APPELT: In 2005, when I designed the lighting for the lake shore in Bregenz and for your own project at the Bregenz Festspielhaus, you said you understood my design and that it was exactly right for places like this, but that it raised the question of how to get people to appreciate a project where the lighting was so unobtrusive. So how do you get people to appreciate it? That’s exactly the issue at hand. That’s why I’d like to start our discussion with the example of Bregenz.

VOGT: Why did I like what you did in Bregenz so much? What kind of urban space is it exactly? It lies between the Kunsthaus, the railway station and the Festspielhaus, all buildings that are intensively illuminated, that signify “city” in an extreme way. And between them you have the lake shore, which is supposed to function as a park, as an area of open countryside, and as “nature” itself, all at the same time. How you employ light is crucial here. At one end you’ve got the Kunsthaus, which Turell once illuminated like a Japanese lantern, at the other end is the Festspielhaus. When there’s a festival on, it needs lots of lighting. But what about the space in between? To operate there, you need a response by the lighting that’s ultimately urban in character. In nature, when the light is filtered by a tree, the atmosphere keeps changing. And I think this is still a relevant principle for the use of artificial lighting. There are lots of places in urban situations where this way of using light – I don’t mean the technical aspect – is the right one.

APPELT: The ideas for the Bregenz project anticipated Langsames Licht / Slow Light. I was already interested in a sustainable and aesthetically sensitive use of lighting and space. The outlet plan for the positioning of the lights is crucial, too. Natural landscapes in particular allow you to define very beautiful nocturnal spaces. And yet most architects keep on drawing up their outlet plans according to the same old template. I think one of the biggest problems is still a lack of knowledge about light or a lack of understanding of light as a medium, of darkness.

VOGT: I’ve never seen really good lighting design by town planners or architects, only by artists.  You could say that’s an objectionably élitist attitude, but I’m fascinated by how artists work with lighting. I’m irritated by urban design concepts like the Plan Lumière in Zurich, or the “lighting master plan” in Lyon. Of course it’s good that they’re making an effort, and I understand the idea behind it - to bring all these various elements of the city under one umbrella - but even so I think their reasoning is wrong. It’s much more important to elicit the specific peculiarities of the situation - I’m convinced this is where the future lies. These urban intermediate zones are the hardest to light correctly - correctly in the sense that, when it comes down to it, people feel comfortable there. In this context, the notion of work as a process is absolutely crucial. I think that’s the path we’ve got to take. We have to free ourselves from this fascination with technology, which has exploded unbelievably in the last ten or twenty years. What’s much more exciting is to use technology as a tool and to work with it creatively. I find that fascinating.

APPELT: That’s exactly how I see it. It’s important to see the available technology as a tool that enables creative solutions. It’s the same with musical instruments. A Stradivarius is a little masterpiece just in itself, as an instrument, but it also matters how well the musician uses this tool. It can be played with mere technical competence, and it might still sound good, or it can be played with sensitivity and intuition, and then it acquires an artistic added value, this special sound. So on the one hand the tool itself is important, and on the other hand how it’s used. In the same way, your designs begin with a profound understanding of the individual sites and are then realised using carefully chosen materials. That’s what creates these landscapes, these spaces, these images, which open up access to their own associative worlds for the people who use them. So the question is how to use lighting technology as a tool.

