Saturday, May 17, 2008


Seize the Daylight

I'm in the latest New Scientist with a piece about a brilliant Victorian "daylighting" technology that competed with then-expensive light blubs and dangerous gaslighting:

IN CHICAGO and other industrial cities of the American Midwest, modern building facades and false ceilings often conceal a Victorian secret. In many old buildings, curiously shaped glass tiles known as Luxfer Prisms lie just a few centimetres behind the paint and plaster. Scattered through old drugstores and boarded-up banks from Madison to Fort Wayne, Luxfers were one of the 19th- century’s greatest innovations in lighting, and an idea that’s beginning to make a comeback in our own energy-conscious times....

Ordinary windows admitted plenty of light – but while there was a pool of bright light close to the window, only the dimmest haze reached the back of the shop. What if there were a series of prisms on the interior of windows, carefully angled to refract the wasted sunlight away from the front of the store, and into those dimly lit corners? You wouldn't need to redirect an entire window's worth, just the light coming through the top portion of the pane.... [Inventor] Pennycuick joined Chicago investors to establish what became the American Luxfer Prism Company. Two professors from nearby Northwestern University were retained to determine the best way to measure brightness and prism placement. Architects were then invited to submit prism-friendly building designs, while a young Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to design ornamental exteriors for the tiles...

"Stop Wasting Daylight," proclaimed newspaper ads. "Daylight Your Store...Dispense With Artificial Light. Daylight Costs Nothing."

That's Wright's design pictured above. Since daylighting can't go around corners, and is dimmed considerably by dark walls, Luxfers also fostered a decidely un-Victorian aesthetic of light-colored walls, open planning, and lots of interior glass. Something, in short, that starts looking an awful lot like Modernism. All of which goes back to my constant suspicion that aesthetic movements can sooner or later be traced back a technological development.

I happened to be visiting Kansas City a couple months ago, and I when I decribed Luxfer Prisms to a KCAI art student he pointed and said: "Oh, you mean like those over there?" They're all over the place in old Midwestern commercial buildings.

Here's a recently discovered and restored Luxfer installation in Madison, Wisconsin; the glass tiles along the top are Luxfers:

You can see Pennycuick's original patent here at Ian Macky's terrific Prismatic Glass website. The notion of prismatic daylighting is actually being revived by, among others, an Australian firm using laser-cutting and acrylic panes.

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