Mind & Matter


Shanghai Diary: the City Electric

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Evening light show at the Shanghai Expo 2010. Photo by Blaine Brownell.

In City of Light, Lauren Belfer recounts the original electrification of the City of Buffalo in advance of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. To the visitors’ amazement, the evening landscape was transformed into a richly illuminated environment, far outshining the gas lamps to which people were accustomed.

Just over a century later, the Shanghai Expo 2010 attempts to advance this vision of an other-worldly, nocturnal urbanism at an unprecedented scale for a world's fair. Indeed, one who only visits the expo by day misses half the experience, for the Expo site completely transforms itself at dusk. For many of the pavilions, the exterior lighting design is as important as the design of the façade itself, and pavilion lighting schemes range from predictable to surprising. (One expects the solar powered LED buttons on the Swiss pavilion to illuminate, for example, but not the neon tubes that serve as the panel joints of the Portugal pavilion.)

Many of the pavilions are marvels of luminous design, but are best enjoyed independently, since public spaces fronted by multiple clashing light shows quickly become visually chaotic. (As a general rule, motion and flashing in lighting programs should be limited—and the popular LED “color-cycling technique” has likely run its course.) Moreover, one might question the environmental sustainability intentions of pavilions that blast blinding quantities of lumens into the night sky.

However, something magical is also at work here. The experience one has standing along the Huangpu River on the Pudong side—as illuminated fountains pulsate synchronously with music, and urban-scaled LED nets are mirrored in a vast reflecting pool—is perhaps as impressive in our time as the Buffalo expo light show was to visitors a century ago. We are also reminded of the power of light to create a second, nocturnal life for architecture.




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.