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Electric Worlds / Mondes électriques

Creations, Circulations, Tensions, Transitions (19th–21st C.)


Edited By Alain Beltran, Léonard Laborie, Pierre Lanthier and Stéphanie Le Gallic

What interpretation(s) do today’s historians make of electrification? Electrification is a process which began almost a hundred and fifty years ago but which more than one billion men and women still do not have access to. This book displays the social diversity of the electric worlds and of the approaches to their history. It updates the historical knowledge and shows the renewal of the historiography in both its themes and its approaches. Four questions about the passage to the electrical age are raised: which innovations or combination of innovations made this passage a reality? According to which networks and appropriation? Evolving thanks to which tensions and alliances? And resulting in which transition and accumulation?

Quel(s) regard(s) les historiens d’aujourd’hui portent-ils sur l’électrification, processus engagé il y a près de cent cinquante ans mais auquel plus d’un milliard d’hommes et de femmes restent encore étrangers ? Le présent volume rend compte de la diversité des mondes sociaux électriques et des manières d’enquêter sur leur histoire. Il actualise les connaissances et témoigne du renouvellement de l’historiographie, dans ses objets et ses approches. Quatre points d’interrogation sur le basculement des sociétés dans l’âge électrique jalonnent le volume : moyennant quelles créations ou combinaisons créatrices ? En vertu de quelles circulations et appropriations ? Selon quelles tensions et alliances ? Et produisant quelles transitions et accumulations ?

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Architecture in a New Light. Architects and Illuminating Engineers in the Early Twentieth Century United States

← 80 | 81 →

Architecture in a New Light

Architects and Illuminating Engineers in the Early 20th Century United States



This essay examines the early-twentieth century struggle between illuminating engineers and architects in the United States as they negotiated responsibility for a transformative technology. It considers, in particular, the tensions and collaborations as these two fields tried to reconcile their respective professional roles and distinct disciplinary outlooks in the design of the built environment at the moment it was being substantially altered by the widespread adoption of electric light.

Keywords: electric lighting, architect, engineer, professionalization


Introduction: A Professional Tension

For all the opportunities offered by the introduction of electric light into the built environment in the early twentieth century, it posed a powerful threat to the proprieties and conventions of professional architects. Poorly designed lighting could visually disrupt or even destroy the precise proportions or delicate poise that architects had otherwise struggled to achieve with their plans. Moreover, with new advances in technologies of artificial light, responsibility for lighting specifications often fell to the illuminating engineer – an emergent technical profession that was initially concerned as much with gas lighting as with electric – who generally aimed to match lighting levels with the specific purpose at hand. Architects, in contrast, often worried more about a lighting fixture’s stylistic fit within a room. Both illuminating engineer and architect agreed that light could change a room’s atmosphere or mood, which usually ranged narrowly between formal and restful, but their perspectives were often mismatched, if not always hostile. For the most part, the engineer’s ideas of utility were at odds with the architect’s ideas of beauty. This was especially the case in the context of rapidly ← 81 | 82 → growing cities in the United States, where engineering professions were adapting quickly to respond to new technologies such as skyscraper construction and electrical power while architects were looking back at European precedents to help them aestheticize the engineers’ new forms and new sources of energy.

Architects Encounter the Engineer

In a philosophical mode, American architects followed a notion that the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin termed “vital beauty,” which he famously defined as “the appearance of felicitous fulfillment of function in living things.” It was a view rooted in the contemporaneous expansion of explanatory power in the natural sciences, which rationalized the formal character of natural phenomena in terms of satisfying underlying functions. In practice, however, many visual traits could be said to represent the fulfillment of function so that architects tended more regularly to appeal to abstract principles that had developed over time. To the extent that these became conventions of architectural practice, their validation was felt to reside in their transcendent quality, that is, they were believed to be applicable across time and across all cultures.

