October 3, 2006

Details Matter: Lessons from Paris

If you've ever been to Paris, you know what a magical place it can be -- especially at night. And that's no accident.

"Nighttime Paris operates on different levels. There is a constant interplay between the permanence and grandeur of monumental Paris and the serendipity and surprise of intimate Paris," writes Elaine Sciolino in a New York Times travel essay.  "The real secret to Paris’s beauty at night can be described in one word: light.

"In some cities, lampposts are designed to light only the sidewalks and streets, so that surrounding buildings recede into darkness. In much of Paris, however, streetlights are attached to the sides of buildings, highlighting the curves and angles of the structures themselves. "

None of this happens by itself. It doesn't happen by starting off with the assumption that public space should be created on the cheap. And it doesn't happen by thinking of aesthetics as a we-can't-afford-it frill.

Lighting the monuments, churches, bridges and public buildings of Paris is not left to chance. The project to adorn the Eiffel Tower with 20,000 flashing lights (they dazzle for 10 minutes every hour on the hour until after 1 a.m.) cost $5 million and involved 40 mountaineers, architects and engineers who had to endure high winds, raging storms, pigeons and bats.

An entire lighting division in City Hall is responsible for choosing the design, style, color, intensity and timing of the lighting for nearly 300 structures.

"Wasted" money? If you asked most Parisians, I believe they'd answer non. Considering the quality of life it offers residents as well as the appeal to tourists worldwide, it looks to be money well spent.

1 comment:

  1. Downtown Natick has installed hip height lights on the sidewalks around the new town hall. It looks nice, on first glance, but the glare as you walk through that area is offensive. The lights are low, shining up into your face as you walk by. And the distraction to a driver makes it nearly impossible to see anyone in the crosswalk at night. Seems like the architects had an idea that didn't work in the real world. Kind of like the old fashioned curved arches that hang over an intersection with streetlights attached. They look good in a drawing, but put into the context with existing telephone poles, cables and wires hanging all around, the beauty is lost. Did they think black decorative Victorian style streetlights could help, when the poles and wires were left in place?
    Looking at the new parking garage behind the Dennison, I have to wonder what they thought when they bought "old fashioned" Victorian fixtures to put above the garage entrance. Did they think it made the parking garage look "old fashioned" too? I never realized there existed parking garages in the Victorian era.