Style & Design

Kaoru Mende's bright ideas on darkness

by Yuki Hayashi

Staff Writer

‘Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light,” wrote the prominent modern novelist Junichiro Tanizaki in his 1933 essay on Japanese aesthetics, “In Praise of Shadows.”

Lighting designer Kaoru Mende would surely agree. His work reflects that same veneration of the subtleties offered by darkness. His style focuses on the quality of the light rather than its strength, oftentimes making the space feel warm despite the relatively low luminance level he chooses.

Since founding Lighting Planners Associates Inc. (LPA) in 1990, Mende has tackled more than 700 projects with his company, including the interior and exterior lighting of well-known institutions such as Tokyo International Forum, the renovated Tokyo Station and the Roppongi Hills complex.

This June, Mende and LPA published “Tide of Architectural Lighting Design,” a comprehensive 420-page collection of photos of 100 LPA projects over the past 25 years. In one chapter, Mende introduces Japan’s traditional aesthetic reverence for shadows, and laments that since the post-war period, Japanese society has been moving away from shadows, focusing more on white, even and bright lighting.

“During the war, people had to turn the lights off during blackouts to protect themselves from enemy planes. So, for people who experienced the war, darkness reminded them of something very painful and dreadful,” Mende suggests when asked in a recent interview what he thinks triggered this shift in aesthetic value.

“On top of that, as Japan’s economy slowly recovered after the war, a fluorescent light called Circline was developed for household use,” he continues. “During the postwar period, Japanese households were filled with Circlines, which made the rooms very bright. Brightness became a symbol of wealth and happiness.”

Yet the general resistance to darkness has not deterred Mende, whose works manage to incorporate an appropriate balance of light and darkness for contemporary settings. For the Tokyo International Forum, for example, he negotiated a softer level of illuminance for the lobby area, taking down the requested level of 300 lux to just 50 lux.

“The Tokyo government employee who I talked to had a reasonable point — that public spaces in Tokyo shouldn’t be dark because there are safety concerns,” recalls Mende. “But we knew that 300 lux is not a small amount of energy, and that brightness is not about the amount of light in a space, but about how the light enters your eyes. It’s not really something you can measure by placing a illuminometer on the ground.”

It was the clever use of low lighting that persuaded the representatives of the Tokyo International Forum to agree.

“If you put indirect lighting along the walls, it feels bright enough even if the illuminance measured at floor level is low,” says Mende. “Up until then, the only method to measure a safe level of brightness was to calculate the illuminance. We had to carefully explain how that could be changed.”

The lighting design process begins, perhaps counterintuitively, he says, with darkness — you are more likely to appreciate a flickering flame, if you strike a match in the dark. Aesthetically using shadows, however, is a complex practice of strategically using lighting with an interactive audience in mind. It’s not about starting out with a pitch black space.

“When designing lighting in wide areas, you should think about the rhythm of light and darkness,” he explains. “The experience of lighting in a community, like the Roppongi Hills area, is sequential. Lighting designers have to keep in mind the perspective of the people who walk around the areas, they will feel the flow of time differently through the different arrangements of well-lit and dark spaces.”

When LPA began taking on overseas projects in 2000, Mende’s experience with potential clients also revealed different cultural attitudes towards lighting. When the company made its “Lighting Master Plan” proposal for Singapore City Centre, it took the city’s climate into account.

“Because Singapore is hot and humid, we suggested that at night, orange street lights would suit the city’s atmosphere,” he says. “In terms of the building lights, we proposed that Singapore incorporate a technique unprecedented in major cities — one that used more white and light blue lights at higher stories in order to provide a cooling sensation.”

The proposal proved popular in Singapore, winning the design competition to proceed, but Mende mentions that the plan received criticism from Sweden: “In Stockholm, critics said there didn’t need to be that much light at night. I think that people in Scandinavia expect city lights to be softer. Conditions like the sun and the temperature strongly affect how people value light.”

A field shaped by influences ranging from cultural experience to regional climate, lighting design seems to be in constant change.

Mende suspects that technological advancement will influence his work further, and though he’s excited to see what new ideas that could bring, like Tanizaki, he still feels that we should look back to old Japanese aesthetic values.

“One of the questions I ponder on lately is how lighting designers can gain more insight into the appropriate usage of technology, without being tempted too much by it,” he says thoughtfully. “The important thing, I think, is to simply think about how we can use lights and shadows to make our lives happier.”