Martina Frattura: Just adding more light won’t improve street safety

Martina Frattura. Image: Arianna Grillo.

Class 2020 of the 40 under 40 lighting designers, Martina works with the goal of implementing psychological and biological responses to architectural planning. Her research ‘A Beautiful Light’ investigates the use of artificial lighting in support of restorative attention.

Currently, she is working as Lighting Designer, for the Portuguese lighting design & engineering studio WhitePure and is also part of the interdisciplinary team of Impronta, specializing in translational research from neuroscience and behavioral sciences to architectural design. Martina is involved in various educational projects like the Women in Lighting, Designers Mind and the Beauty Movement.

Natalia Olszewska: Welcome, Martina! To start, tell us, how did your journey combining light design and psychology start?

Martina Frattura: I realized that’s what I wanted to do when I first worked with psychologists on a few projects. It was great to work with them. They had so many insights that, as a designer, I could only apply some of them.

It’s great people are coming up with these insights and running experiments and studies. But what’s the point if they only end up published in papers? Therefore, I decided to start A Beautiful Light, a research project to understand how light can contribute to beauty in architecture. I want my research to be both scientifically sound and practical.

Michal Matlon: Why do you think light has such a strong influence on how we perceive space? Why is it so powerful in creating or destroying an atmosphere of a place?

Martina: It’s because it gives hierarchy to objects and surfaces in a space. It lets you select what visual information is the most available. Imagine being in a dark room at night. After your eyes adapt, you might recognize the perimeter of the space.

Then, you can keep adding lights one by one to build a scene out of the darkness. And on the other end, you can make the space so bright that all information is lost again. But it’s not just about light. It’s about light and shadow. They cannot exist without each other.

Another thing is how important light is for our bodies. It tells our brain when to be active and when to rest and sleep. Our hormone levels change depending on the levels of light around us.

How Light Makes You Feel

Michal: Say you enter a room, and it’s lit from the ceiling with a cold, neon light. Then, if you turn it off and turn on smaller, warm light lamps in the corners of the room, people suddenly feel differently. It now feels cozier and more relaxing.

Martina: There are three main factors at play here. Color, temperature, and direction. Let’s start with direction. Whether light comes from above or below eye level is important. Evolutionarily speaking, in history, light coming from above was usually the sun and the sky. From our point of view, both the sun and the sky are light sources. Through its vast surface, it triggers even more receptors than the sun itself. And this activation is related to the most active moments of our day.

Guerrilla Lighting by Women in Lighting Portugal at Luza festival 2019. Image: 365 Algarve.

On the other hand, light coming from below the eye level, for hundreds of thousands of years, was usually fire humans themselves started. Human activity around the fire was always related to socializing, feasting, and rest. This has also helped set the standard our brains use for color temperature. Burning wood creates much warmer light than daylight.

However, our perception of light can differ depending on our region. For example, people living near the equator might find cool light refreshing.

Michal: Why is that? 

Martina: Because in those places, heat is omnipresent, and warm colors, as well as warm light, can increase your perception of heat. So they seek cold colors and light in the evening, making them feel cooler. On the other hand, in the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden, where I lived, you can notice they light their spaces with as many small and warm light sources as possible to mimic fire and its heat.

Michal: You’re saying that light has some impact on how we perceive the temperature of our body, for example, or whether we are warm or cold. 

Martina: It’s almost like a placebo effect. 

Natalia: That’s a good term. 

Michal: Can light also influence the level of mental stimulation? If people feel overstimulated during the day, will they benefit from relaxing in a darker environment? And would people who feel under-stimulated be better off resting in a bright environment? 

Martina: Resting will probably happen after the end of the most active part of the day, when the light is above. Resting would then call for low-level, warm lighting.

Suisse Ambassade by Synapse Lighting (Paula Rainha, Martina Frattura). Image: JTVQ Atelier.

What needs to be said is that there’s a big difference between color temperature and light spectrum. You can have a bulb with a certain color temperature, but the underlying color spectrum could be different than what you see. A warm light bulb can actually emit a lot of blue light spectrum, which is stimulating.

But there is also something else. As I mentioned earlier, light reveals objects in space. And we are part of the space. So, if a lot of light comes from above, we might feel overexposed. That’s why darkness can facilitate feelings of intimacy. And not just between two or more people. But also in terms of introspection.  

Can Light Influence Our Health?

Natalia: One aspect you hooked me on at the very beginning of the conversation is the idea that light enters the inside of us. So that is also fascinating to me because, with my medical background, I asked this myself immediately. Does light have something to do with our health? If it does, by what means and what do we know about it so far?

Martina: We already mentioned hormone regulation, for example. Our cortisol and melatonin levels are influenced by the spectrum, direction, and light exposure time. Light helps us calibrate our internal clocks. It tells us when to be active and when to rest. And through good design, we can compensate for the lack of light, at least partially.