VOGT: Claude Lévi-Strauss put it very well when he said there are two kinds of creativity. One is that of the engineer, who has an overview of the problem, plans out the solution and uses whatever means and techniques are needed to achieve it, and the other kind, the opposite kind, is that of the bricoleur, the DIYer, who hasn’t got much in the way of tools and techniques at his disposal and has to use, to put it bluntly, whatever he can scrape together. And the best you’ll come up with in those circumstances is a bit of poetic bricolage. I don’t fit into either category, and neither do a couple of other firms. We’re sneaky, we adapt our way of working according to the problem at hand. Sometimes we function like engineers and sometimes like bricoleurs. If lots of things are available, we use those, and if there isn’t much available, we have to improvise.  When it comes to lighting there’s this fascination with all the technological possibilities, and I think a lot of people make the mistake - which can be a good thing sometimes - making use of all that technology just because it’s so fascinating. But really you need to decide in advance what you want to do and then choose your technology on that basis. I see a lot of projects that are shaped by the technology and the tools, and most of the time that’s a limitation. But if I pick up a tool because there’s something specific I want to achieve with it, then for me that’s an expansion, I find that much more interesting.
That’s what we planned to do in Basle. We wanted to implement the Bregenz lighting concept again, this time in the little park by the station square. It’s a similar situation, the station square experiences the same urban over-determination, there are pedestrians, cars, trams, and then this park, this transitional space between the station and the city, inhabited by the socially marginalised. It was a bit dark, there were lots of trees that cast a lot of shade, but it had some great atmospheres. Then there’s a secondary school opposite and a pavilion where the kids hang out and all kinds of people are out and about at all times of the day and night. We said we’d take the undergrowth out so that only the trees were left with their trunks, and we needed benches. The space’s choreography is more concentrated on the corridor space at night, in the daytime people sit around more. But instead of opting for a solution like the Bregenz design, the lighting was very conventional, static, bright. So now people sit there and are subject to social control.

APPELT: So the original plan was to design a kind of oasis in the city, for the evenings as well? The place works well in the daytime because the natural light divides it up into light spaces and shady spaces, but it doesn’t work at night because all the light from the city lights up the park as well, in a more or less conventional fashion, so the nocturnal atmosphere is purely urban?

VOGT: Yes. We wanted the various different areas to lead into each other, so that you come out of this glaring urban light into a more weakly lit space, which is still influenced by the excess light from the city at the edges. You were supposed to be welcomed by the light and guided by it. The way the paths are lit at night is crucial here. Anyone who arrives after midnight by train has to walk through the park because the trams have stopped running. Lots of tiny design elements determine whether a park works and how socially safe it is. The only one we didn’t get right was the lighting, and that shows you the limits of technology.

APPELT: It’s precisely when you want to use lighting to guide people that you need a more sophisticated set of technological options, at least if you’re going to do it well. The light source shouldn’t be in the foreground. It’s the light itself that shows the way, without drawing attention to itself. Light can guide people onwards, or create spaces for them to linger in, it offers the possibility of following various courses of action. Of course, this only works if we understand the space before we design the lighting, if we let ourselves feel it viscerally and integrate shadow spaces as well as light spaces.

VOGT: Yes, the choreography of the lighting is crucial. Of course I think it’s great to be guided without realising it.  It’s like an invitation - I can accept it or reject it. But it has to be said that it becomes very expensive as soon as it’s applied to a specific situation. It can’t be justified in the context of traditional lighting planning, it becomes an art installation - which is fine by me, but it’s a different approach. If we want this kind of quality, then we either have to change the market, or we take lighting design out of this very severe, very technological perspective of classical lighting planning and treat it as art.

APPELT: I think it’s important that people from various different disciplines, who have a similar attitude, should come together to try to find suitable solutions.

VOGT: We work with an Indian architect who does a lot of work with artists and craftspeople. That’s part of the Indian tradition. I’ve seen an office building he designed working with six or seven artists who had to address specific tasks, such as solar shading and light filtering. So each small-scale problem was solved by a work of art. What really impressed me about this Indian architecture is that everything is more loosely formulated. I don’t want to start a quarrel, but when an artist has to tackle that kind of problem, we aren’t talking about fine art any more, it’s something more in the direction of...

APPELT: In the direction of arts-and-crafts, or design. That reminds me of an example from the late 1950s. The architect Werner Ruhnau invited artists to come and live in his theatre in Gelsenkirchen while it was being built and to create artwork for the theatre. One of them was Yves Klein, what’s probably his biggest sponge relief was created in Gelsenkirchen. Werner Ruhnau told me that he discussed all the potential building problems with the artists, from details like door handles to technical and spatial issues. So they found practical artistic solutions to these problems through interdisciplinary cooperation.

