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The art of making light work

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Detail of a tea-house built at Osaka in 1985 by architect Tadao Andô. With its simplicity and purity of form, it is faithful to the Japanese aesthetic tradition.
© Mitsuo Matsuoka / The Japan Architect. Tokyo

Specialist of modern lighting design and installation, Motoko Ishii hopes to revive the traditional Japanese sensibility to lighting, with its special feeling for the beauty of moonlight. She tells us the story of light in Japan.

Motoko Ishii 

Lighting devices of great beauty, using handmade paper, were devised at an early date in Japan. A flame produced by burning a candle or lamp oil was screened by a paper shade so as to diffuse a soft light equally In every direction. Chöchin, collapsible lanterns with a paper shade stuck over a bamboo frame, and andon, standing lanterns with a similar paper-covered frame, in this case made of thin strips of wood, were developed and widely used in the Edo period (1603-1867). Many of these traditional means of lighting were highly ingenious and welldesigned. Examples are the Odawara chöchin, a portable lamp that could be folded so as not to take up space on a journey, the ariake andon (night-light), the light of which could be reduced by covering it with a wooden cube with apertures in its panels shaped like the crescent moon, or the tsuji-zndon (crossroad lanterns), covered with a tiny roof, that were placed at crossroads and street corners to help people find their way.

Not only Japan but other Far Eastern countries such as China and Korea have from ancient times shown a special appreciation of moonlight. On the nights when the moon was full people came together to drink saké and celebrate the beauty of the moon, and many fine poems describing such scenes have survived in both Japan and China. I believe that this traditional love of moonlight underlay the develop¬ ment of the beautiful lighting devices that were produced in Japan during the Edo period.>

With the arrival of Western civilization in the Meiji period (1868-1912), gas and electric lamps made a dramatic impact. Many people were astounded by the brilliant light of the arc lamps that were installed in Tokyo's famous Ginza district in early Meiji, an event commemorated in ukiyo-e prints of the time. Electric lighting spread rapidly from the late 1880s onwards, but for cost reasons most houses had only one lamp in each room, suspended from the centre of the ceiling. The oil lamps of the Edo period, which stood on the floor and could be moved to wherever was convenient, disappeared altogether, and for a long period "one room, one light" was the standard practice.

Innovations were introduced into Japanese lighting after the Second World War. In the black-out during the war years, with their constant air raids and drastic short ages of food and other supplies, the Japanese experienced both physical and spiritual darkness. They saw a symbol of peace in the bright white light of the fluorescent lamps that began to be manufactured soon after the war.

First used in industry, which was then struggling to get back on its feet, these lamps came into domestic use in the 1950s. The number of households choosing this form of lighting for the family room known as the chanoma (dining/living area) grew steadily, and one product of this period was the circular fluorescent lamp (called the "Circline"2 in Japan), an alternative to the conventional straight fluorescent tube which is unique to Japan and is still in widespread use.

The spread of fluorescent lighting raised the illumination levels of offices, factories, stations, banks and all kinds of public buildings until they were high even by international standards. Lighting technicians aimed at a shadow-free illuminated space in which the light was bright and evenly balanced. In this they had support from industry, whose first priority was to increase production, and also from architects.

The 1970s saw a second wave of innovation, initiated by Expo 70, the International Exposition held at Osaka In 1970. Eighty-five pavilions were erected on a 351-hectare site at Senri, a suburb of Osaka. Seventy-seven nations took part in Expo 70, which attracted an astonishing number of visitors some 64 million. One of the Expo's most popular attractions was the beauty of its illuminations at night.

I was commissioned to design the lighting for five sites at Expo 70 the Electric Power Pavilion, the Art Gallery, the Takara Beautilion, the roof of the Housing Capsule in the "Symbol Zone", and the Japanese Garden. My proposals involved rejecting the concept of uniformly and brightly lit space which had until then been the guid¬ ing principle of lighting in Japanese architecture, in favour of the idea of a more "animated" space using both light and shade with a moderate level of brightness; a form of lighting that would form a link between people and architecture.

In the Electric Power Pavilion, a variety of different light sources were used throughout the building, and a programme was devised for continuous blinking on and off and for modulating each source. In the Art Gallery a wave-like effect was attempted, by setting clear bulbs into the glazed framework of the large foyer and alternating different circuits in the vertical direction, the variations in light intensity making it appear as if the space were "breathing". In the Japanese Garden, on the other hand, the effect we aimed at was that of a tranquil, gentle light. In all these sites no effort was spared to create new, experimental forms of architectural lighting. Expo 70 was the scene of many other such experiments, which found wide acceptance.

Interest in lighting as a source of enjoyment and of beauty, as distinct from its merely functional role, has grown in Japan ever since. I have been involved, with leading architects such as Kenzö Tange, Yoshinobu Ashiwara and Kiyonori Kikutake, in numerous design projects including hotels, theatres, embassies and commercial buildings.

In the mid-1970s the Japanese economy, which for some time after Expo 70 had appeared to be in good shape, was hit by the dramatic rise in oil prices. The profession of lighting design was directly affected by the oil crisis. Chandeliers were switched off, as were all the light bulbs in ornamental lighting brackets beyond the number needed to provide a bare minimum of light. Even the spectacular neon illuminations in the Ginza district went dark. For those involved with lighting, like myself, it was a heartbreaking time.

By the end of the 1970s, however, Japan had recovered from the oil shock. While due regard was still paid to the need to save energy, bright lights reappeared in shops and offices. Incandescent lamps with a high power consumption were replaced in many cases by HID (high intensity discharge) lamps, and cold cathode tubes and neon lighting became increasingly popular.

With the 1980s came a general preference for greater balance in lighting design. Another trend can be seen in the growing number of buildings requiring special forms of lighting, particularly religious buildings.

The Shiga Sacred Garden of the Shinji Shümei-kai, a Shinto religious body, was completed in 1983. At the centre is a sanctuary to the movement's founder.

Within the vast internal space, which is 40 metres high, a diffused light, mostly from concealed sources, creates a sense of solemnity and awe. The lighting here plays a similar role to that of an atmosphere of appropriate temperature and humidity.

On the night of the ceremony marking the completion of the sanctuary, I put on a laser beam show in the plaza in front of the building. One of the greatest discoveries of the present century, the laser beam is a powerful, artificially "bunched" or narrowed ray of light beamed in a single direction. Using laser beams as a medium for "free composition", we succeeded that night in giving light a new form of expression in endowing light with an existence of its own, independent of architectural space.

My current task is to create new forms of light in all kinds of architectural space, using different light sources and a variety of control techniques. At the same time, I hope to revive the traditional Japanese sensibility to lighting, with its special feeling for the beauty of moonlight.

Learn more about light in the Courier

Motoko Ishii

After having studied industrial design at Tokyo University of Fine Arts, Motoko Ishii specialized in the new field of lighting design and installation, in which her work at the 1970 Osaka Exposition attracted widespread attention. She has won an international reputation for such projects as the lighting of the Okinawa Ocean Expo '75 and of several pavilions at the Tsukuba International Exhibition in 1985, and has been invited to work in many countries.