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)

And then there's the issue of signage and what might be called the "urban spectacle." The distinctive nighttime buzz of areas such as the Seventh Street NW corridor, where brightly lit screens broadcast sports events, is fostered in part by the profusion of commercial signage -- raising fears that Washington might someday look like Times Square. Which raises deeper questions about what Washington will be like in the coming years and decades. There has long been local agitation for making the residential and commercial city more than just an appendage to the federal one. Where some people might see new lighting from north of the Mall as an encroachment on the city's finest aesthetic feature, others might argue that finally the city is booming, blossoming and trying new things.

The beauty of the Mall at night is based on hierarchy, and the rhetoric is starkly overt about that. The new peace center will be deferential at night to the Lincoln Memorial. The lighting at the lesser memorials, for instance the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (which designer Engle says he wanted to look as if it came from "candles in paper bags"), is subordinate to the big ones.

Although unimpeachable on aesthetic grounds, a populist might question that rhetoric. And in the past, after a crime wave on the Mall, lighting levels have been altered at the behest of local officials more concerned about safety and the city's reputation than the beauty of the monumental core.

All of which gives cause to be excited by a little sculpture on the 1100 block of Vermont Avenue NW.

Designed by Eric Howeler and J. Meejin Yoon, both teachers at M.I.T. -- the sculpture uses a security camera and panels of light-emitting diodes arranged like pixels to cast a bluish glow on the sidewalk. The sculpture functions as a sign for the building -- broadcasting its address -- and an interactive game: The image of passersby is captured and represented in a very low-resolution, shadowy form on the LED panels, which have been placed both on the sidewalk and in the building's lobby. When the piece is finished -- perhaps in a month -- it will also include a "grove" of 20 poles that, when touched, will emit musical tones.

Howeler says they wanted something that engaged people without foisting the sort of commercial message that the brightly backlit signs of Times Square send. And they wanted the sculpture to straddle the boundaries between the public and the private.

"It's also about scale," Yoon says. "It tries to be as ephemeral as possible."

Which proves a number of things. Feelings of security, in an urban environment, are more a function of the presence and activity of people than the amount of light (which is clear to anyone who has seen the activity at the relatively dimly lit Vietnam Veterans Memorial). And innovative and subtle lighting can coexist both with commercial development and with the established, unspoken traditionalism of the lighting of the Mall.

What's curious about Howeler and Yoon's piece, dubbed "Low-Rez/Hi-Fi," is how instinctively, even voluntarily, deferential it is. Just as Engle's first impulse when lighting the East Wing of the National Gallery in the 1970s was to keep the building in proper perspective to the Capitol, this little sculpture is original and engaging without yielding to the impulse to shout.

That may be the most significant thing about Washington at night: When the sun is down, architects and lighting designers have often opted to make modest statements while generally respecting the established order of things. Their goal has been to make buildings that exist individually yet show deference to history and power. By day, the city is a different, brighter and noisier beast. But at night, through the organization of light, it seems to fall under what one might call the essential spell of democracy. At least, so far.


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