Beyond Buildings


Against Fluorescents

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Nelson Lamp


This morning, I installed my birthday present: a George Nelson "cigar" lamp.  As fresh and sensuous of form as when it was designed, the lamp will help me fight the dimming of the days in months to come.  Inside the package, however, was a nasty surprise: a compact fluorescent. Is nothing sacred?

In a recent review of what sounds like a wonderful exhibition on the genius of everyday objects at the far-away Vitra Museum outside Basel, Switzerland, the always-perceptive Alice Rawsthorn comments:

It’s also easy to see why we should treasure economy, pragmatism and longevity in a deepening environmental crisis. Though one object in both “Hidden Heroes”  and “Humble Masterpieces” doesn’t quite fit that picture. It’s the incandescent lightbulb, which embodies the utilitarian virtues of cheapness, practicality, simplicity and so on, except when it comes to energy. Only 15 percent of the electricity it consumes is used to create light; the rest disappears as heat.


The lightbulb industry has spent a fortune developing energy-efficient alternatives, but so far none has matched the warm, soulful light that makes the incandescent bulb so special. And unless one succeeds, it won’t qualify as a design “hero,” hidden or otherwise.


Say it, Alice. It is one of my pet peeves: the march of those compact fluorescent tubes hiding, like tsetse flies, inside perfectly standard lampshades, waiting, with that moment’s delay so peculiar to their species, to zap your vital bodily fluids with barely perceptible, high-pitched whine and emaciating light. I don’t care how much the manufacturers fiddle with the tints and the combinations of gasses, those Faustian alchemists will never be able mask the utter deadness of fluorescent light. It is good for artworks by the likes of Dan Flavin, and that is about it.

What is worse is the fact that fluorescent light denotes a cheapness peculiar to public and semi-public spaces on which we do not want to spend any money. How many hours have we spent in waiting rooms, windowless conference rooms, or, worst of all, commuter trains late at night, bathed without mercy in a light so even and so without any tint that it makes you feel like a corpse? Fluorescents turn us all into zombies, or at least make us appear and feel that way.

When I was in architecture school, a lighting expert that was brought in to teach us the basics of that aspect of design suddenly went on a rampage about how sustained exposure to fluorescents make you weaker. He exposed one arm to incandescent light, then to a fluorescent, and showed how you were less able to lift something in the second case. I am not sure there was any scientific basis to his position, but I needed little convincing. The experience of sitting in fluorescent light is horrid enough.

I used to have a rule about hotel rooms: If they had only fluorescent lights, I would not even check in. These days, you can’t avoid those miniature emanators of evil in even the most upscale hostelries.

Worst of all is that my love of incandescents is a guilty one: As Rawsthorn indicates, they are about as environmentally wasteful as you can get. That “warm, soulful light” also has connotations of old-fashioned and no doubt retardataire spaces. To be modern, responsible, and rational, you should embrace those tubes of gas oscillating with just the merest hint of electricity. 

If only we can hold out, salvation is around the corner. The price of LEDs is coming down rapidly, and the technology that allows those lights to be tuned and adjusted to something like warmth and subtlety is advancing just as fast. The engineers at Philips and GE are working hard to come up with other alternatives ahead of EU regulations that will within two years make the love of the lightbulb not only guilty, but illegal.

Forgive me, Gaia—for the foreseeable future, I will be wasting energy every time I flick the switch and turn on my 100-watt bulb inside the sensuous curve of my new lamp to write this blog.




Comments (5 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 1:11 PM Saturday, September 11, 2010

    Here's a great CFL ....

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:36 AM Thursday, September 02, 2010

    There are many places CFLs just don't work well. Appliances such as refrigerators and ovens due to Cold & Heat. Outside lights due to extreme cold weather.And surprisingly, Ceiling fans due to vibration. I've tried CFLs in my ceiling fans and what I can only assume was due to the vibration had the CFLs fail at the joint where the light contacts the base. And when they failed they started to burn.There were scorch marks on 3 of the 4 lights I had in the fan. Luckily I was in the room at the time and smelled something burning so it didn't catch the house on fire. Until CFLs or LEDs can provide a dependable & cost efficient light, I'm stiking with incandescent lights.

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  • Posted by: Steve Mouzon | Time: 10:08 AM Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    Far better to need less electric lighting by designing thin buildings that daylight well. They also cross-ventilate well. Big blob buildings of recent decades fail in many aspects of sustainability, including being almost totally dependent on mechanical means of conditioning.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:44 AM Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    LED's can achieve the same color temperature as incandescent light bulbs. Art fags would rather complain than figure out a solution.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 9:13 AM Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    We won't have a livable planet, but at least will have someones idiosyncratic notion of beauty; won't that be nice.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.