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Design Brief
Automatic Beauty: A history of streetlight design in Los Angeles (Continued)

In 1905 the City installed more than 130 electroliers along Broadway, an effort financed by the Broadway Boulevard Association, which organized an assessment of its members to raise the funds. This became a typical arrangement, with private developers or groups of merchants paying the city to install lights which they believed would bring not just illumination but sophistication and in turn be good for foot traffic and business.


This period also marked the beginning of high-design streetlights; earlier concerns about taking care of basic safety and technology now gave way to what Feldman calls “the city’s first incandescent ornamental system.” Hill, Spring, and Main streets soon installed similar lighting in an effort to compete with Broadway, producing a nighttime effect that began to draw wide notice. In The City Beautiful, his extensive 1909 report on Los Angeles to the Mayor, the City Council, and the Board of Municipal Art Commissioners, the journalist and urban theorist Charles Mulford Robinson singled out L.A.’s street lighting for praise, calling Los Angeles “the most beautifully lighted city in the world.” He added: “The lights are so fine, the effects on the city so beautiful and so rare in this country, that they deserve all the protection and development you can give them.”


A decade later a gas-filled lamp called the Mazda C emerged as a significant upgrade over the incandescent bulbs that had filled the early Llewellyns. Providing stronger light and more reliability, the Mazda C helped propel a new version of the electrolier featuring dual upright lamps, modeled on torches. It wasn't until 1911, with the establishment of the Board of Municipal Art Commissioners, that the Los Angeles began a formal approval process for new streetlight designs. The City's role in this realm grew again in 1916 when it took on the responsibility of delivering municipal power to streetlights. In August of that year the City installed its own streetlights for the first time, lighting Sycamore Park in northeast Los Angeles.


In 1925 the City created the Bureau of Street Lighting, the sponsor and organizer of this design competition. The primary task of the new office was to provide power and maintenance to streetlights that had been chosen (and their installation funded) by developers from a list of City-approved designs. It was also around this time that Los Angeles began installing a basic, utilitarian streetlight, frequently made up of a simple lamp attached to a timber pole and paid for from the city’s General Fund. The result, according to Prosser, “was that the poorer areas of the city had a sparser and less attractive system of street lighting than the better-off neighborhoods.”


As Los Angeles grew quickly in the latter half of the 1920s, streetlight designs proliferated and became central to efforts by commercial districts along Wilshire Boulevard and in Westwood Village to distinguish themselves from other, older sections of Los Angeles. Often these poles included special attachments so they could carry wires for the region's expansive streetcar network -- one kind of electrified modernism supporting another.


New subdivisions, too, used specialized electroliers to mark their aesthetic (and class) aspirations. Upscale residential districts are still recognizable by their handsome upright designs from this period, many featuring acorn-shaped globes above poles with fluted, classically inspired shafts. (Reproductions often stand in these days for the originals.) The profusion of streetlight styles was such that by 1925 the City Electrician, R.H. Manahan, would complain that “there are too many designs approved for Los Angeles at present.”


In 1936, electricity produced by Hoover Dam, completed the year before, allowed the City to illuminate more territory by streetlight. That same decade, two significant changes paved the way for the post-World War II designs to come. The first saw upright forms give way to pendants -- with lamps in the shape of teardrops, facing downward toward the street and sidewalk -- attached to horizontal arms extending from the pole. The second change was in the technology of the lighting itself, with High-Intensity Discharge lamps that ignited a gas (mercury vapor when these so-called HIDs first came onto the scene) taking the place of incandescents.


The new teardrop luminaires that relied on both of these changes were more powerful than the earlier streetlights, providing 400 watts of illumination. They were also longer-lasting, needing replacement every four years instead of once or twice per year. In their first decades of existence streetlights had been akin to landscape as a presence in the public realm, requiring frequent maintenance just as trees and planted medians do. By World War II they were beginning to behave at least a bit more like buildings, which is to say they needed the sort of attention measured in years instead of months, days or even hours.