Figure 1. Two metaphysical arts: architecture and music


From H. Heathcote Statham, Architecture for the General Reader (New York: Scribner’s, 1896), 7-9. ← 82 | 83 →

A frequent appeal was made with an analogy to music. In explaining architecture to a lay audience, for example, one widely published author asserted that “architecture is, like music, a metaphysical art; it deals with the abstract qualities of proportion, balance of form, and direction of the line, but without any imitation of the concrete facts of nature.”1 Acknowledging that the analogy has its limits, the author nonetheless points out key similarities between architecture and music such as a regular rhythm. In illustrating the point, he distended musical notation so that it would correspond with an architectural elevation, making the analogy quite literal [See Figure 1]. The author takes the point further to emphasize that even details of classical architecture follow aesthetic principles that transcend not only time and place but also different media altogether. In this instance, the author is pointing out that once a rhythm of regular spacing has been set up, it must be terminated in a distinct manner, which can include the repetition of elements that are themselves derived from proportions or from other architectural elements. In the diagram, the repetition of three chords at the end of the musical phrase, noted by the lowercase letter “d” are in this instance analogous to the inscribed lines in the necking of the Doric column, as noted by the lowercase letter “c.” Although architects and critics disagreed considerably regarding the aesthetic merits of one or another building form, the appeal to transcendent principles lent architectural practice a kind of gravity that went well beyond the exercise of taste. Architects could therefore believe themselves to be engaged in a grand cultural struggle when they assimilated new functions and new technologies into a unified decorative order.

For their part, architects generally felt that illuminating engineers did not understand the architects’ aesthetic agenda. In building interiors, engineers often advocated placing a brightly illuminated fixture in the center of the room to guarantee an even distribution of light. But architects complained that doing so would visually flatten ornamental details and thereby coarsen what would otherwise have been a delicate or subtle design. In other cases, lighting engineers were indifferent to core architectural notions such as the continuity of structure and the need to visually carry weight down to the ground. In Figure 2, admittedly for a lighting showroom, engineers made two fundamental errors, as architects saw it. First, they specified lighting at the column capitals, which is a key moment of structural transition. With a light source obscuring the capital, one would not be able to visually understand how the building’s weight shifted from a horizontal beam to a vertical column. In addition, the engineers called for a bright light in the center of the ceiling, which not only flattened any architectural details but ← 83 | 84 → also emphasized the light source itself rather than yield to the larger volume it was intended to illuminate.2

Figure 2. Interior lighting errors, from the architect’s point of view, cloud the veritable truths of architecture


From Louis Bell, L.B. Marks and W. D’Arcy Ryan, “The Illumination of the Building of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, of Boston,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 2/7 (October, 1907): 611.

Figure 3. Exterior lighting errors, from the architect’s point of view, transmute classical poise into a cartoon


From Louis Bell, The Art of Illumination (New York: McGraw Hill Co., 1912), 324. ← 84 | 85 →

A similar tension was evident in regard to the outside of a building. Lighting architectural exteriors – first with strings of light bulbs that outlined massing or key features and, later, with projected or floodlighting – posed a practical as well as a philosophical challenge to architecture.

Charles Howard Walker, a leading American architect in the early-twentieth century, encountered significant questions about lighting when he was responsible for the design of the 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, held in Omaha, Nebraska, including its Electricity Palace, and became a caustic critic of illuminating engineers who practiced without consulting trained architects. As he put it, the commonplace practice of stringing of electric lamps along the prominent contours of a building creates an effect “much the same as a child draws with chalk on a slate.” Walker acknowledged that architects generally thought of their buildings in daylight conditions and did not consider artificial lighting. At the same time, however, engineers were indifferent to such fundamentals of architectural design as massing, structure, surface and detail. Even in more reasonable examples of outline lighting, Walker noted, “the light bulbs might as well be erected as on a framework in the air. They are merely set pieces of permanent fireworks.”3 [See Figures 3-4]

Figure 4. Exterior lighting errors, from the architect’s point of view, make architecture into a scaffold for fireworks


From “How to Succeed as a Mazda Lamp Merchant” (Cleveland: National Lamp Works of General Electric Company, 1916), n.p. ← 85 | 86 →

Figure 5. The “floating crown,” a luminous architecture seemingly untethered from gravity


From Clifford W. Spencer, “Practical Floodlighting,” The Architectural Forum (November, 1930): 633.

Flood lighting was also a problem for many architects. Floodlights exploited a building façade’s reflectivity rather than longstanding architectural concerns such as its fenestration or proportions, for example. Whereas a founding principle of modernist architecture was the recognition that enclosure might be treated independently of structure, floodlighting dissociated building surfaces not simply from structure, but from mass itself, even from matter altogether. In this sense, floodlighting posed an almost existential threat to architecture. A particular error pointed out by architects was the “floating crown,” a surreal, illusionistic effect created when only top portion of a skyscraper was illuminated and, thus, seemed to float unsupported in the night sky.4 [See Figure 5] ← 86 | 87 →

Figure 6a and Figure 6b. A sculpted, architectural stonework transformed by lighting from an upwardly aspiring mass, by day, into a two-dimensional pattern, by night Postcard, Palmolive Building, Chicago Postcard, Curt Teich & Co., 1933.


