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This Is Why We Light Up Buildings at Night

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Think of the Chrysler Building. Now picture it at night. It's even more beautiful when its jeweled top is illuminated with glowing yellow lights. But before the 1930s, lighting wasn't exactly used artfully. In fact, the term "architecture of the night" was coined by architect Raymond Hood in this 1930 pamphlet published by General Electric.

Hood, who was closely tied to the Art Deco movement, designed such iconic buildings as the Tribune Tower in Chicago, the New York Daily News Building, the American Radiator Building, and ahem, a little place you might have heard of called Rockefeller Center. Here's what he had to say about architectural illumination:

The possibilities of night illumination have barely been touched. . . . Eventually, the night lighting of buildings is going to be studied exactly as Gordon Craig and Norman Bel Geddes have studied stage lighting. Every possible means to obtain an effect will be tried—color, varying sources and direction of light, pattern and movement. . . . [T]he illumination of today is only the start of an art that may develop as our modern music developed from the simple beating of a tom-tom.


Every night when we New Yorkers gaze at our glittering skyline, we see the Empire State Building dressed up in reds, or blues, or any crazy color combination, in celebration of some cause or holiday. Sometimes we'll check the internet to see why it a certain hue on that date. But there's a whole movement behind why exactly we illuminate the buildings the way we do. And this little 1930 pamphlet is where a lot of those ideas came from. [GE, Internet Archive]