My aim in Prague was to observe how light can shape the public space, and influence people’s behaviour and activities there. I was also interested in the tension that exists between consciously designed space and the everyday environment. I was curious about Prague’s concept of lighting design; who is being targetted, which stories it highlights and which remain in the shadows. I was curious what, if anything, I could discover in three days…I want to share with you some notes I scribbled down while walking through the city and looking around me.
The process of looking takes time and presence. To stop looking for a result and instead unfocus your eyes and just be present, to simply look what exists in a place at a certain time and make moments of serendipity possible.
It took longer than I had anticipated to complete the route. It takes time to observe the light situations that I encounter, to see what effect they have on people and how they behave in the public domain.
What strikes me is how lighting in Prague is invariably positioned horizontally. A relatively small variety of fixtures are used; warm orange street lights, soft gas lighting for the monuments, bright, harsh white fluorescent light for practical illumination, as well as some decorative elements used mainly for advertising or commercial spaces. All of these elements are always present- just in different proportions, creating shifting topographies of light depending on the story of the space.
The need to preserve a romantic, traditional image of the old town square means the warm orange glow of sodium is the dominant element, sacrificing good visibility and colour rendering in order to project the desired atmosphere. An ongoing project aims to re-introduce the original gas-lit streetlights around the castle and Royal Road. This action is inspired by the idea of lighting as romantic decoration that evokes the past without taking into consideration the needs of people who use the space today.
As you move to the periphery of Prague 1, the glow of the streetlights becomes whiter.
Turning the corner towards Wenslaus Square, the space opens up due to the illumination cast by much whiter street lighting, from higher street lights, allowing much better visibility and colour rendering. It is also more colourful and dynamic, with commercial lighting free to make incursions into the public space.
Moving further out, the darkness between the lights increases…
There is a clear delineation between warm, romantic decorative light and functional bright white light. The effect is evident, the warm light creates a sheltered atmosphere; the bright light is for functional visibility. There are chairs in both spaces, but the ones lit by white light are empty. It is not just the waiting commuters who shelter under the warm light, in the corner dealers and their clients also make good use of it, much to the annoyance, or resignation, of the security guards.
The horizontal structure of the lighting allows several light stories to occupy a given space concurrently. The arcades and passages by which people traverse the city, are a sort of privately owned public space. Here different light narratives and their audiences are present simultaneously in a very condensed space; microcosms bumping up against each other – often in intriguing ways.
There are many beautiful, old, elegant lighting fixtures using modern fluorescent lamps or LEDs. But often these bulbs don’t quite fit like the originals, creating a small crack in the illusion, shining through the artifice so you can glimpse backstage.
For me, the most inspirational discovery was the affirmation of the value of scenographic observation: learning how public space is shaped to give meaning and how the shaping of public space creates meaning. Observing and analysing the public and the space they move in, provided me with a framework to understand how we stage reality, and how this shapes the relationships between people and space.