The comparison to buildings is useful. Though historians have noted the wide variety of streetlights that emerged in Los Angeles in the period between the World Wars, that diversity is no match for the design range of the city's most prominent architecture in those decades. There is a wider gap, stylistically and tonally speaking, between an Art Deco office tower by Claud Beelman and a Maya-Revival concrete-block house by Frank Lloyd Wright, or between a streamlined example of residential modernism by Richard Neutra and a Spanish Colonial pile by Myron Hunt, than between a Five-Globe Llewellyn and a Benedict Canyon Pendant. The organizers of this competition are keen to see not simply whether the entries include any nods to classicism but indeed whether the range of streetlight design approaches, already wide in comparison to other American cities, might be extended even further in the 21st century. Even as we seek a new standard pole, we hope to choose that standard from a rich variety of proposed options, some of which may include references to history or new approaches to ornament or decoration.


The years following World War II brought another population explosion to Los Angeles. With it came a third era of significance in streetlight design, based on advances in HID technology. Some new designs were linked  in spirit to the Mid-Century Modernism of the region's newest residential architecture while others were merely more efficient versions of what had come before. The streamlined forms of postwar streetlights, in other words, were sometimes produced by an interest in modernism and sometimes merely by a desire, assisted by new lighting technology, in moving away from ornamentation in the name of efficiency.


The basis of this streetlight in terms of design was the “davit,” a name borrowed from a hoist used in boating. It used a streamlined version of the pendant electrolier, with its arm extending horizontally from the pole and a lamp facing down toward the street. Over time, especially after sodium replaced mercury as the most common gas in HID lighting, these lights grew more powerful. Lamps were housed inside larger optical assemblies that included prisms to direct the light more broadly across the landscape. This allowed for an increase in size – higher pole longer arms, placed further apart – appropriate to the broader boulevards of the newer suburban districts. The result was a return of sorts to the earliest Los Angeles electric streetlights, the Brush lamps, which also had little connection to pedestrian scale.


The most common davit form, familiar by the 1960s, was known as the “cobra head.” As used in the standard streetlight design the result was a skinny unadorned pole holding a curved horizontal arm that extended toward the roadway and held a large optical assembly. The utilitarian design of this form seemed to concede that the focus of urban design on Los Angeles streets was the car, rather than the pedestrian or some careful balance among several kinds of users of the public right of way. Unlike several versions of upright streetlight design or clusters of globes atop some Llewellyns -- approaches that tended to cast light ecumenically -- this light was in service solely of the automotive realm. 


Los Angeles was not alone in this shift of emphasis. In his 1965 book Urban Design: The Architecture of Towns and Cities, Paul R. Spreiregen observed that American cities on the whole had “completely neglected pedestrian lighting” for several decades. He urged planners and urban designers to remember that effective streetlight design “is not only a matter of of a fine pole and lamp—it is a matter of the total appearance of the street and road and its lights seen together.” This competition asks entrants to consider both the automotive scale and all users of the sidewalk and keep that “total appearance of the street” in mind.


It was around this period that the city first began requiring streetlights to be installed as part of all new development projects. There may be native Angelenos, born in the postwar period, who regard the cobra head with some degree of nostalgia, but the practicality of its basic form, as typically installed, seems to repel the very idea of emotional attachment. Nonetheless, custom versions of the davit streetlight did bring some innovation and charisma to streetlight design in this period. Particularly in newly developed parts of the city or in sections remade by redevelopment, such as Bunker Hill, streetlights were able to achieve both formal efficiency and a certain grace.


The Wilshire Double, with dual davits, and the Van Nuys, with triple, are among the most impressive examples, though the most effective design from this period is arguably the Century City Special, from the 1960s. It was made of aluminum -- Alcoa was a sponsor of the Century City development project -- and featured a single sweeping form combining pole and arm, with a large, white, globe-shaped pendant bulb. It was an effective rejoinder to the idea that a Los Angeles streetlight, to be elegant as well as practical, needed to take its cues from classicism. Here the division of the streetlight into base, shaft and capital was dispensed with entirely, producing a streamlined form that had more to do with chairs by Charles and Ray Eames or even aerospace design than with earlier lighting examples from the streets of Los Angeles.


In rare cases, such as the Hollywood Boulevard Special, with its row of oversized stars, a gesture owing something to Pop Art, some ornament did sneak back into the equation. To the extent that the decorative impulse suggested by that design was connected to an emerging post-modernist sensibility, which saw architecture of the 1970s and 1980s begin to incorporate ornamental details and references to history, it was no surprise that in the years that followed Angelenos began to rediscover examples from the golden age of streetlight design in the city. Developers of new residential and commercial projects are now able to choose from a list of BSL-approved streetlights that includes a number of historic designs in reproduction.


