Don't be afraid of the dark
Fear of the dark is probably buried deep in our lizard brain. Civilisation, or perhaps more accurately territorialisation, is equated with light. As humankind has tamed the wilderness, people have illuminated their surroundings, first with fire, then with oil lamps, then gaslight and now electric light. The NASA satellite images of Earth tell their own story. Whether it is our town centres, our supermarkets, our offices, exterior or interior spaces, the tendency is invariably to overlight. It has even been legitimised by guidelines along the way.
As Mark Major, partner of leading lighting architect Speirs and Major, once wrote in an essay on darkness, 'We have now adapted to the idea of artificial light as a basic commodity rather than an exceptional resource.'
Putting aside issues such as energy saving, light pollution and the effect of overlighting on the human circadian system – all vital considerations – the use of darkness is as fundamental to the design of any space as the use of light, the yin to its yang. It is a powerful tool in increasing drama and creating atmosphere. It allows light to be used judiciously to accent key areas and objects, instrumental in revealing texture.
'Lighting every surface flattens and destroys form,' wrote Major. 'Selective application of light and the deliberate retention of degrees of darkness not only contributes to legibility but also creates expression.'
A recent hotel scheme in China, winner of its category in the 2019 Lighting Design Awards, is a classic example of how a restrained lighting scheme can balance light and dark to powerful effect. The Muh Shoou Xixi resort hotel, designed by GOA Architects, is set in the wetlands of Hangzhou. The surroundings were integral to the way the lighting was approached. Designed by Beijing-based PRO International Lighting Design Consultants, the scheme is minimal and unintrusive, designed to feel as natural as possible.
Crucial to achieving this was the early involvement of the lighting team in the design process, allowing more effective integration and concealment of the fittings. It also enabled greater sensitivity to the building's surfaces and textures. 'The lighting of the hotel architecture and landscape exploits the design rhythm,' says PRO. Some buildings are restored structures, the light revealing 'the ageing texture of the rough materials'.
Much of the lighting is recessed and linear, gently washing on to concrete and warming the rich wood tones. Simple decorative features punctuate the lines of light: a circular wall fitting with an antumbra of light, a gobo projection of shadowy leaves on the wooden floor.
The scheme delineates the structure rather than blasting it with light. Instead of the more typical beacon-like, bright glow of hospitality, the effect is subtle and dramatic, but still welcoming. It also confounds the idea that so many magnitude of lux are needed for people to see where they are going (something of an obsession in safety-cautious Britain especially). The eye is remarkably adaptive to low light levels and enjoys the visual stimulation of the contrasts in light level.
In the landscaped area outside, around 36,000 sq m in all, basic custom-made lanterns are the main source of illumination, especially for the hotel path bordered by lush vegetation. Luminaires, though carefully positioned, appear to be randomly located among the trees for a more artless effect.
The restraint, together with the use of light and shadow, has an almost Japanese aesthetic. There is a sense that every surface, texture and object has been scrupulously considered.