Dressed in 20 000 lamps, 360 high- pressure sodium projectors and a twin beam that orbits far into the Paris night, the Eiffel Tower’s light show is the piece de resistance of the city’s nocturnal theatre: a glitzy fiesta
of bridges, churches and statues whose high-wattage
luminosity charms tourists like moths.
Night after night, Eiffel’s playful beam travels
south across the City of Light to the Clamart suburb
and through the bedroom window of Roger Narboni
– France’s first urban lighting designer. But to this
artist, Eiffel’s magic is not so magnetic. In fact, it’s a
The engineer turned artist – who labelled himself a
‘concepteur lumière’ in the late 1980s, out of which
France’s urban lighting profession grew – is a designer
who works in harmony with the dark. In his urban
lighting projects, from Notre Dame to China’s
Hangzhou Grand Canal, dark is a material, not a void.
Shadow, subtlety and contrast feature on a par with
illumination. But not for the sake of art.
‘Dark infrastructure’, as he describes it, is a heavy-duty tool for planners: to nurture deeper relationships
between people and their city, to prioritise walkers over
wheels, to create wildlife-sensitive city habitats and to
harness in a battle over the next two decades to cut
energy consumption in Paris by a third.
With 20 Paris mayors to please, Narboni’s sometimes
finds himself preaching to convert. But times they are
gradually a-changing, as cities far and near enlist his
design agency, Agence Concepto, to create ambient
nocturnal nightscapes. ‘Today lighting in town planning
is at a turning point between heritage lighting and that
which is capable of recreating social links and changing
the perception we have of a place and the way we
understand it,’ says the 61-year-old.
We meet at his offices in the southern Parisian suburb
of Bagneux and soon after my arrival he spreads out a
2D visualisation of Paris to show me the legacy of the
‘old way’. It features the varying brightness of individual
light installations across 340 heritage buildings and
monuments. Blobs represent levels of dazzle, and the
brighter the light, the bigger the blob. They are all
clustered at the centre, in postcard Paris. But at the outer
reaches of the city limits, where many of the poorest
Parisians live, there are no blobs at all.
Agence Concepto’s first project for the outskirts of Paris is a ring
of LED-illuminated poles that mark the gates of the city along its
encircling ring road