The 1970s also gave rise to concerns, first raised by astronomers, about light pollution and the effects of urban lighting on our ability to see stars in the night sky and on humans’ circadian rhythms. This led in turn to worries about how bright lights might affect wildlife, particularly nocturnal animals. This competition aims to be sensitive to these concerns and other issues raised by the dark-sky movement. 


Among the most significant milestones in street lighting in Los Angeles came in 2009, when BSL began installing lamps employing Light Emitting Diodes, or LEDs. (Across the country, the adoption of LED lighting was a key element of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the so-called stimulus package approved the U.S. Congress in response to the economic crisis of 2008.) Smaller, lighter and more efficient than the lamps they replaced, LEDs represent a leap forward in lighting technology as great as any in the history of streetlight design in Los Angeles. They also raised questions, when they were first installed, about the tone of the light they cast and even produced some nostalgia for the diffuse effect of sodium lamps; over time, however, LEDs have proved able to balance energy-efficiency with light quality.


In Los Angeles streetlight LEDs are now in the range of 3,000 Kelvin, a drop from 4,000 Kelvin when LEDs were introduced a decade ago. (A higher Kelvin number is associated with a bluer and in some cases harsher light, a lower one with a warmer, yellower tone.) We encourage competitors to consider the relationship between the design of the streetlight and its various components and the particular quality of light produced by the LED systems now in operation in the City of Los Angeles.


Indeed, in our view the design implications of the shift to LED-powered streetlights have yet to be fully explored. Certain lighting projects here and around the country -- a new streetlight chosen for New York City in a 2004 competition as well as new streetlights for Los Angeles International Airport Central Terminal Area, installed in 2016 -- have demonstrated new design avenues made possible by LEDs. Yet much remains to be achieved in this area.


This competition is well timed, we think, to take advantage of new urban-design opportunities afforded by continuing technological advances in energy-efficient  lighting. At the same time it will require competitors to resolve, or at least grapple with, a seeming contradiction in the design of contemporary streetlights, in Los Angeles as elsewhere. LEDs are small and light enough to be carried on a narrow and streamlined pole. Yet in other ways we are looking to streetlights to help us achieve more objectives in the right of way than ever. These include a renewed focus on pedestrian amenities along, and accessibility for all users of, L.A. streets; designs that would allow the poles to hold shade sails or other cooling devices, a pressing need in many parts of Los Angeles as climate change brings more days of extreme heat; the addition of charging equipment for electric vehicles or sensors to measure air quality or lower the intensity of streetlights during a full moon; and spaces for the written word, to make room for poetry about Los Angeles, for instance, or descriptions of community history or nearby architectural landmarks.


This competition takes pains to avoid a prescriptive approach. We would be pleased if we received a range of entries -- streamlined, elegant designs for a new streetlight with a modernist or Minimalist sensibility as well as ones including nods to history or contemporary culture. We encourage designs that test whether a new era of design ambition, with or without ornament, is possible for the Los Angeles streetlight. There has been an assumption that thoughtfully designed streetlights won’t be cost-effective compared to utilitarian ones and that, as a result, the days of striking streetlight design are over. Yet as Feldman reminds us, “The City’s purchasing power in this respect is something to be reckoned with.”


The key in all cases will be a design that is able to be produced efficiently and cost-effectively at volume. Our goal is to introduce a new standard worthy of the rich history of streetlight design in the city -- and worthy, one day, of inclusion in any summary of the ways in which Los Angeles began to turn renewed attention and investment to the design of the public realm in the first decades of the 21st century.


Broadway electrolier


Benedict Canyon Pendant


Cobra Head street light


Century City Special


Van Nuys triple


LAX Curbside Appeal and

Roadway Improvement Project

Further reading:


The following resources may be of interest to applicants:


A history prepared by the Bureau of Street Lighting:


Photographs of historic L.A. streetlight designs:


Daniel Prosser’s detailed streetlight history, prepared for the Department of City Planning’s Survey L.A.:

Eddy S. Feldman’s 1972 book The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles, published by Dawson’s Book Shop and available from the Los Angeles Public Library:

Details of the Los Angeles World Airports’ “Curbside” program, which included the introduction of a newly designed streetlight in the Central Terminal Area:

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