4. Activation. iGuzzini Social Lightscape, Timisoara, RO

Researching (and activating) Piata Sinaia

Timisoara, Romania: our third iGuzzini Social Lightscapes Workshop, 7-9 October 2016.

Configuring Light/Staging the Social_Social Lightscapes Timisoara, Romania

Elettra and Don were in Timisoara for the Light.edu Symposium, an international conference about lighting and lighting innovation. Our hosts – Alexandra Maier of the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism in Timisoara, and the Order of Architects in Romania, within the framework of the BETA Architecture Biennial – invited us to carry out a Social Lightscapes Workshop. We were asked to work with fourth year architecture students on (their first) urban planning course. The students had not yet been trained in urban or architectural lighting.

The plan was for Elettra and Don to work with them intensively (something of an understatement!) while we were in Timisoara; and for the students to carry on what we started during the rest of their course over the coming term, with Skype and email meetings and support from CL in London. We’ll keep you posted!

Piata Sinaia

The site – Sinaia Square – was already selected for the course, and has long been a focus of concern and attempted planning and design initiatives. Although it is very close (10 minute walk) to the historic city centre, and contains buildings and focal points (a major church, hospitals, walking routes to the city river), it is essentially a transit hub rather than a destination for most people, a place one lands between trams rides or passes through by car or bus. At the same time, although property prices and rents are high, buildings are in bad repair and the population is aging or leaving. In London this would be a rapidly gentrifying bit of east London or Elephant, replete with young entrepreneurs and digital nomads; here, the issue was how to ‘activate’ a deadened space.

This is not natural Configuring Light territory: we’ve generally argued that social research in lighting design is about helping designers understand and work with the needs, practices and aspirations of existing social life. We are generally skeptical of claims that lighting alone can somehow activate space. This skepticism was underlined by the many night walks we took in and around Sinaia, and discussions with the students.

So the workshop site was a challenge for us and our workshop series. The question of ‘activating spaces’ is constantly raised for us, and says something about the limits of both lighting and social research in urban planning. Could we use this opportunity to confront and work with this question directly?

A new way of activating social research in design?

In fact, the Timisoara workshop gave us the chance to experiment creatively with our usual workshop format. Piata Sinaia was seriously challenging for social research in lighting design because it involved diverse and non-interacting social groups during the day, and near total lack of activity after dark: after all, the issue was ‘activation’ precisely because there was little activity actually available to research. At the same time, because logistics made it too difficult to have lighting equipment on-site, we needed everyone to focus on social and spatial analysis…

Timisoara (69 of 69)

The solution took the form of one big workshop exercise, over the entire 3 days, that we learned a lot from and want to build into future workshops:

  • We identified five categories of social users of Piata Sinaia: residents, shoppers, retail/cafe workers and owners, people in transit, and people passing through the square (without stopping). This list was based on Don and Elettra scoping the site, and on workshop discussions on Day 1.
  • Participants were divided into five groups, with each group focused not just on researching one of these categories but also ‘representing’ them in a broader sense: who are these people, what are their needs and issues, how do they view the other categories, how do they relate to this place, and so on.
  • On Days 1 and 2, groups developed strategies for researching ‘their’ people – identifying important social divisions, accessing people, developing interview questions and observation strategies, thinking about documenting and recording the life of the square.
  • After each day of fieldwork, each group spoke for ‘their’ people (and to some extent spoke as their people – performing the perspective of being a resident or waiting for a tram). Group discussion created a kind of mini public forum in which both overlapping and conflicting social and spatial issues could be aired, as well as the range of methodological problems that participants encountered.
  • On the final day, participants were re-formed into three groups, each comprising at least one member of the five original research groups: they were tasked with bringing together the interests of their different social categories to produce a joint list of planning and design priorities for Piata Sinaia by day and by night, to develop a vision of what Sinaia should become over the next five years, and then – only at the very end – some design proposals that would help realise their day-time and night-time visions…

The students really rose to this considerable challenge, carrying out adventurous research and distilling complex findings into clear planning and visions. They also produced distinctively different approaches:

  • Group 1 – ‘Nostalgia’ – majored on heritage and collective memory, giving the space coherence by reconnecting it to some of its original space and function.
  • Group 2 – ‘Differences’ – concluded that the very different activities people pursued in Sinaia needed to be spatially separated out so that, eg, young people had spaces to hang out separate from commuters.
  • Group 3 – ‘Access’ – focused on visual and spatial integration, ensuring that the space was transparent and open to all users, day and night.

Light and Night: Unlike in our other Social Lightscapes workshops, Timisoara participants were not asked to produce lighting strategies or designs; indeed because of the lack of activity in Sinaia, they could do little social research after dark. Instead, we focused on building a stronger base of social and spatial questions that they could expand into night time designs during the rest of their course. And we tried to build up a critical awareness of urban lighting through lectures and two very long night walks.

Analysis of night time lighting in Sinaia mirrored the students’ day time research: the lighting largely reflected transport systems (car and traffic lights; tram stops) rather than residents or pedestrian use, and rendered the space largely incoherent and illegible. Very little light came from residential or retail space, underlining the feeling of deadness and transit.

Finally, as in parts of Timisoara’s historic centre, fragmented street lighting was punctuated by extremely overlit monuments (in the case of Sinaia, an important church), which disrupted wayfinding (including the square’s strategic connection to the nearby city centre).