I was struck by Olafur talking about experiencing days as dark as nights during his upbringing in Iceland. I had heard about this phenomenon many times, but apart from dim winter mornings and dusky afternoons in London, don’t have a personal history of such days. Nor of their opposite: when the night is light, creating days that just refuse to end.
Most of us take day and night and their subsequent associations with light and dark for granted. We have long come to assume that the landscape of our cities should be lit at night – that our houses have electricity and we can make day out of night at the flick of a switch, at the moment of our choosing. One of my most memorable experiences from childhood is flying at night and arriving at the destination. The sky is totally dark, and then you suddenly see this magical landscape of light below – a vast field of different intensities and shapes, roads, houses, sports arenas, and communities, all man-made.
The pleasure associated with the extension of day into night – through light – is something that perhaps gets felt most keenly through its absence, of being denied the right to light. A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in a cabin in Maine, without electricity. It was only then that I noticed the distinction between the day, with all of its visual attractions and enticements, and the stillness of the night as darkness closed in. I read by gaslight. You need to keep the book close to the source of the light. It is hard to keep going for long, and the sense of the end of the day becomes much stronger. You go to bed early and wake up early. The rhythm of life changes and you become more at one with nature.
We often appreciate this type of experience that represents a temporary break in our daily habits – an interruption that can be a useful reminder of a certain loss of the senses, but also of how far we have come and what options we have gained. My experience of the dark evenings in Maine were made meaningful in part by the certainty of a life with full access to light that lay within easy reach of where I was – that I would be able to return to the light at the end of my self-imposed exile from it. But millions of people don’t have such options and are living in conditions of poverty where something as basic as electricity is not available to them.
This is the beauty of the Little Sun project. It makes light accessible to a vast group of people who are currently denied its power of visibility. People will be able to benefit from it not only to enhance their freedom of movement at night but also to use its illumination to gain knowledge – to read and write. It is only with such broadened capacity that we can hope for acontemporary version of enlightenment: a new age of reason brought about by the inspired commingling of art and science.
Dean of the Faculty of Design and Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA