Internationally acclaimed lighting designer Leni Schwendinger – an innovator and authority on urban lighting and infrastructure – discusses what’s possible with light as an environmental tool with lighting designer Mike Brannon.
Leni Schwendinger can be considered a “lighting urbanist,” transporting landscape and lighting design installations into synergistically seamless and singular environmental experiences. She considers color, volume, space, and time – along with interactivity and human connection – as the materials that help bring humanity and nature together in today’s urban spaces.
“Innovation and creativity for bringing light to public spaces all over the world energizes architecture, landscape, and urban infrastructure with the ultimate goal of connecting people to each other and their surroundings.”
— Leni Schwendinger
Now in her third decade of reframing urban and environmental spaces, Schwendinger utilizes light architecturally with the goal of recreating these spaces while improving and raising the health and enjoyment of those who experience them. She seems to “see” what others might feel, but cannot articulate.
Mike Brannon: It’s interesting that you originally started in film. When did you first realize that lighting was going to be a large part of your life?
Leni Schwendinger: I was pretty young and just couldn’t get work as a director or cinematographer. It was not an easy road. Somehow I got angled to lighting through a friend in the theater and it slowly took on a life of its own and became a fine alternative. I was really in love with film, but I became intrigued and immersed in light — and the rest is history.
MB: What is it about certain fixtures and lighting effects that catch your attention?
LS: The formal characteristics of light – the fact that it appears and disappears and is completely malleable, shapeable, and can create atmospheres and be something so intangible – those are the things that intrigue me and call to my attention. Later I began to concentrate on the people who are in these environments of light and that has become quite important to me. After many years of manipulating light as an art form and working with color, and doing all the requisite fashion shows before moving out into parks and bridges and into public spaces, I began to see the public engagement, the importance of lighting for real, live people and the social relations of people and living with light at night. The lighting fixtures [themselves] aren’t so interesting to me. I keep up with technologies and ideas I’m really interested in and then I create teams, colleagues, and partners who help work towards the vision of these projects and keep track of all the lighting fixtures.
MB: So you’re really interested in creating an experience in an urban landscape.
LS: Experience is a good word, because it’s figuring out who it’s for and why. It’s figuring out all sorts of analog and digital things and materials.
MB: You’ve made reference to developing a new way of seeing lighting. Can you expand on that?
LS: A couple of discoveries I’ve made are the vernacular – the everyday, ordinary light that we take for granted in public space, such as sidewalks, signage, signals, headlights, and buildings. They’re all part of a very interesting vocabulary. So to begin to recognize those things at night – because they are part of our illuminated landscape – is an interesting challenge to see what is in front of us…to see [vehicle] brake lights and the food truck with its LEDs and to say those are lighting our nights. Those are a punctuation in the environment.
MB: Who and what are your influences and how did they affect you?
LS: There are people who I respect greatly, the great fathers and mothers of light, in this case, daylighting. There are artists and uses of color and paint, the Fauvists – the early important use of color – Malevich, those who have created abstract, symbolic images, Kandinsky who used symbols to portray moods, and of course Ray and Charles Eames and their projections and movies “Powers of Ten.” There have been a great many influences and I think it’s good to be influenced by various types of disciplines rather than just lighting. I was at an Eames exhibition in London and it was just fantastic with their point of view of experimentation and the greater idea of centering on the visitor or the participant.
MB: Until recently, you were a renowned independent lighting designer, and now you’ve joined Arup, an award-winning international design firm with offices in 34 countries. What has the transition been like?
LS: Arup is the most innovative, quality-oriented and interdisciplinary firm. I’m in an office with civil engineers and people who focus on research and foresight and looking into the future trends; there are lighting designers, statisticians, structural engineers, and there’s a water business – purifying water – it’s a really wonderful mix of professions.
MB: Has it caused you to work differently, or has it allowed you to do things that you couldn’t do before?
LS: Well, it’s funny, two and a half years later there’s a coming together of learning the corporate way of life and 400 people instead of five, so it’s definitely had an influence on how I work. There are different echelons of decision-making and design and also very big projects. I have a lot of support for creativity and looking at projects in a new way.
MB: Do you still have the freedom you had before when you were running your own firm?
LS: I would say it’s great here because there are such great resources like research funds and a knowledge base of people with expertise in terms of software and various tools. There’s a lot of freedom because of those resources. I think it’s a different kind of freedom than when you’re on your own. There are trade-offs and accommodations that have to be made. All in all, it was a good choice and I’m really happy to be here.
MB: I know that sustainability is important to you. Can you talk about how power savings, thermal considerations, environmental effects play into your design work?
LS: First of all, there are requirements for codes and electrical capacity and ways we have to organize our electrical loads. I like to include the qualities of sustainable communities which have to do with places where people feel they belong. I am aware of the energy-savings and material issues and sustainability, but I also add to the mix the issue of people’s feelings in a public space.
MB: When you design a public space, what do you want people to come away with?
LS: I want people to feel comfortable, welcome, and safe. I also would like people to feel surprised, interested, and curious. Let me use the metaphor of a Japanese garden. There are two principles of a Japanese garden: One is the view garden, where you sit on the porch of a temple and you look off into the rock garden and you kind of rescale yourself and put yourself into the garden and all of a sudden every ripple or gravel becomes a wave, every rock becomes a huge mountain, and you experience yourself in the garden and it’s a meditative and tranquil space. The other garden is a stroll garden and some of the precepts for it is surprise. So you hear the rushing of water and you hear bamboo click and you round the corner and there is the water running and you smell beautiful flowers. The idea is to plan a route that has surprises that you anticipate, and that you experience. These sorts of concepts are important to surprise people when they’re in and near an installation and to create legibility and understanding in the streetscape at night by lighting up various kinds of buildings, objects, and sculptures. How we make the nighttime legible with light is my passion.
MB: You do a fair amount of teaching and public speaking on light and environment. In closing, can you talk about your Lightwalks Series?
LS: The Lightwalks were invented to address our vocabulary of light — how to see light and how to recognize illumination and all of its wonderful qualities and to point out the vernacular of light whether it’s a glow or a sparkle or a twinkle or a flash. It’s all the things lighting designers know about, but the regular person doesn’t have the vocabulary for. It evolved as a workshop approach for cities that want to improve their nighttime environment and are doing regeneration/revitalization with break-out groups after the Lightwalk. The idea is really to get this language out to the public; it’s interdisciplinary.