The Cinderella Effect: Phantom Architectures of Illumination

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I used to ride home from work past Harrods, London’s most ridiculous shop. At night it is lit with a strings of bulbs trace the elevation like a dot-to-dot drawing. After working late to some deadline or other I happened to be scooting past when, out of the corner of my smeared visor it looked as though the whole building had suddenly vanished.

The lights had simply tripped their midnight switch. Since then I’ve often idly speculated about the Harrods lights. There is something about the way that strings of that makes the physical building almost imperceptible. The brightness of the light makes the dark surfaces behind seem darker – the same phenomenon that causes moths to fly towards a flame.

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Harrods lighting technique was developed fairly early in the history of electric illumination – it is electrification that has assumed a kind of heritage status – wires, filaments and currents passing into the realm of stone, wood and plaster. It comes from an age when bulbs were not bright enough to throw light over the surface of the building – which is how most building illuminations work. But despite its age and familiarity, Harrods lighting still sparkles. Its effect is a liberatation of the physical dimension of architecture.

It allows buildings to do things that architecture can’t. If Harrods could seem to disappear, like Cinderella, on the stroke of midnight, then maybe it could do other things as well. And if you can’t quite make out its physical form when its illuminated, then perhaps the lighting could transform it into something else. Maybe it could flick between different forms, as though its architecture was flickering between states.

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Through lighting, Harrods could develop multiple personalities on an urban scale, a disorder borne perhaps of attempting to deliver its motto “All Things for All People, Everywhere”, finally driven into consumerist-metropolitan schizophrenia. Shredded by its divergent internal momentum of heritage and tradition, contemporary tourism, varied ideas of retail, celebrity, royal warrants and Di and Dodis memorial, Englishness, Egyptian-ness and Al Fayeds paranoid wrestling with the Establishment.

This tension seems released by the off switch. In that brief moment when the current stops flowing through the circuit, the filaments glow dims is like a visual sigh – a moment when architecture is released into oblivion.

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