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Paulina Villalobos

Issue 68 Aug / Sep 2012

Chilean lighting designer Paulina Villalobos has learnt a lot about life and light in her travels around the world. Now she is organising an event in the desert where the only light visible will be the stars.

British author Llewelyn Powys (1884 – 1939) observed, “No sight that human eyes can look upon is more provocative of awe than is the night sky scattered thick with stars.” This statement, often quoted, could easily relate to the sensation experienced by inhabitants of Los Angeles when, in 1994, the Northridge earthquake knocked out all the power in the city. Local emergency centres received numerous calls from anxious residents reporting a strange “giant, silvery cloud” in the dark sky. What they were really seeing for their first time was the Milky Way, normally obliterated by the urban sky glow.

Another story comes from the program director of the National Parks Night Sky Team in the US: “Many people who come to our programs have never really looked at the night sky. A woman once came up to me and said, “The moon was out during the day this morning - is that OK?” Its hilarious but it makes the point.

The lighting community has been talking a lot about darkness of late. About how we’ve lost our connection to the night sky and therefore the universe, about how light pollution affects our health, our ecology and our view of the stars. We know that one fifth of the world’s population can’t see the Milky Way (and that’s mostly Europe) and almost two thirds of the world live in areas where the night sky is brighter than the threshold for light-polluted status set by the International Astronomical Union and we also know that by 2050, 70% of the world will live in cities where light pollution is at its worst. As urban populations expand rapidly and the global population migrate to our cities, there is more need than ever to embrace darkness. Its not simply about light pollution, we need to understand how to manage the balance of light and dark within future cities. We need to reclaim our connection to the stars.

Two years ago, Paulina Villalobos of DIAV, a lighting consultancy based in Santiago, asked Sharon Stammers and Martin Lupton of Light Collective to help her realise her dream of hosting a darkness event in Chile. In October 2012, Noche Zero is happening. Created in conjunction with Universidad Católica del Norte Antofagasta (UCN), Noche Zero is an inspirational event; an educational summit and darkness experience held in San Pedro in the Atacama desert. With heavyweight speakers like Mark Major and Kaoru Mende lined up next to LUCI and the UNESCO Starlight Initiative, this collaboration is targeted at an international group of influential people working in and linked to urban lighting design. The aim is to connect the groups interested in this topic, to celebrate darkness and to create a joined up methodology for light and urban design in order to help preserve darkness in contemporary cities. Noche Zero invites the lighting and astronomical communities to work together.

Asked about what they hope to achieve from the event, Stammers and Lupton are impassioned: “We want to find a new way to plan and understand outdoor lighting. We want to create a mindset that embraces darkness and is fully integrated into the lighting design process and regulations. We want lighting designers to become ambassadors for darkness and the night sky by providing them with inspiration, information and resources which they can use to spread knowledge.”

The Atacama Desert, where Villalobos grew up, is the driest place on earth with the clearest sky on the planet and one of the world’s epicentres for astronomical observation. The most stunning starry skies will be the backdrop to this opportunity to hear the multiple viewpoints of leading experts and for participants to contribute to a new way of treating and understanding the role of darkness in urban lighting design.

Villalobos states her aim: “I wanted to do something in Chile to change the fragmentation of the different professions involved with Dark Skies: astronomers, heritage experts, urban planners and environmental scientists all care about light pollution but not about the lighting quality for urban areas... most of them don’t even know that we, lighting designers, exist. For lighting designers, many projects looks fabulous but are about over-lighting exteriors. No-one teaches us the other side. Also now, after the discovery of the third receptor in the eye we know that lighting is also about human health. So the best venue to talk about the design for the night skies of the future cities is the place with the best night sky on the planet: Atacama in Chile.”

The girl from Salvador certainly packed a lot into her formative years. Having first spent a couple of months in the UK studying English at the age of fifteen (“I liked the sound of James Bond’s accent better than an American superhero movie!”), she fulfilled her wanderlust by traveling the world before receiving a scholarship from the UN to study Urban Management in Nagoya, Japan. It was during her time here that she worked on an architectural project back in Chile where lighting was an integral part of the scheme. Loving the subject but realising she knew nothing about it, she made the huge step of moving to Germany to study Architectural Lighting Design at Wismar University. From here she moved to Sweden to study Light and Design at KTH Royal Institute of Technology and then on to Finland at the School of Arts, Design and Architecture in Aalto. Following these courses she moved to Paris to work under the tutelage of Louis Claire before finally moving back to Chile to establish her own lighting design practice, DIAV.

It is conceivable that, coming from such an isolated place but seeing so much of the world, her light (and life) philosophy has taken a different turn to the average lighting designer.

“Most of my contemporaries are from the northern hemisphere, I’m from the south. Most of them are males, I’m a woman. Most people think I come from a hot desert but the truth is winter could be minus 10°C and summer a maximum of 24°C. I’m used to being different. I embrace it. I instinctively look for the ‘difference’, the uniqueness, of everything or everyone to add to the creative design process.”

So does she ever regret forgoing her career as an architect to become an architectural lighting designer?

“Light is silent and humble, but essential to achieving a happy design. Of all the fields related to our built environment, light is the one that is subtle and abstract. It is hard to be explain but I find it is directly connected to emotional feelings and sensations. You can play around with opposite qualities to create a final result. I love that!”

Noche Zero takes place on October 16th - 18th in the Atacama Desert, Chile.


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