But the problem with floodlighting was more pervasive. All of the architect’s careful proportioning could be inverted; a building’s classical dignity turned into a harlequinesque parody by the careless application of electric lighting. Figure 6, for example, depicts the widely admired Palmolive building, completed in Chicago in 1929 by the architects Holabird & Root. By daylight, the building sheds volume and visual weight as it rises, yielding the sense of an ascendant almost gravity-defying mass. By night, however, floodlights emphasize the building’s surfaces, which seem merely to touch along edges rather than to bear upon one another. The architect’s effort to express the struggle to overcome gravity – an analogue to the progress of modern civilization – is obliterated by the lighting, which creates of the climbing mass a puzzle of decorative shapes.

Much floodlighting was accomplished with projectors that were often set tens of meters away, requiring higher intensities and casting a horizontal light that, as in interiors, would flatten details and diminish architectural character. Much of this thinking drew from early attempts to light monuments, such as fountains or sculptures in park settings, where there was ample room to install such projectors. In urban settings, however, ← 87 | 88 → projectors were often mounted on a neighboring building in order to achieve appropriate levels of floodlighting. In fact, salesman typically carried with them projectors that they would set up in rooms across from the building to be illuminated and, in this way, demonstrate the effects of floodlighting.

Figure 7. The union of theory and practice in the formation of the science of illuminating


From Western Electrician 42 (January, 1908), cover.

Engineers Eye the Architect

The “illuminating engineer,” a term advanced around the turn of the twentieth century, shared with architects few such concerns. Engineering manuals from the late-nineteenth century, including those that specialize in electric lighting, focus on technical matters or, when they do address other issues, frequently consider the efficiency and safety of electric light in relation with gaslight. As one manual succinctly explained, “an engineer is one who applies scientific knowledge to practical use.” The Illuminating Engineering Society (IES) explained itself in these terms with its founding constitution in 1906, which set forth the group’s goal as being “the advancement and dissemination of theoretical and practical knowledge of the Science and Art of Illumination.”5 Figure 7, an image ← 88 | 89 → from the cover of Western Electrician, from 1908, is useful in this regard in that it depicts the sources of electrical engineering knowledge in the form of two allegorical figures: the female figure on the left represents formalized, theoretical training while the male figure on the right stands in for hands-on experience; torches and the light source, either a lamp or the sun, complete the electrical engineers’ self-representation as a figure of science rather than art.

At times, the discussion could become quite reactionary. One statement, for example, insisted on the inherent merit and self-validation of the engineer’s task: “engineering has no essential connection with aesthetics in any form: the sooner the illuminating engineer gets this out of his head the better. The illuminating engineer must enforce the recognition of his figures and calculations, disregarding every other limitation but practicability, efficiency and economy.”6 Perhaps the most outspoken figure on the relation of architecture to illuminating engineering was E. Leavenworth Elliott, a co-founder in 1906 and continuing editor of the trade journal, The Illuminating Engineer, and the first secretary of the IES. Elliott ultimately sought common ground with architects but he was often impatient in the effort. At one point, he repudiated the architect’s claim on aesthetic questions altogether, arguing that industrialization in the nineteenth century had made the pursuit of architecture a predominantly technical matter. Architects, Elliott asserted in 1907, did not so much integrate and harmonize complex buildings as they simply dressed up with stale historical motifs constructions conceived and developed by engineers: “the architect of the present time is a mere copyist and compiler… What passes for architecture at the present time is a mere conglomeration of the ornamental forms developed in the past.”7 Or, as he put it sharply a few months later: “the architect has usually been considered the bete noire of illuminating engineering, – and it must be admitted, with a considerable degree of reason.”8

Moreover, most illuminating engineers at this time were employed by corporations such as Westinghouse or General Electric. At firms such as these, engineers were professionally mandated to concern themselves more with corporate profit than with the niceties of architectural design. In these ← 89 | 90 → circumstances, engineers were accustomed to see electric light as part of a much larger technical practice expressed, to a large degree, in specifications for components manufactured by their employer. Those employers, in turn, engaged engineers as a means to enhance overall revenue.

