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Broken Light, Rotterdam, Netherlands

Issue 60 Apr / May 2011 : Architectural : Urban


A bold rethinking of one street in Rotterdam has helped radically change the city’s perception of a once ignored district.

Visit Atjehstraat in Rotterdam’s Katendrecht by night and you’ll find a neighbourhood transformed. Where there was once dull pools of regulation street lighting, there now stands an avenue of illuminated pillars, spread across the house façades, and a swirling pattern of light dancing across the pavement. This rethinking of the traditional streetscape, a concept called Broken Light, has had an impact way beyond the aesthetic; the issues of crime and prostitution that used to blight the district have all but gone replaced by a strengthened sense of community. The new look Atjehstraat – part of a wider regeneration of the district - is the conclusion of a challenge set in 2007 by art foundation Stichting DSPS to create a scheme that would rejuvenate the area and at the same time stimulate discussion about the use of light in public spaces.

It was a challenge that intrigued lighting designer and visual artist Rudolf Teunissen. Together with fellow designer Philipp Stegmüller he set about researching the ‘meaning of light’ with the aim of learning precisely how it is perceived and experienced in public spaces.

They discovered that the language of light pervades all aspects of culture. Art, in the form of photography, film, painting and performance, have created a library of visual references that act as a filter for life in the real world. Additionally, the pair found that lighting terminology has become heavily entrenched in everyday conversation, used metaphorically to express an emotional response to real experiences: people are ‘left in the dark’, new information ‘comes to light’.
In short, they concluded, light – and dark – have become loaded with meaning, and this meaning is constantly influenced by - and in turn influences how we perceive - the lit environment around us.

The next step for Teunissen was to create a scheme for Atjehstraat that would bring together the literal light (what we see) with the interpreted light we experience emotionally. So began the development of Broken Light. “In hindsight it’s clear that we were looking for a meaning of light that we could support with an experience,” says Teunissen. “We wanted to show that a lighting concept is not just a matter of perception, but can support the identity of a space.”

Instead of using light purely as a practical solution – providing pockets of ‘safe’ light and guarding against the ‘danger’ of darkness - Teunissen wanted to weave in a layer of identity. Naturally, there were practical aspects to consider: there was a desire to remove the negative qualities of street light - to avoid glare and reduce light pollution – but beyond that, Teunissen wanted to create a ‘lichtraum’: a space built with light; an additional layer to the street’s daytime persona.

With such a dramatic change to the space, it was important to bring both city officials and local residents along on the journey. In this respect, Stichting DSPS was key, acting as a mediator throughout the project. In 2009 they set up a demonstration using a prototype luminaire and, in November 2010, organised a mini carnival to mark the grand switch-on.

The plan required the removal of the existing streetlights. These were replaced with 18 units; a row of nine on each side of the street. Each mast is topped at six metres by a custom-made fixture facing towards the building façades. These provide both the vertical pillars of light and the swirling pattern on the ground.

It was essential that each effect luminaire was customised to precisely direct the bars of light – avoiding windows and allowing the new nightscape to be enjoyed as much from inside the houses as it was outside in the street. Using calculations for the reflectors made by expert Marinus van der Voorden, industrial design agency Max Designers, headed by Thomas Linders, developed the specialist fixtures.
Regulations stipulated that the roadway itself had to remain evenly illuminated. To this end, Sill fixtures were added to the roadward side of every other lamppost running down each side of the street. By attaching these fixtures at a height of around five metres using a short armature, and staggering their placement so that only one of each pair of posts has the added luminaire, the roadway can be precisely lit without affecting the rest of the scheme.

From above these broken shapes seem graffiti-like, as if light has been wildly sprayed across the sidewalk. At ground level, the pattern has been likened to abstract bird shapes and floral swirls. Indeed, playing with differing interpretations and perspectives was always an intentional part of this work, and the reaction of residents has been overwhelmingly positive. For Teunissen, it is proof that imaginative solutions can be both practical and engaging. “What we show is that you can illuminate an entire area and that you can add great contrast without visual obstruction or unnecessary light reflection,” he says. Using Atjehstraat as a working model, Teunissen hopes to continue the development of this technique, scaling and adapting it to bring Broken Light to a range public environments.

Project Details
Broken Light, Atjehstraat, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Client: Stichting DSPS with Center of Art (C.B.K.) Rotterdam
(with support from: Pact Op Zuid ,Commune Rotterdam and Fonds Beeldende Kunsten en Vormgeving Amsterdam)
Lighting Designer: Rudolf Teunissen, Daglicht en Vorm
Project Leader: Stichting DSPS
Industrial Design: Thomas Linders, Max Designers
Fixture production: Lens BV production
Installation: Citytech
Additional credits: Ronald Vredenborg (roadway lighting calculations); Marinus van der Voorden (fixture reflector calculations); Ben Vesten and Titji Boot (onsite communication); Philippe Stegmüller (pre-development research)
Photographs: Studio Hans Wilschut. Rudolf Teunissen.

Lighting Specified
Light effect fixture heads - custom made
Sill - Citystrahler City Projectors - roadway lighting
Valmont - light masts


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