby building was approved with assurances that "the new building's light is deferential in relationship to the Lincoln Memorial." (Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post)

Crookham says he's been thinking about the Jefferson Memorial, as well. Lighting the top of the Jefferson dome has proved a problem for decades. Parsons remembers President Lyndon B. Johnson looking into the problem personally.

"He would fly over in his helicopter and notice that the top of the dome looked dark," Parsons says. At one point, the Park Service was considering using a retractable pole system that would rise from the dome and cast light downward at night. But that route wasn't taken, and to this day the dome looks a little uneven.

"It is very hard get the light to go all the way across the top," says Thomas Luebke, secretary of the Fine Arts Commission. "You get a little bit of a bright spot on the lower level [of the dome], instead of a more even, glowing-egg spherical form."

The challenges faced by lighting designers today aren't just limited to the shapes of the memorials. Concerns about light pollution force designers to consider how much light they scatter. Concerns about security encourage bureaucrats to light everything up like a Christmas tree.

And then there's the double-edged sword of technological and material changes in architecture. Buildings such as Safdie's aren't the only encroachments on the well-lit landscape. Glass architecture is all the rage -- the Newseum, taking shape on Pennsylvania Avenue close to the Mall, is just one of many buildings that may bring light from interior spaces into the larger night landscape. While Washington catches up with the more transparent architecture of other cities -- as its notoriously blank boxes become permeable to the eye -- interior light that was once private becomes a public presence.

With economic development, with new residential life keeping things active downtown and near the Mall well into the night, new kinds of light are coming from new directions.

Parsons, for instance, is concerned about a building at 1625 I St. NW, which has a geometric light sculpture on top of it and is visible from the Mall near the Washington Monument.

"It looks like it's sitting on top of the White House," he says.

Like it or not, 1625 I St. raises serious questions about whether Washington can remain a city of white light and glowing stone.

Elizabeth Donoff, editor of Architectural Lighting magazine, points out that LED technology has allowed cities in Asia to increasingly become visions in color. And while the colorfulness of Asian cities often seems "cheap" or "Las Vegas" to American eyes, subtle coloring of historic or traditional architecture is gaining ground in this country. When LAM Partners, a Cambridge, Mass.-based lighting firm, designed the exterior lighting of the newly finished dome of the Oklahoma State Capitol, it used LED technology to allow the dome's "lantern" to change colors, depending on the season, or local events.

Is color in the future for the Capitol dome in Washington? Eva Malecki, a spokeswoman for the architect of the Capitol, says that since 9/11, officials can't even reveal what kind of light bulbs are used to light the structure.

"Any information regarding the current process for lighting the Dome," she says by e-mail, "is security sensitive."


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