Figure 8. Introducing the aesthetic principles behind lighting fixture design. Attached to the center pole and near the bulb socket, the sinuous ornamental arms on the left side of the illustration fulfill a functional role, in contrast to the same arm on the right side, which is attached tenuously and is thereby superfluous


From E.L. Elliott, “Plain Talks on Illuminating Engineering,” The Illuminating Engineer 2/8 (October, 1907): 584.

For most engineers, the only art they needed to concern themselves with in relation to architecture involved the design of the lighting fixtures. At the time, few, whether engineer or architect, saw the potential of light itself as an element of formal expression; they tended instead to ground aesthetic debates in questions of style. In this regard, companies such as General Electric began in the late-nineteenth century to hire fixture designers directly from art schools and to suggest that: “while the illuminating engineer cannot reasonably be expected to be an artisan in the creative sense, he should at least be an intelligent critic of art as applied to lighting installations.”9 Early discussions of visual matters in technical journals thus aimed demonstrate to illuminating engineers prevailing aesthetic principles as applied to fixture design. In Figure 8, for ← 90 | 91 → example, a vaguely Art Nouveau styled lamp illustrated a discussion of whether or not the sinuous metal tendrils holding the glass diffusers had a structurally functional role to play. A design was deemed more beautiful if a function was visibly served.

Professional Cooperation

Despite the seemingly incompatible perspectives between architects and illuminating engineers, the two fields increasingly came to rely upon one another. Architects needed the expertise of technical advisors when it came to large-scale projects and, at the same time, illuminating engineers had to appeal to architects to obtain work in the first place, and also to specify the fixtures that were manufactured by their employers. Their livelihood depended on winning the architect’s respect. Failing to do so would keep lighting design within the purview of architects, who, as the engineers believed, did not understand the technical dimensions or implications of the task. As a result, numerous editorials and articles appeared both in architectural and engineering journals in the early-twentieth century to explain the respective principles and values of architecture and lighting to each other’s readership.

Most lighting engineers agreed that their profession should better recognize the needs of their clients, who were usually building owners and the architects who advised them. The field had centered on technical matters that, however important, did not excite, or even communicate with a broader public. As Bassett Jones (who is discussed in more detail below) wrote: “the great curse of the engineering profession is our inbred belief that efficiency is the only thing that counts. The illuminating engineer who considers only the scientifically practical side of the profession is necessarily doomed to ultimate failure, for he will not be able to obtain the recognition that the importance of his work deserves.”10 This sentiment was for years repeatedly cited in subsequent literature. To that end, a March, 1913, issue of Lighting Journal illustrated a single piece of ornamental moulding illuminated with a varying number of sources from varying directions as an object lesson in lighting’s effect on architectural details in particular and in terms of aesthetic perception more generally. Whatever an engineer might think of the moulding’s artistic merit, its changing character under different lighting conditions was plainly evident. Elliott himself explained that architects simply saw light differently from engineers. They understood artificial light not through its technical production, as would an engineer, but as a kind of void or empty space. This is why, ← 91 | 92 → he said, architects preferred to put light sources in recesses or panels rather than on projecting or supporting architectural elements. With this strategy, architects could emphasize their composition of volumes and at the same time reinforce structural continuities.11

Figure 9. Architectural moulding changes character under different lighting conditions


From Matthew Luckiesh, “Light and Art,” Lighting Journal (March, 1913): 71.

Walter D’Arcy Ryan, one of the best known lighting engineers of the early-twentieth century and probably the first to hold that title, was troubled by the term “illuminating engineer,” which suggested to him only a procedural orientation.12 He argued that the purview of the illuminating engineer was far broader than mere technical matters or, to put it another way, technical matters inevitably impinged not only on architectural concerns but on cultural issues more generally. Regardless of the quality of their design, illuminating engineers unavoidably contributed, for better or for worse, to the aesthetic character of a building. They therefore needed to be proficient not only across a range of technical skills, but also had to appreciate the architect’s aesthetic goals. As one consequence, the designation “lighting expert” was introduced as a means to supplement ← 92 | 93 → the unavoidably technical concerns of the engineer with the aesthetic sensibility presumed to govern the architect’s thinking.

