Lyon - City of Lights
Sunday, 20 January 2002
In recent years a growing number of manufacturers have turned their research teams towards the development of large-scale lighting instruments - big lamps with some of the newer features of modern theatre lighting - in-built colour changing devices, moving yoke, etc.

Why? Well, either the manufacturers are trying to drive new markets having saturated theatre, TV, concert and corporate events with smaller, highly developed models, or alternatively the market researchers have been busy and discovered that there is, in fact, a latent demand out there for such lighting equipment. Personally, I tend to the second view, but there’s no doubt that having once created a beast, chances are someone will find a use for it - witness the large xenon-powered searchlights that are commonplace at festivals and special events. But when we turn our attention to buildings, especially in the UK, we have little beyond the Lloyds Building in the City to inspire us.

Not so in Lyon, where a modern and inevitably Gallic approach to the illumination of buildings has been underway now for many years. Where else would you find the daring imagination to include not only the jewels of Lyon’s architectural heritage, such as the magnificent gothic pile that is the Hotel de Ville - but also the austere concrete tragedies of the Duchère district? "It’s the Toxteth of the city," one lighting designer commented. "It’s a bleak and barren landscape dominated by a 30-storey tower. Other tower blocks dotted around are punctuated by 11 so-called Bars, essentially large concrete blocks that were supposed to add drama, but end up only emphasising the heavy grey atmosphere that pervades the site."

Well, yes, it sounds as though a little lighting might go a long way towards lifting the spirits of such an area. The fact that Lyon’s City fathers are bold enough to be so ‘inclusive’ is laudable; look down any residential street in the UK over Christmas and you discover that the most extravagant displays of festive exterior lighting are often to be found in the most under-privileged areas.

Lyon’s festival of light has its roots in a religious occasion: in 1862 the city survived a plague epidemic and a statue of the Virgin Mary was erected on the Chapelle de Fourvière in gratitude. In subsequent years, to mark the anniversary, people began to place lighted candles in windows throughout the city, a tradition that endures. The modern festival began in 1989 and reached widespread acclaim nine years later when in 1998, the city was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO.

As a lighting event the festival runs from the 6th to the 9th December, the 8th being the traditional day for the passing of the plague, but its impact goes well beyond those few days. Since 1985 the city has been steadily adding light to the environment in ways that support and enhance it in a permanent fashion. Since 1990 a 50-million Franc investment has been committed to a five-year plan that has given birth to spectacular treatments of such sites as the Musée des Beaux-Arts (a 17th Century Abbey), the Opera house, and the Pont de l’Université, to name just three of 267 sites that now sport a fixed installation. Though the figures might sound intimidating, the city claims the cost to the inhabitants runs to just 5 Francs per annum, though it’s important to recognize the support this project has, and continues to receive, from EDF (the local power company), Philips, and many other large employers in the region.

How the festival gives stimulus to the permanent installations is interesting, this year’s treatment of the Duchère district being a prime example. "My partner’s sister saw an advert in a National broadsheet newspaper back in July," explained lighting designer Andy Doig. "The Societé des Eclairagistes [basically the interface between designers and the City] were looking for submissions; I contacted them, laid out my credentials, and was then asked to present a concept for light

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