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How to construct a culture of light

Interview with Thierry Marsick, Director of the Lyons Department of Urban Lighting

Published: 14 2月 2020
“I always compare light to music,” says Thierry Marsick, Director of the Lyons Department of Urban Lighting. “You can divide musical understanding into four different steps. You can treat it as a simple background, you can sit down and listen to it carefully, you can read it and play it and, last of all, you can write it. With light, the steps are very similar, and so part of my job is to help people read and understand it”.

In other cities, the Department of Urban Lighting - if there is one at all - is rarely as important as in Lyons. This is because the homeland of the Fête des Lumières, one of the most famous light festivals in the world, cannot afford to have poor lighting. This is not merely a question of image; it is also because the people of Lyons have very high standards. They know that their quality of life depends partly on the quality of their urban lighting. Nevertheless, Marsick points out, the skills and perspective acquired by working on the organisation of the Festival cannot always be applied to permanent lighting: “There is a time for festival light and a time for everyday light, as they are two very different registers. It’s not just a question of intensity, everyday lighting needs to be high quality and long-lasting”.
How to construct a culture of light

Pont rail Yves Farge ph Michel Djaoui

The people of Lyons pay careful attention to everyday lighting and they want to understand it, says Marsick. That is why the Department and other organisations need to transmit a culture of light to the public.

Building a culture of light is not an easy goal and it is not something that can be achieved once and for all. Lyons has been working in this direction since 1989, when it launched its pioneering Lighting Plan, which is now used as a benchmark in both Europe and around the world. In the same year, the Festival of Lights developed from a popular tradition into an event where artists and designers created spectacular lighting projects specifically designed to interact with the urban context.

Since then the progress of the Lighting Plan can be divided into two fifteen-year periods. In the first, which stretched from about 1989 to the year 2000 the focus was on “exploiting the town’s spectacular characteristics”, which was the exact title of the plan. In other words, Lyons was treated like a theatre whose treasures could be enhanced by viewing lighting in terms of aesthetics and not just as something functional. “This operation didn’t just focus on the town’s heritage”, explains Marsick, “but also on its natural elements like the rocks and plants on the hills”.

In the early 2000s “concerns regarding sustainable development arose and the quest to create environmentally friendly lighting began”, continues Marsick. There was also a greater focus on the “financial” role of light. So, the second Lighting Plan, drafted in 2004, included creating a closer bond between the lighting system, its uses and the needs of those working in the district in question.

The second fifteen-year period has just come to an end and the Department of Urban Lighting is currently laying the foundations of a third Lighting Plan. “We are currently investigating requirements and forms of use, as well as researching the bond between public and private lighting systems that coexist sometimes harmoniously and sometimes less so”.

Once again with the aim of creating a diffuse light culture, Lyons conducts its own analyses via participation. “We organise lots of meetings in the local area”, says Marsick, “and opportunities for the inhabitants to share their different perceptions of light. Last November, for example, we began talking to the inhabitants of a district of Lyons to understand their feelings about their local area, the places in it and what role a lighting system can play both positively and negatively. We often organise walks with citizens to understand what works and what doesn’t in situ. We also talk a lot about bad lighting and how to improve it”.
We often organise walks with citizens to understand what works and what doesn’t in situ. We also talk a lot about bad lighting and how to improve it”.
How to construct a culture of light

Pont rail Delandine ph Michel Djaoui

One of the ways we involve citizens is focus groups. “We work together with the Urban Planning Agency [an association of public partners, ed.], that focuses on the city of the future, like we do, to bring together groups of about 12 people with a common profile. For example, we recently worked together with a group of young workers with children. So now we will also meet a group of young workers without children and groups of tourists, shop owners etc. The purpose of this is to ensure that the problems perceived by the experts coincide with those of the inhabitants”.

“One of the issues we discussed recently”, continues Marsick, “is that of the lighting noise that derives from the sum of public and private lighting. In 1989, lighting was mainly a public asset, so the municipal authorities decided how to change the town. In recent years, however, light management has become accessible to all the various private players who use it to introduce colour and dynamism. Banks and shops use it to launch messages to remind customers that they exist. This, however, increases light noise and lighting loses its quality. The conclusion that these meetings between experts and inhabitants have come to is that a collective project should be created, so that those responsible for light emission can sign up to it and start a conversation. I would also like to avoid coercive regulations and use best practice reviews as roadmaps for how to start working together”.

Another stakeholder whose views we have to consider are the associations that defend the environment and biodiversity. Obviously, their requests are very different to those of the companies. What Lyons is seeking is a balance based on different moments in collective life. When it is dark, but the city is still awake, it requires lighting, but when the city is asleep, it does not. Smart lighting technologies are particularly useful for achieving greater lighting efficiency. Public lighting that is regulated automatically according to the degree of traffic can be created by installing sensors in the streets.

Lighting also plays a role in regeneration. An important example of this is La Duchère, a disadvantaged district of Lyons, where the municipal authorities have begun working on the quality of public space and nocturnal light. Two particularly interesting results are those linked to the Ciné Duchère, a former church converted into a cinema – a reinforced concrete structure with rigid forms, designed by a student of Le Corbusier. Since the old lighting design has been renewed and replaced with coloured nocturnal lighting, no acts of vandalism have been reported and even a sense of belonging to the place has been developed. This has been such a success, says Marsick, that whenever there is a fault in the cinema lighting, the local inhabitants call me and say “my lighting isn’t working properly”.
How to construct a culture of light

Cine Duchere ph Michel Djaoui