Others went further. In 1911, one engineer described two grand categories of professional: scientific professionals who searched for “truth,” and artistic professionals who searched for “elegance.” In turn, each profession needed to demonstrate its utility to society in these terms. The author developed a chart to illustrate his ideas, and pointed especially to the distance between architecture, which was concerned with construction and aesthetics and was thus only marginally engaged with scientific issues, and engineering, which was closely connected with science but had very little to do with art. Illuminating engineering, he claimed, was unique in its synthesis of qualitative and quantitative factors and in being relevant both to technical and aesthetic concerns. “It is the only profession which is in an intimate relation with … physiology, mathematics, physics, economics, business, and aesthetic arts.” In particular, he noted that illuminating engineers were unique in considering “women’s work,” that is, housework, because lighting had to facilitate the domestic work of women and also that “women will usually be the keener to appreciate … aesthetic qualities”13 [See Figure 10].

Figure 10. The diagram is meant to depict how illuminating engineering is, unique among professions, based equally on the natural sciences, the social sciences and the arts


From Arthur Edwin Kennelly, “The Profession of Illuminating Engineering,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 6 (1911): 76. ← 93 | 94 →

Figure 11. Art and Science, the twin pillars of the Lighting Expert


From Matthew Luckiesh, “Linking Science and Art with Practice in Lighting,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 12 (February, 1917): 97, 98.

Probably the most important figure to elucidate aesthetic principles to illuminating engineers, and to explain lighting to the general public, was Matthew Luckiesh, a pioneer in the study of lighting and vision who went on to become the director of research for General Electric at that firm’s Nela Park facility. Luckiesh wrote numerous articles and books describing to engineers and lay readers alike the twin pillars of science and art that underpin the work of the lighting expert. In a 1916 address to the IES, Luckiesh explained that with the recent, rapid development of lighting technologies there should be little surprise that engineers focused on questions of efficiency to the exclusion of “ultra-scientific and esthetic aspects.” Such neglect in fact defined the illuminating engineer, who he urged “to graduate himself” into the status of lighting expert, which he described as a technically trained individual who has not only studied aesthetic principles but also “possesses imagination and therefore is creative.” Creativity is at the root of architecture, Luckiesh noted, therefore “the lighting man can not expect to win the favor of the architect unless he can look through the architect’s eyes” and thus be “guided by the same mental picture as the architect keeps before him.” Luckiesh summarized his thinking with a diagram of a triumphal arch, raised up equally by science and art and whose individual stones, in an accompanying diagram, represented stages of technical and creative design. [Figure 11] Light, he insisted, was not simply of utilitarian value but was in itself “superior to all other mediums in its powers of artistic ← 94 | 95 → expression and representation.” To Luckiesh, light was the basis of a new, as yet unrealized form of art.14

At the same time, architects were beginning to understand that electric light had numerous formal possibilities, as Luckiesh argued. Writers began to implore architects to work closely with lighting experts from the very beginning of their commissions, rather than at the end, arguing that the disposition of lighting determines nearly all architectural effects at night. Nearly always, architects attended to issues of day-lighting and considered their designs as if they stood only from sunrise to sunset, as Louis B. Marks, a noted electrical engineer and founding figure of the IES, complained. To ignore nighttime effects was to abdicate responsibility for half the diurnal cycle.15

A leading line of argument was that, as buildings became more complex, woven through with environmental systems and controls, architects had already come to accept a range of consultants; the lighting engineer would be just one more. As an article in The American Architect put it, the two professions knew little of the other but have come to recognize the latent promise of “this wonderful illuminant.” At present, the article continued: “Architects are learning to call to their assistance men technically trained in the science of illumination, as they have for many years called sanitary engineers, heating and ventilating engineers and other specialists.”16 And, the architectural readership was reassured, engineers in turn were learning about the niceties of design, and were gaining insight into the importance of shadows, colors rightly rendered and the consolidating role of design themes formulated by architects. ← 95 | 96 →

Figure 12. Night views of the McJunkin Building, Chicago. Flashers and contact board produce different effects: white light on pilasters and colored lights on the bays between pilasters in the top image; “clear flux” on pilasters only and a cornice band of golden light combine to give “the effect of a Greek Colonnade”


From Arthur U. Gerber and Edwin D. Tillson, “Color Flood-Lighting of Buildings,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 19/6 (July, 1924): between pages 522-523.

