Light: Seoul’s friend — and foe
By Kwaak Je-yup
To some, light is a source of beauty. To others, it irritates.
To the former, the permanently-on lights of Seoul represent the city’s vibrancy and the country’s world-leading technology standards. To the latter, it is sheer pollution and an eyesore that needs to be blocked with thicker drapes.
Therefore, when the Ministry of Environment and the Seoul City government asked Ko Ki-young, one of Korea’s few lighting design experts, and her partners at Bitzro to assess the famous Dongdaemun garment district’s lighting, they presented two contradictory objectives.
“We were asked to remodel 21 buildings in the Dongdaemun area for the project,” she told The Korea Times on Tuesday. “They told us first that the lights should be brighter to foster the area’s commercial activities, wanting to emulate Times Square (of New York). They also said that the lights as they are now are ugly. (The officials) wanted them to be minimized to reduce light pollution.”
Buyongji, a pond in the garden of Changdeok Palace, downtown Seoul, lit up
With a rather sudden change of mayor, the project is stalled at the moment, but light continues to be on politicians and civil servants’ minds.
Last month, the Seoul City announced that all the public lighting devices would be entirely switched to LED lamps by 2018, citing energy efficiency and better luminosity. But Ko urged caution against making big promises too soon.
Though LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, are the next step in lighting technology that can mimic natural light better than earlier technology, there are pitfalls, according to Ko.
“LEDs really took off two years ago receiving all the attention, leading people to mistake it as the ultimate best. But it’s still evolving. Switching to them 100 percent doesn’t seem right.”
The lighting for the Open Plaza (“Yeolin Madang”) of the National Museum of Korea, Yongsan, central Seoul, was completed in consultation with Bitzro & Partners.
Courtesy of Bitzro & Partners
The most common misunderstanding about LEDs is that they automatically save energy, she said. Unlike traditional incandescent or florescent bulbs, LED light is emitted directly below ― without spreading around the source. This means that more lamps are needed to cover the same space. Without the right amount of reflectors, the promises of less power consumption do not hold up.
Similarly, the biggest mistake is just changing the lamps to newer technology without adjusting the structure’s layout.
“It may not be readily visible… but the light condition becomes inconsistent, with the space right below sources A and B very bright but between those points it is darker than before, comparable to a sine curve. That way, if you install LED lights in an area with a high crime rate, it only creates an air of anxiety.”
Seoul’s citizens, young and old, enjoy the color fountains at the Gwanghamun Plaza on Sejongno, downtown Seoul.
/ Korea Times file
So what is so-called good lighting design?
“There is no such thing as a design that pleases everyone. If we can get 60 to 70 out of a hundred, we call it a success. Even if we think it is wonderful, clients can say it is too dark.
If I were forced to distinguish between the good and bad lighting, I would have to see if it as a blunt expression or one that fits in with the rest… a soft, harmonious light.”
The kitsch Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain came to mind, as she said those words. Hyped as the world’s longest bridge fountain, 200 bulbs illuminate its moving flows of water in colors that have nothing to do with a rainbow.
“It feels quite different from the one in the sky, doesn’t it?”
As a positive example, she cited Times Square, arguably the world’s most famous attraction of electric lights. Though the logos _ and colors _ change with the times, the outdoor space is governed by strict regulations. It was revealed in a recent project by American artist Christine Hill that all the electric billboards must be turned on at all times to keep the glow of the square constant. Ko added that the luminosity of the signs are regulated to achieve the right balance as well, unlike around Dongdaemun.
“It’s not fawning over what’s in the West and belittling our own efforts. Rather than the collection of the best-looking eyes, nose and mouth, we see a natural whole face as the most attractive because it has harmony. No one light should stick out,” said Ko.
Ancient Seoul’s main east gate area has no order, she observed. “Every light wants to be the brightest of them all.”
But her consolation is that the lights can be modified much more easily than the concrete structures themselves.
A view of Seoul from Naksan Park, Dongsungdong, downtown Seoul, through a hole on the ancient city wall
“At least we don’t have to totally destroy them and rebuild them.”
She also suggested that the water under Banpo Bridge have a fuller body and its reflected lights be more subtle and natural.
When someone says lighting design, people think of just lamps and light bulbs, i.e. artificial light. But the origin of all light begins with the natural, said Ko. For her, there lies the answer to many of the Korean capital’s problems.
“We are used to the on-off mode of artificial light… but to have this essential element of the environment be so constant while we do so many different things is dangerous.”
For Ko, who also worked for the recent Yeosu Expo’s general lighting scheme, the ideal lighting ― inside and outside ― needs to adjust continuously and interact with natural light to achieve the most comfortable 24-hour cycle for human beings.
“The best light is the one that mimics natural light… and the darkness, too.”
As with any architect or public space designer, she faces the challenges of inflexible civil servants, who often need a lot of cajoling and convincing. “Koreans are at this point are so used to blunt, direct light sources. They now feel uncomfortable in comfortable lighting conditions.
“But after a month or two, they get used to it.”