VOGT: An alternative direction would be a purely functional, technological approach. There’s hardly any area that has such a superfluity of technology as lighting. In our library far and away the biggest product section is lamps and lights. The lighting industry produces so much stuff, something for every - so they believe - specific situation. But all that tells us is that there are millions of different specific situations. There’s a vast array of products that all do something better than the others but nothing really well. Either we go more in the direction of art, or the lighting industry offers us semi-finished products, which would mean that I get a tool that I can tinker with and adapt to that particular situation. If the artistic approach is too expensive in a given domain, then at least I can transform it a bit myself.  In the field of architecture we have that for indoor applications, but not external light. After all, artificial lighting is an incredibly young discipline.

APPELT: Yes, a hundred years ago everyone took darkness for granted, even in urban areas.

VOGT: Nowadays when I go into a beautiful church my first thought is always, “What did this look like without artificial lighting?” When there are 6000 candles and 1000 people that makes the atmosphere impressively warm. We keep forgetting that these buildings were actually built for that kind of lighting and not for artificial light. That’s why you hardly ever see a church that’s well-lit. And in the areas outside there were gas lamps. They give off an incredible light. I always used to wonder where that fascinating green comes from in Duchamp. It comes from the gaslight, a poisonous green that I find incredibly interesting. But nine times out of ten it isn’t something you can use appropriately. We did once try to use gaslight and then we realised we needed an artist for this. So we got Olafur Eliasson. It would have fitted in perfectly, the building stood on a hill in front of a glacier landscape, but in the end we decided it was too problematic environmentally. You can’t do a project like that on your own, you need interdisciplinary input. Lots of traditional architects want to employ an artistic approach to lighting design, but unfortunately they don’t put it into practice.

APPELT: No, not at all. I’ve never seen anything like that in traditional lighting design.

VOGT: I’m not saying that art is better, it’s simply a different profession. Not just where tools are concerned, the design strategies are completely different. When I see that things are going in a direction where I feel out of my depth, I can get some interdisciplinary input. Funnily enough, we sometimes have disagreements with my colleagues or with the architects but never with artists, not once. Only sometimes the artists almost ask too much of me. Sol LeWitt wanted me to set up his work in a park. That cost me a few sleepless nights. I’m always saying to my students, “You can’t just put up pedestals, that went out with Brancusi, the artist is the one who has to choose the location.” And then someone comes along and tells me to decide where his work should stand. That just goes to show how much we’re governed by dogmas, unlike artists. Of course I put in a lot of intensive work trying to find the right location. He thought it was great what an effect that had on how the sculpture was perceived. I learned a great deal from that, in particular a great respect for other disciplines. We’re doing a project in a park now that’s on Mount Rigi, a massif that Turner painted. The three paintings are in the Tate and there’s this note where Turner says that in Switzerland he misses the twilight. I always used to wonder what he meant by that. I can see twilight and he says there isn’t any. How am I supposed to deal with that? This half-light is almost the most intriguing thing of all, and painters get to the heart of the issue. What matters isn’t so much what’s depicted but the atmosphere created by the light. The architect wanted to put up candelabra lights in the park in front of Mount Rigi. And I said, “Not in front of Mount Rigi! We need to show some respect, for Turner’s sake!”

APPELT: Light in painting is a fascinating topic. The historian Stephan Gregory recently sent me an essay in which he refers to a study by Wolfgang Schöne, who writes about intrinsic light and external light in paintings, in other words, paintings that appear to emanate light themselves and paintings that depict light.

VOGT: One of my favourite photos of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture is of one of his villas in the Mid-West. You can almost smell the scent of the cigars in the picture with its English leather chairs. It’s all fairly dark, but there are about nine light sources that you can’t see. This heavy Cuban cigar leather is reinforced by the light, without the light I wouldn’t smell the cigars. The atmosphere is like being in a gentleman’s club that smells faintly of whisky and I can see that in the photo, I can smell that in the photo. I couldn’t smell that without the light. When light stimulates a completely different sense organ then it becomes almost olfactory. That might sound like an exaggeration, that I can smell the cigars because of the light.