Figure 13. The balcony designed solely to accommodate flood-light projectors


From Arthur U. Gerber and Edwin D. Tillson, “Color Flood-Lighting of Buildings,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 19/6 (July, 1924): between pages 522-523. ← 96 | 97 →

There are many fine examples of architects and lighting experts working together but scope here to mention only one: the McJunkin building in Chicago, designed in 1924 by the architect Arthur Gerber. Gerber believed it to be the first large building in the country that was permanently lighted with color and he boasted that it reached a record wattage per square foot along its façade, which measured 165 meters. In an essay he wrote for the IES, he described his close coordination with Edwin Tillson, an engineer working for the Commonwealth Edison Company, and told how he changed aspects of the building to suit Tillson’s vision for the exterior lighting. The scheme they developed together involved bright and steady white light directed toward prominent parts of the building to create deep shadows that would emphasize the building’s structural motifs. At the same time, they cast red, blue and yellow lights onto the panels between pilasters, using flashers so that the colors would alternate. In addition, a row of golden yellow lights ran along the cornice line. [See Figures 12-13]

To heighten the effect of the lighting, Gerber and Tillson developed a glazed cream-colored terra-cotta panel with a matte finish. Wanting to avoid horizontal projections of light, Gerber designed ornamental screen balconies for the floodlights so they would rake light upward and increase the apparent height of the building. Working with Tillson, Gerber also tried to exploit the fact that the different wavelengths of distinct colors would be differentially absorbed by the terra-cotta panels. While the elaborate mechanism would cost more than a simple lighting system, Gerber noted that it would not be more expensive than the comparable cost of several moderate advertisements in a leading newspaper and would have much greater and more permanent effect in broadcasting the Commonwealth Edison Company’s presence. He prophesied that this design was the start of a new style in architecture and, certainly, a new level of collaboration between architect and illuminating engineer.17 ← 97 | 98 →

Figure 14. Habirshaw situated its products at the intersection of architectural design, electrical engineering and building construction. The firm advertised widely in a range of trade and popular magazines


From The Architectural Record 33/6 (December, 1920): 95.

An altogether different approach to encouraging the collaboration of lighting professionals can be seen in the advertising of the Habirshaw Electric Cable Company, which operated in New York City from the 1880s, and still operates today as a subsidiary of the Phelps Dodge Corporation, one of the world’s largest copper mining companies, which was founded about the same time as Habirshaw. In the early-twentieth century, Habirshaw turned to advertising to increase its share in a very competitive market for electrical supplies. At the time, there were about fifty manufacturers of copper wiring in the United States. Habirshaw and Western Electric, its distributor, recognized the challenge in advertising a product that few people would actually ever see. Moreover, the ordinary consumer would have little input in the choice of wiring for their home. However involved a homeowner might be in the construction of his home – and this is a period of time when the majority of homes were still built by custom specifications – he tended to regard the house as a whole and would be more concerned with the cost, layout and appearance than with individual technical aspects. Habirshaw experimented with what is called “prestige advertising,” that is, representing prominent buildings in which their wiring had been installed. But this tactic seems to have had little effect on their market share. ← 98 | 99 →

The company saw that, given the nature of its product, they needed to appeal to those responsible for specifying or choosing materials – the illuminating engineer, the architect and the contractor – but to do so in the name of the consumer. That is, the architect or contractor could demonstrate to the homeowner that they are specifying respected brands known to the consumer. Habirshaw, along with a few other commercial pioneers in marketing, such as Andersen Windows, realized that brand recognition on the part of consumers could enhance sales even when those consumers were not purchasing products directly. The firm also recognized that, in addition to having the house wired for the most obvious electrical needs, it would be even more advantageous to wire the house for every possible future purpose. Thus, they exploited in their advertising the idea of “the home electrical,” a model house that anticipated an ever-increasing number of electrical purposes, an idea that resonated powerfully with faith in continuous technological advance.

