Perspective: Reflection & Refraction of life and light

by Prof. Brian Evans, City Urbanist, Glasgow City Council

In 2019, LUCI member Glasgow (UK) appointed Professor Brian Evans as its first ever “City Urbanist”. This new role see Professor Evans – a professor in Urbanism and Landscape at The Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh School of Architecture, and one of the UK’s leading urbanists – work with councillors, officers, the design community, and city partners and stakeholders to enhance Glasgow’s approach to place-making and connectivity. In this perspective for Cities & Lighting magazine, Professor Evans reflects upon today’s changing world.

For those sufficiently free from immediate concerns and life challenges, these are times of reflection on the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, the climate emergency and the actions of those who would belittle these challenges – or worse deny them.

Glasgow is a northern maritime city – its climate famously wet and unpredictable as a consequence. But in the dark and the wet, Glasgow can become a magical city of reflected and refracted light. Where lights are reflected back from the dark Caithness flagstones of the squares, spaces and streets of our city. When falling raindrops can sparkle like a larger version of the millions of tiny diamonds of powder snow that fall in the far northern frozen sunshine of late winter and early spring.

In the dark and wet, Glasgow reveals its true character of gritty urbanity. There is nothing quite like the reflection of neon, the hire lights of the black taxi fleet to announce that this is a real city – metropolitan in character and scale.

“In the dark and the wet, Glasgow can become a magical city of reflected and refracted light.”

Prof. Brian Evans, City Urbanist, Glasgow City Council

Reflection from wet surfaces does something else to light … it refracts, blurs and fragments light like the most famous refraction of them all – the rainbow. This refraction, this ‘bending’ of light, provokes a human response to the reflection that in itself provokes contemplation. And so, it is that COVID-19 has refracted our perceptions of where we are as urban societies, affording and forcing the opportunity for reflection of where we find ourselves and how we live.

We have seen many years of societal change transpire in as many weeks and months. Responding to immediate threat to health by increased physical distancing, losing out on the immediate human touch and on social cohesion replaced with isolation and longing. It has had very real effects on the functioning of our cities – the high street, the real estate market and how much office space we now need. There has been a massive impact on travel – where modal split between public transport and the car has gone into reverse.

According to the psychologists, human beings are hard wired to deal with immediate threats and much less able to deal with equally existential longer-term threats. But as the shadow of COVID-19 lengthens and the aperture for dealing with the climate emergency narrows, these challenges become conjoined.

These then are the forces of change and of angst in the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times – that we find ourselves in. And yet, the genius loci – the spirit of the place of our home cities, ‘heimat’ in German and ‘dualchas‘ in Scots-Gaelic – a belonging and longing for place remains the same.

In these refracted times we will spend more time in our home cities as we emerge from the pandemic. And we will need to find more and better ways to maximise the resilience of our cities on one hand to deal with the refractions in our culture and society on the other.

And so, it will be for light. Light needs to reflect – that word again – the spirit of the place. No point then in trying to enhance a northern, wet, maritime Celtic city with the light of a Mediterranean evening or the austere artic or hot desert hues but rather in a way that is appropriate to the wet and the dark – where reflections may reveal the character of the place and its people and where the manner whereby the light is used may also reflect the refractions of culture, society and economy we have lived through.

In Scotland, our darkest, shortest period of light comes the month before and the month after the winter solstice when, even by day, light levels may be low beneath layers of impenetrable rain clouds – so different to the pink twilight of the arctic when, below the horizon, the sun casts a pink hue of sunrise that blends into sunset before the dark, profoundly silent and clear arctic night. In Glasgow, we have a grey light and sibilant night is frequently accompanied by the characterful splish, splash and murmuring of running water. Into this grey, murky daylight and sibilant, dense darkness, light can be a magical, restorative and transformative source of joy and inspiration.

“Light can be a magical, restorative and transformative source of joy and inspiration.”

Prof. Brian Evans, City Urbanist, Glasgow City Council

In Scotland, this period is bookended by two significant cultural events in our calendar – St Andrew’s day on 30 November and the birthday of our national poet – Robert Burns on 25 January. I have long advocated a festival of light between these dates that might enhance the night, give character to the day, in a subtle way, as an aid to living – the state of being – in these dark months of wet, grey and dark winter days. An initiative that may be further enhanced with more exciting and joyous light over Christmas and celebration of hope over the new year period – switched on at the end of November to act as comfort in the two darkest months and switched off at the end of January when, fortified by our Burns Suppers, we may savour the days as each one lengthens at first imperceptibly and then accelerated as we speed to the spring equinox and a return of the long summer days of hope.

Refract | ri’frakt | verb [with object] (of water, air, or glass) make (a ray of light) change direction when it enters at an angle: the rays of light are refracted by the material of the lens.
Measure the focusing characteristics of (an eye) or of the eyes of (someone): when refracting patients an ophthalmologist relies on verbal reports.

Refraction | ri’frakʃ(ə)n | noun [mass noun] Physics the fact or phenomenon of light, radio waves, etc. being deflected in passing obliquely through the interface between one medium and another or through a medium of varying density.
Change in direction of propagation of any wave as a result of its travelling at different speeds at different points along the wave front.
Measurement of the focusing characteristics of an eye or eyes.

Rainbow |ˈreɪnbəʊ | noun an arch of colours visible in the sky, caused by the refraction and dispersion of the sun’s light by rain or other water droplets in the atmosphere. The colours of the rainbow are generally said to be red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet: all the colours of the rainbow.
A display of the colours of the spectrum produced by dispersion of light.
A wide range of related and typically colourful things: a rainbow of medals decorated his chest.
[as modifier] many-coloured: a big rainbow packet of felt pens.

Credits: “Glasgow Royal Exhange Square”, courtesy of Glasgow City Council (Creative Commons)

An edited version of this interview originally appeared in Cities & Lighting magazine (Issue #9, 2021).