“A respect for darkness is not just about stars—it’s about animals. It’s about flora and fauna health. It’s a human health issue. It’s an energy and environment issue. It’s a First Nations issue—we’ve lost our stories about the skies.”
—Engineer Robert Dick, quoted in Frontier Magazine issue 3
How can we design for darkness?
Robert Dick wrote the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s guidelines for low-impact lighting. Then, when park managers complained of being unable to find lights that met the standards, Dick made a prototype. His company now manufactures and sells EcoLights under the tagline “helping you see at night—without changing it.”
Architecture firm NEXT and Arup Associates minimized lighting and material usagewhen illuminating a new highway through a prized rural Dutch landscape. L’Observatoire International placed all light sources for New York’s High Line at or below eye level to keep the focus on the park’s spectacular surroundings. The city of Chengdu, China, is looking at the problem from another perspective; to save on energy costs, scientists there hope to launch an artificial moon into orbit by 2020.
But designing for darkness is about more than managing light. It also means ensuring accessible and safe places for people to gather. London mayor Sadiq Khan appointed a “night czar” to help align its citizens’ and businesses’ competing interests. Academics and landscape architects met in 2017 to discuss nighttime uses of public space on the Arabian peninsula.
Once we can see and inhabit the night, perhaps we can capture some of the wonder the dark sky inspires. Artist Charles Ross has spent four decades on a mesa in New Mexico building Star Axis, a massive “perceptual instrument” that writer Ross Anderson visits in this beautiful long-form essay. And beginning next week, art lovers in San Francisco can enjoy a retrospective of the patient and profound Vija Celmins, whose night skies, desert floors, and spider webs each take hundreds of hours to complete. (New Yorkers and Torontonians—your turn comes next year.)
No matter where this finds you, take a moment this evening to look up. We’d love to know what you see.