Poetics of Lighting Design

In my personal quest to understand the poetic nature of lighting design, I find myself concerned with matters I feel are important to creativity as they transcend what we do into something meaningful. Poetry is a central part of this journey and understanding the poetic process enables an understanding that bridges design with something greater.
I think it will not come as a surprise to learn that the word poetry has its origin in ancient Greece. It derives from the ancient word poiētēs. What is interesting is that poiētēs had at the time a very different meaning to the word poetry today. It meant ‘to make’, and was simultaneously understood to mean both the ‘construction of beauty’, and the ‘beauty of construction’. In ancient Greece, a poet was the ‘maker’ of that beauty.
‘Poetry of space’ is considered by many to be the art of shaping volume and materials. However, I find that there is ambiguity in this statement, as an important part of “space” in architecture is found where there is no material. It is in the space that is void of brick where you find greater meaning. To give an example, in a home, the outer walls and roof fulfil the function of providing shelter but it is within the inner space that you fulfil the act of living in your home. Perhaps “poetry of space” can better be understood as an intangible relationship between materials and void that only exists as an experience lived by a user.
The poetics of lighting design is fundamentally tied to these concepts. The experience of architecture, of a space, is predominately visual, meaning it is fundamentally dependent to light. Yet despite the concepts sharing a common birthplace, they are different. I admit that the differences are subtle but it is within these subtleties that the beauty of lighting design lays.
My search for a Grand Theory of Lighting Poiētēs is by nature an unfinished one. This blog today is merely a line in the sand marked by the discovery of this deeper etymological connection of the word poetry to the practice of architecture and design. As I’ve attempted to understand the poetics of lighting design throughout my career, I’ve come to recognise a set common ingredients that have consistently played an important role in my practice. The significance of their presence in my work may vary from project to project but they are consistently important to what I do.
Purpose – a function that transcends the physical aspect of a design, only tangible as the act of experiencing the design. The purpose of a design is not always clear but it is important for the lighting designer to find its clarity. From purpose, design intent can emerge and this is an essential element to the poetic process. Design intent tells us what the design should be and how it should connect to the user. For lighting, this means how it will communicate with the user. This level of clarity will guide the designer in the many creative decisions necessary throughout the realisation of the project.
Sense of Place – an emotional basis from which to construct. It is important to understand the identity of each individual location. The poet-lighting designer will draw upon direct and/or indirect references to the natural landscape, the existing common architectural language, the current and historical local culture, and uncover, if possible, the local archetypes that have shaped the local collective mind throughout its history.
Intuition – it is a peek into the centre of our minds. That place where we are as creatively free as our true self can ever be. Intuition is just that, a peek. It is probably not possible to fully understand the thought processes behind intuition. At best, we post-rationalise what came to us naturally. But listening to our intuition is important, as it somehow knows how to focus on what is important and cut off the unnecessary and irrelevant distractions.
Contingency – Architecture and design are contingent by nature. These are disciplines that exist in a world of uncertainties as they are dependent on external factors that cannot be controlled. At best they are managed. A lighting design requires a brief, it will have a limit to its budget, is reliant on the materials available at the time and on the building mastery of the builders. And these are just a few of the most obvious. There are more subtle and difficult dependencies such as social norms, the upbringing of the individual, the boundaries of what it is to be an architect or a designer, etc. It may seem odd that I consider contingency to be an ingredient to the poetic process but somehow it is. It is the struggle of the designer and their resolve that drives us to go beyond what was previously thought to be possible.
Technology – lighting is fundamentally a technological discipline as it implies a technological mastering of materials. Whilst this statement is apparently obvious with artificial lighting, it is equally true for daylight as the lighting designer seeks to control natural light to suit our comfort. A mastery of lighting design requires a mastery of the tools available to the lighting designer.
Improvisation – It is only recently that I have considered this ingredient to be part of the poetic process. I have previously considered improvisation as a method to resolve a particular type of contingency but now I see it as an important part that deserves acknowledgement. Building a project is a tremendous challenge and I am yet to complete one that does not encounter the unexpected adversity. Yes, these can be a cause for frustration but since they are inevitable, they must be faced if the design is to come to fruition. Learning how to overcome this struggle is an art in itself and accepting an element of improvisation, as a natural human response to the unexpected deserves recognition.
Experience – Keith Richards once said, “the greatest thing about songwriting, it’s not an intellectual experience.” The same is true for Architecture and Design. The grand finale of any design will always be the experience of the user. And the experience of the user will always be just that: An experience – free from the intellectual journey, from any preconception of what the space should or was expected to be. The project is complete and out of the designer’s control. The experience has become what the space, therefore the design, is. For me, this sovereignty of the experience is poetic in itself.