APPELT: On the contrary, precisely this kind of very fine sensory perception gets neglected far too often.

VOGT: It was only when I analysed the picture that I saw how it worked. It’s the light sources, a side light on the wall, a dim light by a chair, that create this atmosphere. But no one actually employs this strategy. We almost managed it in Bregenz...

APPELT: We’ve come a lot further with Langsames Licht / Slow Light. In terms of creating awareness of light, as well.

VOGT: One of my goals is to show young people what I mean. A playground and the lighting, those are two things that are fraught with highly dogmatic ideology. A kid falling over is something we can’t begin to imagine these days. I’m always asking my students, “How were you socialised?” When I fell over and hurt myself, then I cried and my mother picked me up and comforted me, and of course I cried a bit longer so she would hold me for longer. You have to be allowed to get a scratch sometimes, you have to cry sometimes, you have to learn to feel that when you hurt yourself, there’s someone there who’ll look after you. Without that, you can’t grow up. You need to have this experience. And lighting is about how far you can experience a city. An architect once told me that he was mugged in Zurich on a dark path and ever since he’s felt unsafe whenever there isn’t enough light. That’s never happened to me, but we’ve got an English member of staff who was attacked and spent three days in hospital. The first thing he said was, “I didn’t speak to them, there was no shouting, nothing. It was dark!” I find that very interesting.

APPELT: I suspect the whole area was probably dark. In my experience with lighting, it’s very easy to make the space visible by using particular points of light. You look through the dark space to the next lighter space and you’ve got a destination. The fact that the space is visible is reassuring. I’m guessing it was completely dark when this attack happened.

VOGT: Yes, it was in that particular case. I know the circumstances.

APPELT: I think it’s actually more reassuring when the space is made visible by dividing it into dark spaces and light spaces then when it’s completely bright, because unvarying brightness makes you lose your sense of the space and its dimensions. The thing that’s behind it, the darkness, seems much more threatening. Lighting like that can surround you physically in an unpleasant fashion. If you concentrate properly, you can sense that. But if the light spaces are clearly defined, then the spaces open up and you can see through them. You feel lighter, the space feels good to go into and to go through. I call that “clean space”, “clean light”. In contrast, having lots of dazzling little points of light, which is typical for urban spaces, makes the space feel very untidy and creates this feeling of physical limitation.

VOGT: Speaking of safety, I worry about this tendency towards total surveillance. The Olympics are happening in London next year and we’re doing all the open spaces in the Olympic village, where the 15,000 athletes will live, and that will become ordinary housing estates again once the Olympics are over. This surveillance - we know about it because of the disturbances in London as well. In London there isn’t a single major city street that isn’t completely monitored by surveillance cameras. There are cameras that adapt themselves to people’s movements, that can zoom in closer or change direction. And what does that mean? These cameras need light to function. Whereas if you go for a pleasant night-time walk in Venice, it’s just dark. When you see a light reflected on the dark water, and get absorbed in it instead of thinking “I’m lost,” that’s really lovely. It’s dark and yet at the same time there’s light. You’re not afraid of wandering into an alley because there’ll still be light from private sources, from an apartment, for example. Not that I think that’s how lighting will develop in cities in the future, but if you’ve got an orientation point, then you can just walk towards that.

APPELT: You’ve got a fixed point ahead of you.

VOGT: Exactly. Earlier on, when I was still doing private gardens, I always said to clients, “You need some light in the garden, otherwise you get the black hole phenomenon. If there’s no light outside, you’ll feel threatened in your living room at night because someone could come right up to the window and you wouldn’t see him till he was right there. You need some form of lighting at the back, you need to define this intermediate space.” It’s really lovely, but of course then they always put in too much lighting because they want to eat outside in the evening or throw a party...

APPELT: That kind of staging of space lets you create very picturesque situations, images and stages. If it’s done well and subtly then it makes for an attractively arranged three-dimensional ensemble with landscape, lighting, a path, and all the rest.