In Dublin, for example, a lot of the traditional architecture is built out of light-colored stone that reflects light. Even that helps us get more of it. ( The Dublin example is related to the Play of brilliance – feeling of awe and fascination implementation outdoor) 

On the other hand, in modern times, we often get the wrong information from our light environment. By now, people are aware that the blue light from their phones, computers, and TVs signals to the brain that it’s time to be active. So companies have started to implement blue light filters for these devices. And there’s a link between our hormones, circadian cycles, and immune system. The impact of light on our health is enormous.

Do Cities Need More Light?

Natalia: What about light pollution in cities? How could that affect us?

Martina: People, in general, think that the more light in our cities at night, the better. Architects and entrepreneurs are using light to grab people’s attention: “Look at this building, look at my hotel, look at my shop!” But they don’t consider that there is just no need to have such an amount of light. But it takes just one over-lit place to drag the rest of the street to compete for attention. We need to be mindful of light pollution.  

Even when a street light only shines on the pavement, the light reflects back to our eyes and the sky if it’s too bright. So we need to be mindful of using the proper brightness too. And this light doesn’t only affect humans. It affects animals and insects too. It disrupts their circadian rhythms and can harm the ecosystem.

Many cities have recently been switching to cold-light LED lights, whose light spectrum has potential negative consequences for health and the ecosystem. Image: Andréas BRUN on Unsplash

Michal: What I see happening in the city where I live, but also in other cities in Europe, is that, on the one hand, the city administration acknowledges light pollution. They select street lights with beams only pointing downwards, for example. 

On the other hand, there are people in the administration that have this philosophy that we need to have as much light as possible to increase safety. So when they upgrade the street lights from sodium to LED lights, they select much stronger ones. And they usually have a higher color temperature, so the light looks cold. This leads to situations where people are walking at night and are blinded by these lights. Paradoxically, this makes it more difficult to see!

Martina: I agree with you, and I also see this trend in many countries. Cities are over-lit because of supposed safety. But over-lighting will not improve safety. Safety depends mainly on whether people feel good in a place, decide to spend time there and create a human presence on the street.

In addition, if we only have vertical lighting, like these street lamps, it can worsen our vision in that environment. We need to be able to perceive the depth of space, and for that, we need light coming from different directions. It’s also essential to be able to perceive colors accurately – to see changes in people’s faces, for example. For that, we need lights with high Color Rendering Index (CRI), not necessarily stronger lights. And even warm light can have high CRI.

It’s also an issue when street lights shine into people’s windows. The light disrupts sleep and forces them to use blackout curtains or blinds. Safety is important, especially to women, but adding more light where there’s already enough won’t help. We need lighting depth, light that’s not blinding, and one that adds beauty to a space and makes it more attractive and pleasant for people.

Being Fascinated Softly

Natalia: I want to ask you about your research on light and nonvisual effects of light, especially “soft fascination.” What is this about?

Martina: When I had the privilege to go to Eindhoven University in the Netherlands, I worked with psychologists. One of them was working on the topic of “soft fascination,” and she introduced me to it.

She first asked me: “What’s the most beautiful thing you can do in your hometown?” And I answered: “To watch the sunrise,” because we are on the eastern shore. “And how long does it take?” she asked. “Well, a few hours.” And then she asked: “Well, do you feel tired after that?” I said: “No, the opposite!” She was like: “Yeah, exactly!”

I thought, well, I’m getting more light, so I’m getting more alert. But she explained that although that’s true, it’s not only that. It’s also about this “soft fascination” – a state of mind where even though we are focused and present in the moment, we are not getting tired but restored. It’s a bit as if we were sleeping but without sleeping. I found that incredibly beautiful.

Viewing beautiful scenes can put us in a restorative state of “soft fascination.” Image: v2osk on Unsplash

And I started thinking about this. There is this thing, a way to be focused and attentive but be restored at the same time. And we get it primarily from spending time in nature. But how could we bring it to spaces where we spend most of our time – the indoors? And could it be done through lighting? Gradually, I have concluded that soft fascination is linked to beauty. It happens in places and situations we find beautiful – nature, lakes, mountains, or the sunrise.

So I decided to check if that link was genuine. I decided, among other things, to perform an attention test to measure the level of restoration. Between the measurements, the participants watched a scene or an object they picked as beautiful.

At that time, I was biased by my experience because I thought beauty was truly subjective. Though I was already starting to get skeptical about it, and later on, I learned that very often, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

Because of this, I went to ten different countries with different climates and cultures to get a broader spectrum of what people could perceive as beautiful. In one way, that was the best decision I ever made. 

It opened up a new research interest for me: aesthetics and neuroaesthetics – understanding beauty on a fundamental, primal level. And I learned that perception of beauty is not that subjective. It’s very much a thing that all humans have in common. And striving for beauty is one of the healthiest things humans do. That, for me, was mind blowing.

I performed my study with about two hundred people and also recorded an EEG and the galvanic skin response. The results have shown that there indeed is a link between beauty, soft fascination, and maintaining an attentive state. From then on, I based my work on these findings and designing lighting that helps us enter a state of soft fascination.

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