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Bathed In the Right Light
There's a Star System That Decides What Does and Doesn't Glow in the Washington Night

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

And final approval came only with a memorandum of understanding that requires the building's tenant (a federally chartered agency working to understand conflict and conflict resolution) to keep the lights low.

"The lighting will be adjusted . . . as necessary to ensure that the new building's light is deferential in relationship to the Lincoln Memorial," reads the document. It also specifies that the lighting be placed on dimmers, what kind of light meter will be used to measure its intensity, and that a lighting manual documenting the agreed-upon lighting levels be submitted to the National Capital Planning Commission.

Parsons would be happier with a slightly less complicated solution.

"We hope the answer is: 'Turn it off,' " he says. "Just turn it off." But that's not likely to happen.

The cause for Parsons's longtime concern becomes clear when one considers the effort it has taken to get the Mall looking the way it is now. Over the years, incandescent lighting, which is costly and energy inefficient, has mostly disappeared from the Mall, except to light walkways. Making the early metal halide lamps that became fashionable in the 1960s look right -- warm and white -- required trial and error, and experimentation with filters. Changes in technology have produced warmer, more incandescent-looking metal halide fixtures. And today there's great excitement about the potential of LED fixtures -- which last longer, require less maintenance and can be hidden more discreetly -- though Washington remains, as in most things aesthetic, conservative when it comes to experimentation.

Even after the Washington Monument restoration was finished in 2000, Joe Crookham thought it wasn't lit well.

Crookham, whose company, Musco Lighting, specializes in lighting sports events, took a closer look. What he found was an inefficient system that threw a lot of light up in the air in the vain hope of illuminating a thin obelisk rising more than 555 feet.

"There was a lot shadowy darkness," he says. "It didn't look nearly as interesting in the nighttime as it did in the daytime."

Crookham, whose company also lit the Pentagon and World Trade Center sites during the rescue and cleanup operations after Sept. 11, 2001, is a board member of the National Park Foundation (which raises private funds for the Park Service). So he volunteered his services to rethink the problem. The solution was a system his company developed to light NASCAR races.

At night, getting light on the front stretch of a NASCAR track is tricky, mainly because you don't want light shining directly into the eyes of spectators. The solution, from Musco, is a system that uses mirrors to create a bright but narrow ribbon of light. The fixtures and reflectors can be placed above the heads of people, yet still throw light onto the track. Crookham compares it to the intensely focused light that you see when the sun is reflected off your watch crystal.

Using the same technology, he eliminated the existing lighting vaults at ground level -- a security issue because they can hide people and are a magnet for bugs -- and redesigned lighting platforms placed on all four sides of the monument to shoot shafts of light to the top of the obelisk. He estimates that the new system uses half the energy of the old one while putting two to five times the amount of light on the monument. He was also able to give the monument a cleaner geometry at night by varying the levels on its four faces.

"By being able to throw light well," he says, "the rest of the world goes away. The whole focus is on what's important." That same sense of lighting as theater holds true of NASCAR and monuments in D.C. -- it's all about dissolving distractions, he says.

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."

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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