Mary-Anne Kyriakou, founder and artistic director of Smart Light Sydney: “LEDs will play a major role in redefining urban environments. They don’t consume much power, they are very small and they are digital and dynamic.”

by Lynne Blundell

When Mary-Anne Kyriakou, founder and artistic director of Smart Light Sydney talks about the future of sustainable lighting in cities her voice buzzes with the same sort of energy that emanates from the light sculptures in her show.

“This show is about the expression of urban space through light. With urban planning it is important to do a master plan of the lighting but this is not really done very often. There is a great need to understand lighting in the urban space,” Kyriakou told TFE.

Kyriakou, a lighting engineer and artist, believes our cities are currently over-lit – something that needs to change if we are serious about cutting emissions and slowing global warming.

Smart Light Sydney is celebrating sustainable innovations and the future of low-energy lighting design (see our separate story on the show). The 25 works, which are located along the route from the Sydney Opera House to Observatory Hill in the Rocks, all use low energy technology and many incorporate recycled materials.

The show kicked off with Brian Eno’s spectacular Lighting the Sails which lit up the sails of the opera house. In a world first for artificial light festivals, the light show will also turn off more power on the city grid than it uses, thanks to a switch-off campaign in conjunction with the Property Council of Australia.

Kyriakou says lighting technology is on the brink of bringing great change to urban environments with technology going ahead in leaps and bounds.

“We’ve come out of the flood lighting of the 1980s into an era where lighting is used to not only highlight aspects of architectural detail but can also turn buildings into artistic message facades,” says Kyriakou.

An example of this, she says, is the Water Cube at the Beijing Olympics which uses lighting on a massive scale to create mood and drama, turning a whole stadium into a light sculpture. In Germany the Allianz Arena does something similar, the whole building turning red or blue depending on which of its resident soccer teams is playing.

“Light is a very special medium – it has a transformative effect on people and transcends colour and race. It is innate for human beings to respond to light,” says Kyriakou.

New lighting technology such as LEDs (light-emitting diodes) will play a major role in the next decade because of their low energy consumption, small size and versatility.

“LEDs will play a major role in redefining urban environments. They don’t consume much power, they are very small and they are digital and dynamic. We can redefine how we experience our space.”

The Light Walk makes use of digital technology to inform and educate; along the route viewers of the sculptures can activate Bluetooth on their mobile phones to download videos where the artist describes the work.

Weather Projection by UK artist Alex Haw draws on real time weather patterns from weather stations across Australia to create a changing virtual sky within the Observatory Hill Rotunda

Kyriakou believes we are at a point of transition and great change in the way we both use and think about light.

“When GLS [general lighting service or incandescent bulbs] came onto the market 100 years ago they revolutionised our lives. Before that light came from oil lamps – from flame. Our ideas about light changed – we had stability in the night environment. Then came fluorescent light and strong lighting of architectural spaces.

“The efficacy of LED is also getting greater every day and the applications are increasing. There is a great deal of research being done on the effects of different coloured light on people. The theory is still in its infancy but we do know that blue light has a stimulating effect on people so they are more inclined to feel like working.”

The importance of natural light in buildings is also influencing design.

“People need to be connected to nature so access to natural light is very important, particularly as we are spending longer hours inside offices,” says Kyriakou.

In Australia incandescent light bulbs are gradually being replaced in many applications by other types of lights such as compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), high-intensity discharge lamps (HIDs) and LEDs.

These newer technologies give more visible light for the same amount of electrical energy input and often generate much less heat. The first stage of the phase-out plan was the introduction of an import restriction on incandescent general lighting service (GLS) light bulbs used for general lighting purposes from 1 February 2009.

According to the Department of Environment, the phasing out GLS light bulbs is expected to save around 30 terawatt hours of electricity and 28 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions between 2008 and 2020. This is equivalent to permanently decommissioning a small coal-fired power station or taking more than 500,000 cars off the road permanently. It is expected to result in savings to the Australian economy of around $380 million a year by 2020 and result in net savings of more than $50 a year for each household that changes all of its incandescent light globes to compact fluorescent lights.

Kyriakou believes technology such as compact fluorescents is most likely an interim solution. The halogen downlights of the 1980s were also a transition to better low energy technologies that are now emerging. And along with the light, the efficiency and lifespan of the associated equipment must be considered, including recyclability.

“An LED light can last for 50,000 hours so it is important that the associated equipment can also last that long. We also need more lamp recycling facilities and governments must take on this responsibility. Designers can play a major role here as well in informing suppliers about the materials that are needed,” says Kyriakou.

Vessel of (Horti) Cultural Plenty by Warren Langley, will directly respond to changes of surrounding light – so visitors can expect dramatic day and night variations. Despite its size, the Vessel will be illuminated by two 150W metal halide globes, providing an extraordinary ratio of power-to-effect

“We had three objectives in this festival – to showcase low energy lighting, show best practice in lighting design and reduce the intrusive light to the night sky.”

“And what is vital is that light art continues to grow from an artistic place – it must not be just about commercial outcomes.”

Kyriakou is hoping that some of the light sculptures will become permanent once the festival finishes on 14 June.

For more information about the festival and a map of the Light Walk route visit the Smart Light Sydney website.

LEDs – a comparison with traditional light sources

Efficiency: LEDs produce more light per watt than incandescent bulbs.

Low heat: In contrast to most light sources, LEDs radiate very little heat. Wasted energy is dispersed as heat through the base of the LED.

Lifetime: LEDs typically last three times as long as fluorescent tubes and 30 to 40 times as long as incandescent light bulbs.

Low toxicity: LEDs do not contain toxic materials such as mercury.

Colour: LEDs can emit light coloured light without the use of colour filters that traditional lighting methods require. This is more efficient and can lower initial costs.

Size: Because of their small size LEDs are easily populated onto printed circuit boards.

Fast light up: LEDs light up very quickly, achieving full brightness in microseconds.

Cycling: LEDs are ideal for use in applications that are subject to frequent on-off cycling, unlike fluorescent lamps that burn out more quickly when cycled frequently, or HID (High intensity discharge) lamps that require a long time before restarting.

Easily dimmed: LEDs can very easily be dimmed.

Slow failure: LEDs mostly fail by dimming over time, rather than the abrupt burnout of incandescent bulbs.

Shock resistance: LEDs, being solid state components, are difficult to damage with external shock, unlike fluorescent and incandescent bulbs, which are fragile.

Directed light: LEDs are ideal for focused light while incandescent and fluorescent sources often require an external reflector to collect light and direct it in a usable manner.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au