Finding the “Right Lighting” may be the best tool we have to enliven the city nights
Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts at night. Photo courtesy of Schuler Shook
By, Frank Edgerton Martin
Minnesota’s temperature extremes are hard on sidewalk paving and street trees.
But our streetscapes don’t have to be so hard on us, especially during the occasional cold and rainy days of fall and spring. There are plenty of historic precedents for urban lighting that worth remembering today.
For example, light should originate from many levels, from on high (as in the neon sign atop the First National Bank building in St. Paul) down to pedestrian-level street lamps as well as store windows and building lobby doors. Think of looking into a store window on the street and then looking upward to people walking through the glowing skyways. Light from such varied heights brings a sense of human scale and intimacy to the urban environment.
Juster Bros. on Nicollet Avenue at night, c. 1920. Collection Minnesota Historical Society
If you look at older photos of night cities, you’ll find a rich array of light sources—vertical neon signs, globe street lamps, upper story offices—all of which harmonize with the flow of pedestrians. But it seems that we’ve forgotten such nuances of urban lighting and why it matters in a four-season climate like ours.
The latest update of the Nicollet Mall is one example. The mall now has long stretches of sidewalk that seem devoid of trees, color or even seasonal pots to make the walkways more welcoming. There’s also little in the way of lighting at ground level, such as uplit building facades or illuminated store signs.
Christmas on Nicollet Mall. Clarence R. Chaney, 1968. This watercolor is perhaps a holiday card for the Northwestern National Bank—whose glowing red “Weatherball” at the top says warmer weather is ahead. Note the Mall’s original paired street lamps and tree lights.
One of Mall’s nicest features used to be the strings of winter lights on the trees. They created scintillating pools of light, lending an almost magical feel during the darkest times of the year. However, the new design’s trees came with warrantees that prohibit tree lights at any time of year.
The original mall also boasted beautiful paired street lamps lit with glowing, incandescent bulbs. In the mornings and at dusk, they shone warmly on the steam rising up from the heated sidewalks.
Those street lamps and heated sidewalks used a lot of energy and proved challenging to maintain.
New Lighting Options
Forty years later, today’s more durable and sustainable lighting technologies open up new strategies for city light and atmosphere.
Photo courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook
Take the recently renovated Schmidt Brewery in St. Paul. Now known as the Schmidt Artist Lofts, BKV Group and Pfister Associates used lighting to accentuate the brewery’s crenellated tower and cornice details. They uplit the smokestack so that the inset letters SCHMIDT’s are visible from blocks away. The landmark red neon Schmidt sign atop the brewery is once again a beacon on West 7th Street—as it has been for a century.
Above. Rear buttresses of the Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts. Below. The full visual complexity and lighting Pillsbury A-Mill Artist Lofts at dusk. Photos courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook.
Then there’s the Pillsbury A-Mill. Lighting consultants Schuler Shook joined forces with BKV Group and Pfister to install angled uplighting celebrating texture and depth of the 138 year-old rough limestone walls, a characteristic that’s generally lost at night. In the rear, they dramatically backlit the supporting buttresses to create a sense of layering and shadow.
On the A-Mill’s roof, Schuler Shook introduced bursts of color by lighting the old rooftop water tower. Visible from the Third Avenue Bridge, the water tower’s LED warm white and blue night colors complement the historic neon Pillsbury sign nearby.
Circa 1980 winter night on the original Nicollet Mall showing the glow of paired street lamps, white lit street trees, and the transparency of an overhead skyway.
While building walls make great surfaces for lighting, we sometimes need to see into a building — through windows and lobby doors. Being able to get a glimpse inside a building adds a sense of depth and movement as we walk along street at night.
“We try to design storefronts and buildings where the light from inside can leak out,” said Brady Halverson, a landscape architect with the BKV Group. “Transparent storefronts and pools of light at doorways help to create a sense of arrival.”
Variety and temperature
Good architectural lighting also takes color tones and directionality of light into consideration.
“When you install a lamp at the middle of your living room ceiling, you get a blanket of light without highlights or darker spots,” explained architect Peter Pfister of Pfister Associates. But “if you light the room with table lamps and focused spotlights, you get more varied and inviting spaces layers of light,” he said.
Beyond of light sources, Pfister argues that the “temperature” of light “affects the mood of a street.”
Measured in Kelvin degrees, lighting temperature doesn’t gauge how hot or bright a light source seems, but its place along the color spectrum.
Photo courtesy of BKV Group and Schuler Shook.
For example, the wall lighting at the A-Mill and Schmidt Brewery ranges from 2,600 to 3, 000K degrees, creating warmer yellows.
Yet many parking lot and street lamps are calibrated at the higher temperatures of 4,000 to 5,000 K—casting much colder, stark light that reaches into the blue end of the color spectrum.
Many people assume safety concerns require such light intensity. But lighting designers show us how security and brightness can be achieved with warmer light tones, how strategically poised spotlights can highlight beautiful old walls—and how glowing colors create a rainy nighttime atmosphere meant to be experienced and not just endured.
Frank Edgerton Martin
(An earlier version of this article appeared in the Star Tribune, March 20, 2019)