Bureau of Street Lighting Museum
Introduction to the L.A. Lights the Way Competition
In 2014, the artist Chris Burden, in describing his installation “Urban Light,” which consists of 202 cast-iron streetlights arranged along Wilshire Boulevard as a sort of open-air temple marking the entrance to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, said something that has stuck with the organizers of this competition. The design of streetlights, he noted, reveals something important “about what constitutes a civilized and sophisticated city, safe after dark and beautiful to behold.”
That paired goal -- the marriage of safety to beauty, efficiency to charisma -- is central to the L.A. Lights the Way competition. Many of the historic Los Angeles streetlights we now cherish for their élan were designed as site-specific streetlights for neighborhoods within the City of Los Angeles or for certain cities within what is now Los Angeles County. Over time, we have lost some to removal or damage, leaving us with the impression that they somehow stand apart from the process of basic street lighting. In fact, for many decades there was no meaningful distinction between a Los Angeles streetlight that aimed to be beautiful and one dedicated to the basic task of illuminating the city at night; elegance was a programmatic requirement of the streetlight just as lumens were.
It is also worth underscoring that streetlights don’t simply shape the character of the public realm after dark. “During the day street lighting does not dominate the environment as it does at night, but its design is nonetheless important in the daytime image of the city,” William C. Lam wrote in Architectural Record in 1965, expressing a sentiment that holds true today. “If well designed, luminaires and poles can be very positive elements of continuity and organization in the daytime appearance of the city, and they can provide a base around which to relate many of the other street furnishings.” One goal of this competition is to broaden how we think about the streetlight’s daytime role.
Technological advances have allowed the light itself inside a streetlight to become smaller, lighter, less expensive, and more reliable over time. This suggests a range of new design possibilities, as evidenced by some of the most impressive streetlights that have been installed in recent years in cities around the world.
Los Angeles now has a chance to combine our rich streetlight tradition with the freedom opened up by progress in lighting technology to produce a standard design emblematic of 21st-century Los Angeles.