There is a medieval church in England that, dating back to the 1300s, incorporates a stunning display of architectural lighting whose extraordinary significance only became clear a few years ago.
In 2009, a church curator discovered the hidden purpose of a narrow window in the church tower. For centuries, the window had been obscured by a painting and forgotten with the passage of time. In 1979, when a fire destroyed the nave roof, the painting was finally removed. But it wasn’t until 2009, that the true function of the small window was recognized when the curator observed a strange phenomenon. Twice a year, during the spring and fall equinox, and only for about four minutes when the weather is clear, the small window channels a powerful beam of sunlight toward a statue of Jesus Christ, bathing the cross in a brilliant glow.
It is a unique natural spectacle that has stunned all who have had the privilege to witness the transformation from a dark chapel at dusk to an ethereal show. It is clear that this radiant display is no accident. More than likely, an unknown medieval genius recognized the extraordinary power of architectural lighting even more than 700 years ago, and bestowed a bit of magic on the villagers of Barsham, Suffolk.
Although builders have implemented a symbiosis of design and illumination for centuries, the modern concept of architectural lighting is relatively new, dating back to the latter half of the 20th century. It generally refers to artificial illumination more so than natural illumination. Today’s architectural lighting design, simply put, is the art and science of illuminating the human environment, i.e. both indoor and outdoor spaces. Some industry experts describe it as a field within architecture and engineering, while others maintain it is a distinct science of its own that heavily intersects with urban, interior, and landscape design.
The discipline’s primary focus is three-fold: aesthetic appeal, functionality, and energy efficiency. In other words, the purpose is to obtain optimal illumination that balances operating cost and electricity usage while maintaining a pleasant appearance.
Well-known examples of exquisite design include the Empire State Building in New York City, where extravagant LED tower and flood lamps illuminate the top 30 stories in breathtaking detail. The “Terrors of the Deep” tunnel at Sea World in Orlando, FL. is designed and illuminated to simulate the appearance of a coral reef. Also, the Northwest Airlines Passenger Tunnel in Detroit, Michigan, which was one of the first commercial structures to be outfitted with color-changing LED lamps set in pace to music.
To achieve the desired effect, successful designers must have a thorough understanding of the physics of illumination, as well as distribution. Also, detailed knowledge about how human beings perceive light. Designers commonly employ computer software to obtain an ideal illumination system, especially when working on large or complex projects. Floor plans, wall reflectance, ceiling height, floor composition, availability of natural lumens, and countless other factors are taken into consideration in an effort to optimize illumination.
Architectural lighting of outdoor spaces may incorporate flood lamps, lanterns, walkway lamps, LED uplights, and coach lamps to create a pleasant spectrum of brightness and hues. In indoor spaces, architectural downlights, contour and cove lamping, as well as LED accent lamps are popular options.