Embracing the night: interview with Paulina Villalobos

 

Chilean lighting designer Paulina Villalobos, founder of DIAV, has a particular interest in the way that we light our cities after dark so as not to destroy our relationship with the night and the stars. This led her to set up an event called Noche Zero, which changed thinking.

Embracing the night: interview with Paulina

How did you first become interested in light?

 

I originally trained as an architect, and I qualified very young. I won a competition to design a cultural centre outside Santiago when I was only 25 years old, and I felt very humbled and lucky. I thought about the light in the building and I realised how little I knew. There was not much information available and very few professionals in Chile.

So I decided to go abroad. I went to Germany for two years and studied architectural lighting design in Wismar. When I was studying, I realised that it was a fantastic subject. Then I went to the KTH in Sweden for a year and to Finland, as well as to Paris following great professionals (Vesa Honkonen and Luis Claire). I finished my training by deciding to come back to Chile and to start my own company in 2005.

What is your understanding of people’s relationship to light?

 

My approach is through my experience of nature. I think that it is a very instinctive relationship – that the light has to appeal to your chemical instincts. It affects your emotions.

How do you see the relationship between artificial light and the sky?

 

I grew up in the Atacama region of Chile, which is supposed to be the placein the world with the clearest skies and the lowest humidity. Everywhere that I moved I found that there is a different understanding of what is normal in terms of light. Living in the north of Chile, I am very aware of this as the country has more than 30 different climactic zones. Everywhere in the country the levels and the geometry of the sunlight are very different.

In Spanish, for example, there is no word for “glare”. For people who live a long way from the equator, the word blue is associated with being sad, yet in Spanish and Portuguese it is associated with happiness. This different appreciation of the sky and of natural light affects the way that we work with artificial light. For instance in the UK, if you sued a colour temperature of 6000K, people would hate it. In Sweden it doesn’t even exist. But in the tropics it is quite common.

How do you balance the need to light buildings and the need to respect darkness and the night?

 

There is a dilemma. We want to put light everywhere to make our buildings look beautiful, to make our buildings dance, but we also need to respect the night. Our rejection of the night has different aspects. It is easier to see but we are losing the stars – we are losing that part of our heritage. So it is important to light the building to have the maximum effect on the people who see it. The clever thing is to know how to do this but be less invasive.

If you believe we should have less light in our cities, how will you address people’s fear of the dark?

 

In general the people who light our cities don’t understand light. The result is glare, and very high contrast. At night our visual system works differently, almost as if we have another pair of eyes. Our cones are sleeping and we rely on our rods, which are very attuned to detecting movement but very lazy in terms of colour. The rods need very little light. For lighting designers it is a problem to make others understand this.

What about the battle against light pollution?

 

The people who are just against light pollution don’t understand light either. They think that we should just turn off the lights. In order to design with light at night so that it doesn’t go everywhere, you have to be a professional. Otherwise you get the problems that we have today, where you can see the light pollution from many cities from up to 40km away.

Embracing the night interview with Paulina Villalobos 2

What is Noche Zero, and why did you set it up?

 

The idea was an initiative to make everybody aware of the value of the night, connecting different professional approaches. A lot of mistakes have been made in lighting our cities since the 1950s that still haven’t been put right. The light was designed for the car, and we keep thinking of lighting as something for cars and not for people.

We wanted to make a better future for our cities. So we brought together scientists, astronomers, regulators and other people involved in thinking about light. The first event was held in October 2012. The idea was to talk about human health, about the environment and about the culture of our cities.

 

We held the event in the Atacama, so that people could see what they were missing in terms of enjoying the night and the stars. It’s very special and very beautiful, close to the best observatories on earth.

Was it a success?

 

It was very interesting. The astronomers, for example, didn’t know that it is possible to light cities without causing light pollution. And as a result of the event, regulations have been rewritten so that they are better, so that they approach light from the human point of view. We formulated a manifesto that is called the Atacama manifesto.

What happens next?

 

We fundraised to put a conference together and we are working to put all the knowledge online so that it is free. Now we are fundraising to put together another event which will happen on April 21st, 22nd and 23rd 2015, new moon and starry night in Atacama, and this time we want to invite the people who make the decisions, managers and urban planners. The mistakes are always made because people don’t have enough knowledge.

Should we be embracing darkness?

 

The night is actually full of light, if we use the right amount of light. In the daytime we are used to having light from the sun, which is full of ego and personality. At night there is another kind of light which is more humble. It is a different kind of light which doesn’t need to shout.

What is the best way to avoid light pollution?

 

In our work we do a lot of calculation to prove that we are avoiding light pollution. We simulate a layer on top of our buildings, and make sure that no light is going up through that. It’s easy to get it right, you just need to think more.

Interviewer: Ruth Slavid

This interview was originally featured in Luminous #13

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