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March 14, 2016 / Leo Hollis

The Loss of Light

There is currently a campaign against the redevelopment of the Bishopgate Goodsyard in Shoreditch. Ironically this spot of ground,has always bee a problem. Originally devised as a passenger railway station in the 1840s its location at the end of Shoreditch High Street never made it close enough to the city to be useful. When, after Liverpool Street Station opened in 1874, Bishopsgate was transformed into a freight depot. Here it survived until a fire in 1964, and hence has stood unused at the heart of some of the most rapidly rising real estate in London. It is now surrounded by development, and there are plans afoot to profit here as well. Recently Mayor Johnson used his droit de seigneur to hurry along the planning process, jumping over the obstacles raised by residents and local councils. You can see more about the campaign here:

and the developers sales material here:

However, what is interesting here is the campaigner’s use of Loss of Light as one of the key reasons to question the development. As plans for over 460 new towers are currently going through the system across London, this is going to become a growing issue here.

Consider the sense of joy that comes from sitting in a city square with the sun on your face. It is sometimes easy to forget how important sunlight is in our everyday lives. This was particularly a cause of debate in New York for as architect Michael Sorkin observes in his hymn to his home city, ‘Twenty Minutes in Manhattan’: ‘Much of the modern history of New York’s physical form is the result of debates over light and air.’  By the 1870s there were compaints that the high tenements that had been built to house the rising population were obscuring the sky and filling the air with a putrid stink. As a result a height limit was put on all residential buildings in the 1901 Tenement Housing Act.

But this did not stop architects who were developing the business district and in 1915 work started on the Equitable Building in Lower Manhattan to replace previous offices that had recently burned down in a fire. Out of the ashes the architect, Ernest R Graham, designed a neoclassical block that stood 62 storey tall above the city. As it was being built it soon became clear that the vast edifice would cast a shadow across seven acres, plunging the neighbourhood and the surrounding buildings into permanent darkness.

In response the New York government set out the 1916 Standard State Zoning Enabling Act that imposed limits on the maxmium heights of buildings, where they might be allowed to build as well a devising a code for ‘setback’, designing a building so that as it grows skywards, it also tiers inwards to reduce its shadow, as can be seen in the iconic designs for the Crysler or the Empire State buildings.

In the post war period, architects once again began to question these regulations. The modernist aesthetic, inspired by Le Corbusier, demanded bold regular blocks of pure glass and metal; rather than being ‘set back’ these new skyscrapers were being built within plazas so that the shadow would not interfere with other buildings. This new approach to the city was encapsulated by the Seagram Building created by Mies Van der Rohe and Phillip Johnson. Now, there was less emphasis on the experience of the city beyond the plaza that hugged the ankles of new skyscrapers, because it was assumed that everyone was in their cars; what sunlight one might encounter could be reflected from the shining glass of the modernist monuments onto the streets below where it would palely glisten along the crome finish of a polished cadillac.

Even in the 1960s campaigners were starting to discuss the idea of ‘solar access’, the essential right to sunlight as a key quality of life. In particular Californian architectural thinker Ralph Knowles was developing the notion of planning cities around ‘solar envelopes’ which determine heights and orientation of buildings according to the cyclical solar movements. In 2010 Mayor Bloomberg seemed to pick up on many of the key notions of the right to solar access, and how the persistent presence of shadows would impact on public life in the city. The excitingly titled CEQR Technical Manual used by developers in the city states: ‘Sunlight can entice outdoor activities, support vegetation, and enhance architectural features, such as stained glass windows and carved detail on historic structures. Conversely, shadows can affect the growth cycle and sustainability of natural features and the architectural significance of built features’

Environmental psychologists have spent a long time studying the impact of sunlight and shadow, conclusively showing that more natural light has an impact on the well being of workers or families within the space. In particular, scientists discuss the importance of sunlight for the body’s cicadian rhythm, or nature’s alarm clock. This is the natural process that regulates the daily biological rhythms, that is regulated by the hormone melatonin, secreted from a gland in the centre of the brain. The production of melatonin is regulated by light has an impact on conditions such as Seasonal Adjustment Deficiency. It has a strong antioxidant effect that protects DNA and works alongside the immune system in a number of experiments and even has an influence on the power of dreaming. This should encourage many architects to rethink the importance of sunlight within their design.

The fact that the Bishopgate development is a series of luxury towers that will overshadow the poor groundlings upon the street does not bode well for the future planning of London. Whether we come to work or play we might increasingly find ourselves walking in the shadows.



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