The central idea of their advertising was to translate the hidden infrastructure of electricity, including the design work that preceded construction, into a series of visible benefits, such as electrically-powered machines to facilitate sewing, cleaning, cooking or comfort and convenience generally. Their advertisements, published in leading trade and popular journals, focused, therefore, on an electrical lifestyle, made possible by the combined wit of engineer, architect and builder, all alongside the Habirshaw name. At the same time, Habirshaw made house plans available to architects who, in turn, could show their clients the range of possibilities for electric lighting as well as a raft of appliances including washing machines, elevators, intercoms, heaters, even hot water heaters, all of which would enhance daily life. The architectural plans were also included in manuals sent out to electrical contractors, with the Habirshaw name noted throughout. Rather than sell just wiring, the company was selling the very idea of progress and naming the agents who would help the homeowner stride along a future-oriented trajectory. The advertising campaign, which took place over the course of several years in the 1920s, succeeded in increasing the company’s revenues tenfold, as well as merging the work of the engineer, architect and builder in the mind of the modern consumer.18


The best-known electrical engineer to forge a common language for architects and lighting engineers was Basset Jones, a founding member of the IES. His own career began in stage lighting, where he learned a number ← 99 | 100 → of techniques that he later applied at an architectural scale, including the 1925 Chicago Tribune Tower and the 1924 American Radiator Building, as well as the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In a remarkable series of articles in 1908 and 1909, solicited by the New York chapter of the IES, Jones explained to his engineering readership the progressive possibilities of electric lighting in architecture.19 Stressing the need for engineers to understand aesthetic matters, Jones offered a lengthy discussion on the physiology of aesthetic pleasure with examples drawn from several arts, including dance, poetry and architecture. In accentuating the importance of harmony and concordance, he drew also on the longstanding analogy between buildings and music. He emphasized that architecture itself was founded on matters of utility but had evolved toward the realm of art, providing a model for the advance of lighting design from technical to aesthetic concerns. Thus, he argued, architectural principles are “no mere whim on the part of the designer. … The conceptions of good architecture are subject to the same order of constraint that limits the postulates of science.”20

At the same time, Jones practically scolded architects for their preoccupation with historical precedents and suggested that much of the conflict with engineers resulted from architects’ failure to appreciate how inherently modern electric lighting was: “Electric lighting, at its best, is expressive of the freedom that scientific achievement has secured for this age and until our architecture also learns to embody this ideal of freedom, architectural design and modern artificial illumination must always clash to a greater or less extent.”21 Electric lighting, he argued, was in fact oftentimes the most modern aspect of the architecture of his day. He acknowledged that older building types probably needed to respect architectural precedents and, in this regard, might combine new with older lighting fixtures. But entirely new building types, such as railroad stations, could be designed, as he put it, “in the spirit of the times.” Jones went even further to argue for doing away with decorative light fixtures altogether in favor of indirect lighting, which could widen considerably the range of luminous effects in architecture.22 Bridging the longstanding divide between engineers and architects – internalizing the ← 100 | 101 → technical knowledge of the former, abandoning the stylistic blinders of the latter – Jones was suggesting that light itself could be a modern and plastic building material. To a large extent, Jones’s recommendations became a template for relations between architects and lighting engineers. Illuminating engineers learned to translate the architect’s intentions, from “the ‘feeling’ of the design” to the “last detail of the fixtures,” into technical specifications and architects, for their part, began to consult engineers earlier in the design process.23

The debate ensued in various forms over the years. The IES from time to time would continue to make statements regarding the need to educate architects in the virtues of the illuminating engineer. A 1933 editorial, for example, tried to resolve the tension by suggesting that architects should properly visualize the effects they wished to achieve but should at the same time turn to lighting experts to determine how best to implement those visions. This resolution would retain separate spheres for architects and illuminating engineers but nevertheless require that they work together closely, with engineers following the architect’s lead but with architects knowing enough to understand the possibilities and the limitations of lighting systems.24

Jones’s views, along with other lighting pioneers such as Luckiesh, regarding the aesthetic potential of lighting as a formative element of architecture proved influential. Lighting engineers recognized the architect’s role in conceptualizing building design and learned to respect the architect’s professional responsibility for the complete realization of a design. Soon, lighting engineers became a routine consultant for building designs. But these lighting pioneers were perhaps even more prescient. In recent years, buildings have been conceived almost entirely in terms of lighting, as if the structure were little more than a scaffolding for luminous effects, as Howard Walker had once feared. Often characterized as “media facades,” such designs feature embedded light sources, computer animated sequences, enormous high-resolution screens, light projections, interactive LED panels, and so on, that effectively dematerialize architectural substance in favor of evanescent phantasmagoria. By ignoring the nighttime profile of their designs, architects today do not risk the classical poise of their buildings so much as they invite irrelevance. Architecture, formerly conceived as a carefully sculpted mass, has in many ways become a series of luminous effects as the illuminating engineer has in many ways become the architect. ← 101 | 102 →

1 In H. Heathcote Statham, Architecture for the General Reader (New York: Scribner’s, 1896), 7-9.

2 Louis Bell, L. B. Marks and W. D’Arcy Ryan, “The Illumination of the Building of the Edison Electric Illuminating Company, of Boston,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 2/7 (October, 1907): 611.

