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January 26, 2010
by Lisa Delgado

Event: Light Walk in Bryant Park
Location: Bryant Pakr, 01.12.10
Speaker/Tour Guide: Leni Schwendinger — Principal, Leni Schwendinger Light Projects
Organizer: Leni Schwendinger Light Projects

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The brightly lit New York Times building framed by darker buildings to either side. In the foreground, to the left is the Pond skating rink at Bryant Park; the space with the blue light to the right is the Celsius Bar, a temporary pop-up restaurant.

Bill Millard

If you saw someone peering around at the pavings of Bryant Park, you might assume they’d lost something. In Leni Schwendinger’s case, she’d found something instead — an intricate network of shadows whose beauty drew her to drop to her knees for a close-up view during a recent walking tour devoted to the park’s public lighting. Thanks to the illumination of multiple bright floodlights shining from atop the nearby Verizon building, the park trees were casting a “cacophony of shadows,” she explained, comparing the effect to a Jackson Pollock painting.

The acclaimed designer first began her Light Walks as a tool for teaching her Parsons students about public lighting in various areas; the walk in Bryant Park was one of her first to be offered to the public. “My Light Walk is about any and all lights in public space,” she said as she began the tour at the northeast end of the park, taking a moment to point out the halo effect the floodlights caused in one woman’s white hair. Reaching all the way across the park, the lights’ illumination was still intense enough that the group could see each other clearly.

How brightly public spaces are lit can be a delicate balancing act between the demands of energy efficiency and the desire to keep spaces bright enough to make people feel safe, she explained during the walk. Adding the floodlights in December had made the park four times brighter, while still being a fairly energy-efficient, pragmatic solution. “It brings all the lights together; you can take care of them and maintain them very nicely. They’re very high, and they make a huge, broad swath of light like the moon,” she said. Other sustainable lights in the park include some of Schwendinger’s design — LED-encrusted round lights called “Jewel-Light Luminaires,” which help illuminate the skating rink.

The intensity of the floodlights creates some lovely if surreal effects: along the northern promenade, the backlight throws the forms of London plane trees into stark relief against the night sky. “Look at these absolutely gorgeous trees that are outlined and filigreed with the light,” Schwendinger said. “It’s like a beautiful stage set — it’s a stage set for urban living. It’s a gorgeous sight that you wouldn’t really have if these lights were a whole lot dimmer.”

Beyond the park, the lighting of the surrounding architecture also caught her eye, such as the Cook + Fox and Gensler-designed Bank of America building on 42nd Street. Contrasting warm and cool-hued lights on the façade help emphasize its faceted form, she observed.

As the group explored the dimmer southeastern sides of the park, she noted the changing ambience. Away from the floodlights, smaller, warmer lights from traditional globe lanterns, a carousel, and the windows of the Bryant Park Grill punctuated our surroundings. “These things are glowing out of the darkness, and it gives this beautiful romantic feel,” Schwendinger said.

At one point, she paused to draw our attention to some gray paving stones that glowed with a subtle gradient of color cast by lights on either side. “Now look carefully at the amber light being cast by the lantern and the bluish light by the [floodlights],” she said. “The sheen of the stone is like a satin, and that careful, careful nuanced relationship between the bluer light and the soft gold lights — it’s there! And now you will always see it.”

Indeed, it’s the kind of detail that’s easy to overlook, unless one is trained to notice it. Schwendinger hopes to offer more Light Walks in the future, helping city residents become more attuned to the ways lighting designers bring safety, sustainability, and beauty to public spaces.

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