Apr 12, 2019

In New York—and cities like it—the question is whether exterior lighting should continue to create stand-alone beacons or be ‘curated’ as part of a larger master plan. A recently arrived resident offers her perspective

By Leah Xandora

New York City is a city famed for its bright lights, grand scale, and for a skyline constantly pushing skyward. But what does it mean to light a “spire” in a cityscape of beacons? And will New York continue to strike a balance with the night sky, or is its future to become one of the “mega brights,” like Las Vegas, Shanghai or Hong Kong?

In London where I lived previously—architecturally the skyline is still fairly planar, with the exception of select clusters. And although there are some famous towers in the city, their presence at night is relatively muted. In contrast, New York’s skyline grows increasingly vibrant, with new towers that seem to climb higher and brighter. As a resident New Yorker for the past year or so, I have had the opportunity to work on the illumination of a range of new towers for the city. Each lighting solution developed for these has been unique; each scheme tailored to building, type, materiality, placement and client. And though the lighting may follow the sophistication and complexity of these new structures, their increasing height creates “floating” beacons resembling an escalating canopy above the city.

Before 1890, the night skyline of New York consisted primarily of light emitting from the interior of buildings and from exterior street lamps. The city’s first example of exterior façade lighting was in 1890 for Joseph Pulitzer’s World Building. At the time, the 309-ft office building was the tallest in New York City, and architect George B. Post saw opportunity in the new electrical technology to highlight the crown of the building at night. Setting rows of small incandescent bulbs across each of the ribs of the roof’s cupola, he created the first glowing beacon in the otherwise dark landscape of the city[1]. The next “beacon” of New York was created in 1908, with the construction of the Singer Building, its exterior flood lighting complemented by 1,600 concealed incandescent lamps set along its main tower. In 1913, the construction of the Woolworth Building marked a third, and as incandescent and filament technology developed, a plethora of different façade applications enabled the lighting of icons such as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, each new tower with its own different style and lighting strategy.

In recent years, the development of LEDs has had perhaps the most significant impact on the use of electric light, dramatically changing how we see the city at night. Though LEDs now enable a more economical control of power, heat and life span, the resulting ability to light greater surfaces using less energy creates perhaps more troubling trends in light pollution than it reduces. Although many buildings through New York City still have little or no façade lighting, this has become rarer for new buildings, particularly in the commercial sector, as the link between light and visibility and economical success influences the use of exterior lighting.

Although façade lighting often uses only a small portion of a building’s overall energy budget, it is still a significant factor to consider, both at a project scale, and at the scale of the city. A report in 2012 noted midtown Manhattan as using more power than the entire country of Kenya in a single night[2], and although a great proportion of energy consumed in a building is via domestic or commercial appliances, a portion of this is still its lighting. In 2011 researchers at Columbia University’s Modi Research Group developed an interactive marker map that displays the city’s energy usage by area, and it is unsurprising to see that the more power-hungry areas on the map correlated directly with locations of vertical density and commercial development, such as midtown Manhattan[3].

Even with the minimal use of power for individual façade lighting, when considered at a city scale, power consumption quickly escalates. Using a standard New York City block as an example—and assuming a single run of 20 watts-per-meter LED graphic linear light to subtly “frame” the building’s roof (perhaps one of the most economical scenarios, as here the block is not subdivided into multiple towers with their own lighting and energy systems)—this block would consume an average of 41,347.2 kilowatt hours per year for façade alone (based on an average nightly usage of 8 hours a night, and assuming an average block size of 80 meters x 274 meters).