VOGT: It’s important that a different space is revealed at night than in the daytime, and lighting is how you achieve that.

APPELT: Let’s go back to the problem of safety. I’ve done a lot of research into this, some of it in cooperation with Micha Christ, a sociologist from Berlin. Of course it’s partly a matter of lighting, how strong the lighting is, how much there is, and so on. We’ve definitely got it into our heads that more light equals more safety. That’s how we’ve been socialised. But other factors are important, too, like how the place is used in general - what happens there, what kind of social encounters take place, how are the people prepared for events like the Olympic games? How does the local council or the city council look after particular places? Just because there’s a lot of light, that doesn’t mean a place is automatically safe, not by a long way. All these factors have to work together. If we start talking about using lighting for guidance, to create situations where people feel comfortable and secure, then we take a step away from total surveillance.

VOGT: During the Olympics, the Olympic village is going to be one of the best-guarded places in London, because of course they don’t want another Munich to happen. Two months later it will be a normal borough with normal security measures. A normal borough in East London not far from Hackney, and before that it was a fortress for two months. That’s the idea of society as a prison, almost exactly as Michel Foucault described it in his essay on heterotopias - places like psychiatric wards, prisons, brothels. And really, I don’t want to be included on that list. The surveillance cameras might be well-intended, but they can also be destructive. My biggest concern is that we may get to do a small project here and there, but all the other ones simply follow the norms. We’ve had several projects where I said I wasn’t happy with the lighting design, but that was what the norm demanded, so that was it. Discussion over. The norm argument wins every time, I haven’t got a chance against it.

APPELT: Norms are an issue that I want to question with Langsames Licht / Slow Light, because they’ve been shifting consistently upwards over the last few years, primarily in the service of economic interests. I don’t think the norms alone are to blame, there are socio-political issues that have to be resolved, too.

VOGT: We’ve got almost no chance there. Our own sociologist agrees that yoking urban lighting and cameras together poses serious dangers. He says of course he’s sorry when crimes happen, it’s a tragedy, but the impact can be a lot more dramatic than that on other levels. For instance, when you can no longer rely on someone coming to your aid if you’re attacked. That gets completely forgotten.

APPELT: Which means that because of the presence of the cameras we no longer feel responsible for what happens around us, so we’re less willing to intervene on behalf of others. That’s an interesting thought. The cameras are a form of higher authority...

VOGT: This linking of lighting and cameras is changing architecture as well. Meili, the architect who did the stadium in Zurich, once showed me how new football stadia, sports stadia, are basically determined by the lighting. Everything is tailored to the TV cameras. There’s an audience of 1.2 billion and they’re the raison d'être for the whole thing. The artificial lighting - the floodlights - determines the structure of these stadia. It’s like an entertainment show. In America they pick out models during the game, that’s the latest trend. The girls sit in the stadium half-naked and the cameras look for them and whenever the game gets dull, they show the girls. The girls go along with it, of course, because then they get projected onto massive screens. It’s not a question of victims and perpetrators, not anymore. What’s interesting is how much the lighting has to do with all this. I hadn’t realised that. Meili said the main problem is the new plasma screens. If they don’t get absolutely top quality images, it looks awful. That’s why so many new stadia are being built, or old ones modified. But that’s a topic that architecture will have to confront more often in the future.

Günther Vogt, 1957 Born 1957 in Liechtenstein. Trained and studied in Switzerland.
Since 2000 owner of Vogt Landscape Architects, Zurich London and Berlin.
Since 2005 Professor for Landscape Architecture at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) Zurich, Department of Architecture.
2012 guest lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
Over the past ten years, Vogt Landscape Architects have designed a wide variety of public and private outdoor spaces in Switzerland and Europe. These include the surroundings of the Allianz Arena in Munich, the garden of the Laban Dance Conservatoire and Tate Modern in London and the grounds of the new Fifa headquarters or the Masoala Rain Forest Hall in Zurich.