Photo: Edward Ratcliffe

During the winter of 2005, in December, the power in my hometown went out after a wind storm. There was nothing unusual about this—I come from a semi-rural community in Washington State, and the power goes out from time to time, especially during the winter. Driving around that evening, surveying the damage, I ended up at my high school. Between rehearsals and meetings, I had spent a lot of time at my high school after hours, and I was used to navigating a darkened campus. But on this night, the campus felt different: The lampposts were dark, and the digital wall clocks, which usually cast a warm red glow, were off. The high school felt empty, unfamiliar, threatening. The power outage, in robbing it of light, robbed it of life, or any potential for life.

The photo above is from 1957, an illustration to a recent New York Times article about how the rise of efficiency technology is dimming the city’s skyline. When we talk about the production of space, we rarely talk about light (or about electricity). Light creates space in ways that few other architectural elements are able to. We see light architecturally, as creating space for life, and synecdochically, as a representation of life (i.e., we read lit buildings as being ‘alive’, and dark building as being ‘dead’.) Henri Lefebvre talks about the difference between representations of space (planned, controlled, ordered space) and representational space (appropriated, lived space; space-in-use). Light is an essential element in both: It puts representations of space on display, and supports the use of representational space.

Despite this, we regard light almost as an infrastructural element, like air conditioning or sprinkler systems, so routine as to be boring. And when we do devote attention to lighting, it’s special attention, the same attitude green architecture used to produce. But light (or electricity) drives building design: Where is the light coming from, and for how long? The modeling program Google SketchUp includes a tool that lets you look at sun exposure at different times of the day or year, to design a building that takes advantage of the sun. There’s a class here, called Electric Modernism, that explores how the rise of cheap electricity changed architecture. Skylights and picture windows fell into disuse, in favor of windowless buildings lit by artificial light. (My dorm room, in a building built at the turn of the last century, faces east, towards the rising sun. Rarely do I wake up any later than 8 AM, regardless of when I set my alarm. I have long been fascinating by the idea of artificial circadian alarm clocks.)

An example: The 787 Dreamliner has received accolades for its cabin lighting scheme that uses LEDs to trigger circadian rhythms and hopefully diminish jetlag (although airplane companies are notorious for introducing features that airlines never adopt). (No deep-link to the Dreamliner lighting, sorry; but check out the Eames chairs in the step-on-board-the-Dreamliner feature!) The 787 lighting is innovative, like circadian alarm clocks, for its desire to exert this very low-level control over the human body, determining when we get tired. Lighting is visual oxygen—necessary for life, possibly manipulated to change our states of mind.

Photo: Andrew Henderson for The New York Times

I want to return to the idea of synecdochical light. There’s more to the idea than that a dark building is a dead building. It’s that electricity is one of the measures we use to determine how alive a building is. Even when the lights are off, there’s usually something humming or buzzing, a radiator gurgling or a fan switching on. Small screens blink on. Refrigeration units click off. Exit signs glow. Electricity is the life-force of contemporary buildings.

So what does it mean that today’s New York, above, is a little dimmer? That we’re getting smarter, more efficient, able to do more with less? That we may consciously slow our buildings’ breathing, heart rate, pulse, without diminishing the lives or spaces they support? R. Buckminster Fuller said: “Our beds are empty two-thirds of the time. Our living rooms are empty seven-eighths of the time. Our office buildings are empty one-half of the time. It’s time we gave this some thought.” And maybe Dim New York is Fuller in action—giving this some thought incarnate.