In so-called “bright cities,” such as Hong Kong or Las Vegas, light as advertising, or as a means of building-wide branding has long been standard practice, and is now a defining characteristic of these cities. But with each advertisement designed to be brighter than the next, buildings become a tapestry of light; the spill washing across all surfaces, vertical or otherwise. Though the lighting in New York City may be vastly different from Las Vegas or Hong Kong, with the gradual expansion of areas like Times Square and Midtown, and with “supertalls” and “super-slims” now rising higher above the city, will New York follow the path of Hong Kong and Las Vegas, or will we be able to maintain balance? Current and pending[4] dark-sky legislation guard against the unwanted egress of light upward, as well as considering light trespass and glare, yet in somewhere as vertically dense as Manhattan, do we need to apply a strategy based more on the cumulative effect of the city itself, or something more subjective—a city wide curation?

To understand New York City’s skyline, it is useful to understand the factors that influenced its evolution, including the development of the ground plan the buildings themselves stand upon. Originally designed in 1811, the grid system of Manhattan was a revolutionary, thoroughly modern way to plan a city[5]. By dividing landmass in this way, the city was organized into a system without a center point, with every street or block theoretically as important as the next.

Between the early 1800s and 1900s, the city’s population grew rapidly, and with the revolutionary inventions of the elevator and steel-framed structures, buildings began to grow upward. The introduction of the 1916 zoning laws had a dramatic effect on the modern New York skyline. Previously developments had been allowed to build vertically from street up, however the impact this had on natural light and fresh air had prompted the first real impetus placed upon construction in the city. Architects had to design buildings so they would gradually step away from street level as they grew taller, creating in some cases a “layer cake” or pyramid effect, as the available space was maximized and height became a means to gain area. Although the laws of 1961 restricted “limitless” buildings by enforcing a ratio between footprint and height, this was used partially as a means to incentivize the creation of public plazas adjacent to the buildings as a way to offset greater height. As anticipated, the desire to build taller did not diminish, and a large number of public plazas were developed as a result of these ever escalating buildings.

Through the late 1900s, technology and engineering developed rapidly, using new materials and forms to allow buildings to grow skyward. It is clear from its stratified skyline that New York’s architecture is a mix of all eras, genres and influences. There are neo-Gothic spires and Deco stacks, modernist totems, postmodernist shapes and parametric curvature. At night, light renders these icons as distinctive markers in the city’s topography. Despite their unique differences, or because of them, a question to pose is what happens when every building has its own distinct nighttime personality? As they continue to push higher, is there an increasing need to legislate lighting more by its style, its personality, than by its power and light level?

There is in my experience an often-held perception among those leading new developments that each lighting scheme should compete with, rather than complement, the surrounding buildings it sits amongst. I have received requests for projects that new towers be given a “clean” skyline to sit against, despite that when built it will be set against a backdrop of new and even taller structures. This type of “whitewashing” is perhaps not the fault of the designer; in a profession where projects change constantly, the future city is not guaranteed. However, there is still a need for more realism about what these new builds mean to a city at the level of massing and light, particularly when working at a scale of five to 10 years. The lack of appetite to factor in future competition should be a concern not just for the lighting designer, in how they contextualize their proposal, but for the client also, who may expect theirs to be the only new build with a certain lighting strategy.

Hudson Yards, New York City
At Hudson Yards, one of the largest single development projects in the U.S., each tower will be defined by a different style.
Photo: Courtesy of Oxford Properties Group/Related Companies

The epitome, or even solution, to this architectural race for spires can be found in larger developments, such as Hudson Yards. One of the largest single development projects throughout the U.S. at 28 acres, and encompassing more than 17 million sq ft of commercial and residential space, it is an example of infrastructure truly at a city scale. It features five towers of commercial, residential and mixed-use space being built above the Hudson River Railroad, along with public gardens, plazas and food courts. The development of such a number of towers simultaneously creates something beyond the scale of a typical development, it starts to define a neighborhood, and as result impacts how we read the skyline as a whole.