3 Howard Walker, “Electric Light as Related to Architecture,” Illuminating Engineer 2/7 (October, 1907): 596.

4 Harvey Wiley Corbett, “Corbett Advises Designing Buildings for Night Illumination,” in “Architecture of the Night,” General Electric Company, Bulletin GED-375 (February, 1930). See also, Sandy Isenstadt, “Floodlighting: Surfaces Unbound,” in Luminous Buildings: Architecture of the Night, Marion Ackermann, Dietrich Neumann (eds.) (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2006), 72-73.

5 Noted in David L. DiLaura, A History of Light and Lighting: in Celebration of the Centenary of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (New York: Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, 2005), 19.

6 Cited in L.R. Hopton and H.E. Watkins, “The Relation of Fixture Design To Modern Illuminating Engineering Practice,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 5/5 (May, 1910): 302. Originally from Alfred A. Wohlauer, “Engineering Problems in Illumination,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 3/7 (October, 1908): 694.

7 “Engineer or Architect,” Editorial (E.L. Elliott, editor), The Illuminating Engineer 2/5 (July, 1907): 385.

8 “Electric Light as Related to Architecture,” Editorial (E.L. Elliott, editor), The Illuminating Engineer 2/7 (September, 1907): 525.

9 E.L. Elliott, “Plain Talks on Illuminating Engineering,” The Illuminating Engineer 2/8 (October, 1907): 582.

10 Bassett Jones, Jr., “The relation of Architectural Principles to Illuminating Engineering Practice,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 3/1 (Jan., 1908): 9.

11 “Electric Light as Related to Architecture,” Editorial (E.L. Elliott, editor), The Illuminating Engineer 2/7 (September, 1907): 525.

12 Noted in Edward Graham Daves Rossell, “Compelling Vision: From Electric Light to Illuminating Engineering 1880-1940” (Ph.D. Diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1998), xix.

13 Arthur Edwin Kennelly, “The Profession of Illuminating Engineering,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 6 (1911): 78.

14 Matthew Luckiesh, “Linking Science and Art with Practice in Lighting,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 12 (February, 1917): 96-98.

15 L. B. Marks, Discussion on Jones, ‘The Relation of Architectural Principles to Illuminating Engineering Practice,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 3/1 (January, 1908): 40.

16 “Architectural Lighting,” The American Architect 99/1837 (March 8, 1911): 93.

17 Arthur U. Gerber and Edwin D. Tillson, “Color Flood-Lighting of Buildings,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society, 19/6 (July, 1924): 518-530. See also, Augustus D. Curtis and J.L. Stair, “Working with the Architect on Difficult Lighting Problems,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society 19 (January, 1924): 43-54.

18 Henry Beers, Jr., “Winning the Architect Instead of ‘Forcing’ Him,” Printers’ Ink 102 (1918): 40-46. Edward Tandy, “Increasing Sales by Advertising the Industry,” Printers’ Ink 114 (March 24, 1921): 49-58.

19 Bassett Jones, Jr., “The Relation of Architectural Principles to Illuminating Engineering Practice,” Transactions of the Illuminating Engineering Society, 3: 1 (January, 1908): 9-37. Responses by members of IES, 37-65. See also, Margaret Maile Petty, “The Science and Art of Lighting. From Illuminating Engineering to Lighting Design, 1900-1970,” chapter three of “Light Culture: Electric Light in the United States, 1890s-1970s” (Ph.D. diss., Victoria University of Wellington, expected 2016), 11-15.

20 Jones, “The Relation of Architectural Principles,” 22.

21 Bassett Jones, “Indirect Lighting,” The American Architect 96/1772 (December 8, 1909): 246.

22 Jones, “Indirect Lighting,” 245.

23 Jones, “The Relation of Architectural Principles,” 23.

24 Petty, “The Science and Art of Lighting,” 21-23.