Civil Twilight’s lunar-resonant streetlighting is a project that won the top honor from Metropolis Magazine’s Next Generation contest in 2007. But we were pleased (but not surprised) to discover that this project is just the tip of the iceberg; the Bay Area-based collective has a slew of other equally-engaging projects in the works (including the mycofarmhouse, in which mushrooms break down and recycle wood-frame buildings). They describe their design process as “brilliant simplicity, across scales and media.” We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. Read on for some more info about their winning streetlights, other projects, their approach to sustainability, and the trio of talent that is Civil Twilight.
On sustainability: “While we feel a sense of responsibility, we aren’t motivated by a grudging sense of duty or ideology, but rather by a general sense of wonder in the world. We try to instill that sense of amazement through our projects—the idea that sustainable design could mean a moonlit walk in the park.”
Emily: How did the lunar streetlight project come to be? What issues were you hoping to address? What design “problems” does the project propose to solve?
Anton Willis: The lunar-resonant streetlight project began as an offshoot of my architecture masters thesis at UC Berkeley. My thesis interest and research concerned lunar architecture—as an alternative to the countless solar-oriented buildings, ancient and contemporary. The project addresses a couple of issues: the energy wasted by unnecessary outdoor lighting, and the light pollution this creates. I grew up in a place with very pristine and
spectacular night skies, so I’m fairly attuned to light pollution—many people in urban areas never realize what they’re missing.
Kate Lydon: Beyond saving energy, the lunar-resonant streetlights are about rekindling a connection to nature in dense urban environments. As a collective, we’re interested in reintroducing a sense of wonder for the natural world–as a way to encourage respect for it. Our approach is resolutely interdisciplinary and our projects, which range from buildings to books, cross scales. Christina Seely, the third member of Civil Twilight, is also working on a parallel project, Lux, photographing the artificial glow produced by major cities, as seen on a NASA map of the world at night.
Emily: In terms of energy/technology, how do the lights work, how are they powered, how do you see them being integrated into existing urban contexts?
AW: We’re developing ways to retrofit existing streetlight fixtures, by simply plugging in new electronics. Dimmable white LEDs replace the standard yellow sodium bulbs, an ultrasensitive photosensor replaces the current twilight-activated photocells, and a microprocessor dimming control connects the two. So when there is ambient moonlight, the light senses it directly and dims down. It reacts to both lunar phases and cloud-cover or other light-changing conditions.
KL: Our plan for implementation is two-tiered. We’re interested in doing custom installations—in parks, at places with a didactic mission such as science museums, and as part of energy-conscious developments. The installations would be opportunities to promote nighttime activities at these sites, which might arrange programming, such as full moon walks, to coincide with the lunar cycle.
AW: In the longer term, we see cities retrofitting existing light grids incrementally. We imagine different planned lighting zones for cities—nighttime commercial areas might remain more brightly lit, while residential areas convert to lunar-resonance. We are also interested in packaging lunar-resonant technology with other green systems, such as integrated solar lights which could be net power generators rather than consumers—this would also bring in nice a solar/lunar duality.
Christina Seely, Anton Willis, and Kate Lydon with Horace Havemeyer and Susan Szenasy of Metropolis
Emily: What implications does the lunar-resonant lighting project have in terms of sustainability?
KL: The combined effect of converting to LEDs and lunar-resonance saves a huge amount of energy (our research indicates about 85%). And, of course, LEDs last much longer than sodium-vapor bulbs, and are dimmable. But we
don’t think sustainability will ever reach its potential if it is only about invisible technical innovations.
AW: Beyond the specific energy savings, we would like to see the discussion about sustainability expand to a more experiential definition. This project is very much about changing people’s perceptions and experiences of night, lighting, and natural cycles; making those kinds of connections should be a key part of sustainable design.
Civil Twilight’s Mycofarmhouse project
Emily: What other types of work do you guys do and what are some of the underlying themes in your projects?
KL: We’re interested in brilliant simplicity, across scales and media. In some ways, we see the lunar streetlights as ‘undesign.’ They could alter our perception of cities at night, enhance the experience of taking a moonlit urban stroll, connect people to the lunar cycle, and we hope encourage moon-based activities, all with components that plug into existing fixtures.
Like the streetlights, our other design work explores how the built environment engages natural phenomena, to both practical and poetic ends. We’re working on a small mixed-use development designed around walking paths
and focused on innovative green materials. The mycofarmhouse uses mushrooms (a current obsession) to break down and recycle wood-frame buildings (and have them for dinner!).
Emily: What role and/or responsibility do you think you and other designers have in terms of sustainability and contributing to green ventures?
AW: While we feel a sense of responsibility, we aren’t motivated by a grudging sense of duty or ideology, but rather by a general sense of wonder in the world. We try to instill that sense of amazement through our projects—the idea that sustainable design could mean a moonlit walk in the park.