uniform, shadowless, low-contrast lighting. Energy
was cheap, and workplace light levels constantly
rose for two decades, from about 350 to over 1,000
lux. In sixties Europe, the Schnells’ Burolandschaft
(office landscape) design theories, based on personal
communications rather than managerial control,
challenged the sterility and homogeneity of the open-plan desert. But curiously, their re-evaluations did not
extend to the lighting systems.
It took the energy crises of the 1970s to bring the ‘more
light’ approach to office lighting shuddering to a halt.
Cost considerations determined new office lighting
standards – luminous ceilings were ripped out and
replaced by ceiling-recessed reflector ceiling modules,
with bare fluorescent tubes, at maximum spacings,
which projected direct lighting onto the task surface.
Their wide distributions did put light onto vertical
surfaces, to give spaces some visual brightness, but
ceilings remained dark.
In the US this technique was often supplemented by task
lights at the desk, but in the UK these were regarded as
so much ‘clutter’ – and without the integrated desking
systems of the US, presented a ‘hazardous’ wiring
problem. Uniform light levels across the space were
still desirable, with the mysterious figure of 500 lux
being the norm. Meanwhile, high-frequency ballasts
made fluorescents much more efficient.
The arrival of personal computers in the office in the
nineties created new problems – all that light sprayed
around by ceiling fittings created ‘glare’ reflections on
screens that displayed light script on dark backgrounds.
The solution was the dreadful Cat 2 version of the
recessed fitting, the nadir of office lighting, which
projected its light downwards at narrow angles, to
prevent it bouncing back from the screen.
The effect on the office environment was to turn them
into ‘dark caves’ with dingy walls and ceilings and
brightly lit desks and floors… and the huge contrasts
created eye strain and headaches. Then suddenly
computer screens moved to black script against light
backgrounds and the problem disappeared.
In the 21st century, the reaction to Cat 2 – and the need
to cut carbon dioxide emissions – drove a move to
more flexible ‘task and ambient’ lighting, with variable
light levels across the space – and better illumination of
walls and ceilings. Suspended direct-indirect lighting
systems became popular, with more individual local
control. In fact, sophisticated lighting control systems,
partly for visual comfort but mainly to drive down
energy use, have become de rigeur everywhere.
Initially direct-indirect used high-efficiency
fluorescent tubes, but lately even more efficient LEDs
have replaced them. We are even seeing thin, suspended
prismatic LED panels in offices that look suspiciously
like chunks of the post-war ‘luminous ceiling’.
Yes, the lit ambience of many workplaces has improved
in the past two decades – and certainly since pre and
post-war years. However, despite the widespread
recognition, backed up by acres of research, that
natural lighting is the best and most popular form of
workplace lighting (and also happens to be free), those
halcyon daylit schemes of the early 20th century have
still not been repeated in more than a minority of
An engineering office circa 1969,
sporting fluorescent tubes and
minimal task lighting