Some have argued these types of developments are ruinous to the spirit of a city; that each building should have their unique identity, and that an area this size should develop organically, not be created based on a single set of aesthetics or intent[6]. Still, despite Hudson Yards being built as one master plan, developers Related and Oxford Properties Group opted for a combination of different architects for each tower, leading to a varied collection where each is distinctive, but where hierarchy is considered and their status related. As night falls, each crown lights up with its own scheme; a curated display, grand in both height and scale. Once complete the development will represent a section of the city never seen before, marking a revolutionary step for construction in New York.

In the context of Hudson Yards, and as New York City’s skyline continues to develop, the question arises as to whether we should push for a more “curated” master view of the city, where buildings are tailored more to complement than compete with their contemporaries, or whether we are satisfied to let it continue as is: a clash of styles, intent, colors, brightness, but also “honest”— as joyfully chaotic as the street below. The effective pairing of light and architecture can render a simple structure majestic; reveal hidden details, textures or impressions not seen in daylight; tease out the nuances and intentions of a building in a way that is beautiful, poetic, sculptural. However we should consider what harm “throwaway” lighting does, as the odd linear halo or ”speed stripes” continue to add to the visual noise of the city, creating a canopy of light that means fixtures need to be brighter, schemes bolder, buildings taller, in an effort to stand out in a skyline of beacons.



[1] “Skyline”. (2018) Exhibition. The Skyscraper Museum, New York City. July 2018 – January 2019.
[2] Howerton, Michael. New York City Energy Use All Over the Map, Metropolis, Wall Street Journal, Feb 1, 2012 12:28 pm ET. Retrieved from https://blogs.wsj.com/metropolis/2012/02/01/new-york-city-energy-use-all-over-the-map/
[3] B. Howard, L. Parshall, J. Thompson, S. Hammer b, J. Dickinson, V. Modi. “Spatial distribution of urban building energy consumption by end use”, 141–151, Energy and Buildings 45, Elsevier 2012. Retrieved from https://qsel.columbia.edu/assets/uploads/blog/2018/publications/Spatial-Distribution-of-Urban-Building-Energy-Consumption-by-End-Use.pdf
[4] Assembly Bill A3216. ”Enacts the healthy, safe and energy efficient outdoor lighting act to reduce harmful outdoor lighting”. 2017-2018 Legislative Session. 27 January, 2017 Retrieved from https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2017/A3216
[5] “The Greatest Grid “Museum of the City of New York, 2015. Retrieved from http://thegreatestgrid.mcny.org/greatest-grid/the-1811-plan
[6] Davidson, Justin. ”Superhuman City,” Intelligencer. Retrieved From http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/04/superhuman-citya-walk-through-hudson-yards.html?gtm=bottom

Reference List
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Daly, Natasha. “See How Cities Across the World Light Up at Night” National Geographic. 7, February, 2018 Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/urban-expeditions/green-buildings/cities-light-pollution-office-building-LED/

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Globe at Night. “What does your nighttime sky look like? Are you observing light pollution in your sky?” Retrieved from https://www.globeatnight.org/light-pollution-interactive.php

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Kadaba, Dipika “Big Cities, Bright Lights: Ranking the Worst Light Pollution on Earth.” The Revelator. 21 June, 2018. Retrieved from https://therevelator.org/cities-ranked-lightpollution/

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National Conference of State Legislators “States shut out light pollution”23 May 2016. Retrieved from http://www.ncsl.org/research/environment-and-natural-resources/states-shut-outlight-pollution.aspx

Noko, Emily. “Hudson Yards wants to become NYC’s next great neighborhood” Curbed, New York. 19, September, 2018, 10:19am EDT. Retrieved From https://ny.curbed.com/2018/9/19/17861164/hudson-yards-new-york-development-related-companies

Roberts, Sam “200th Birthday for the Map That Made New York” New York Times, 20 March 2011. Retrieved From https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/21/nyregion/21grid.html


Leah Xandora

Leah Xandora

Leah Xandora, Member IES, is senior lighting designer with L’Observatoire International in New York. Previously, she was lead lighting designer at Cinimod Studio, London, where she worked on a wide range of award winning... More info »