The Lighthouse is Not Trying to be Beautiful
The crucial part of any lighthouse is a beam of light alerting shipping to the presence of something potentially dangerous. A building is neither implied nor necessary. Lighthouses resist architectural design. It’s very unusual to see an ugly lighthouse. Unlike other buildings of a purely utilitarian nature, lighthouses are often located in places having a rugged beauty and this makes us think of them as picturesque even though they are not trying to be beautiful. Lighthouses are where they are because they need to be where they are. This is often obvious
but sometimes not.
The shared idea is to alert seafarers to the presence of unseen dangers. Liighthouses are generally built in the manner most appropriate for the location, with materials and construction chosen on the basis of a durability vs. maintainability tradeoff.
In principle, the colours and surface pattern of lighthouses are chosen to contrast with whatever landscape they’re most likely to be seen against in daytime. It is not a good thing for a lighthouse to “blend in” with its landscape. A lighthouse that did so would be shirking its responsibilities as a lighthouse. The lighthouse is merely trying to attract the attention of seafarers in order to keep them safe.
Let’s see what happens when a lighthouse does try to be beautiful through being made to carry aesthetic ideas it was never meant to have and that don’t – can’t – make it do its job any better. Attempts, mostly historical, have been made to make lighthouses look like things other than lighthouses. It’s fair enough to want to give the lighthouse keeper someplace decent to live but these attempts mostly involve making the lighthouse keeper’s residence look like an ordinary house with a tower disguising a big lamp. Many such lighthouses are in New England
but the Race Rock Lighthouse off Long Island perhaps has the most surreal sense of architectural denial.
Unfortunately, if lighthouses can be made to look like something, anything, that’s not a lighthouse then they’re fair game to be made to look like Architecture. Let’s see some attempts. In the following appraisals, I’m going to have to insist all such contenders be functioning lighthouses and not some lighthouse reimagining or coastal decoration in the spirit of a lighthouse such as The Colossus of Rhodes.
Whether or not the oft-represented pose of the statue is historically accurate or not, at least The Colossus of Rhodes was built – unlike this 1922 proposal put out by Georgy Wegman who, you might remember, was to produce the sane and constructible residential setup noted in 1927: The Competition.
Projects such as this are often grouped under the term “Constructivist” but, though contemporaneous, more rightly belong to the romantic symbolist VKhUTEMAS stream improbably known as The Rationalists, and best represented by Nikolai Ladovsky. Still, 1922 was early days.
Let’s see how far we’ve not come. Here’s one, black italics mine.
Aware Lighthouse First Place: AAA Cavalier Bremworth New Zealand Unbuilt Architecture Awards, 2012
Exciting and beautiful, taking the mythology of the lighthouse to create a luminous interior world and an engaging object in the landscape.
Located within New Zealand’s Abel Tasman National Park, the Awaroa Lighthouse operates at extremes by revealing the tensions hidden within an image of stability. Addressing the lighthouse for both its architectural typology and its imagistic quality, this work situates architecture in the volatile mid-point between the otherworldly beauty of the New Zealand landscape, and an anxiety of destroying it latent within its national psyche. Recording both immaterial data flow from a worldwide network, and material seismic data from a local network of telemetric rods at its base, this work questions the extremity of human influence for the sake of preservation.
Hm – not got much to say about shipping and safety. Here’s another! As you’ll see from the text snippet, it gives lighthouses a bad name. It may light up but it ain’t no lighthouse.
Infusing new life to conventional lighthouses, installed to mark dangerous coastlines, hazardous shoals and reefs in and around the sea, Mikou Design Studio has planned a tower to build in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. Entitled the “Lighthouse Tower,” the mammoth structure is rooted on the island of Cotunduba and makes an arched gateway to the capital city. Accessed through a large jetty from the sea, the modern lighthouse provides enough space for a number of observation points, an auditorium, skywalk, bungee jump platform and climbing tower, together with a gyro drop, cafeteria, souvenir store, urban balconies and multi-usage space. Illuminated with bright (possibly LED) lights, the tower not only looks good at night but also provides a mesmerizing view of the “samba” city.
This naturally-cooled (?!) lighthouse in Saudi Arabia is lit from within and “acts as a lighthouse”.
I think that says it all. It’s a breakwater beacon.
Still in the region and in a similar vein, we have this breakwater beacon intended for The World in Dubai. I guess it dates from circa 2006. I can vouch that it’s not always clear out there on The World but, once past that breakwater, there’s still a lot of corners to navigate so I feel this structure is 90% decorative gateway and 10% mariner’s friend.
Beacons generally mark navigation channels leading to a harbour. Here’s a guide. Lighthouses mark major and often unseen hazards offshore. You could download a pdf of The Mariner’s Handbook but the Admiralty List of Lights is a database (also available digitally) listing every light and beacon you need to know of wherever you are.
Flaunting a conspicuous lack of cross-bracing, Westmole at Bergen on Lake Constance is trying to be beautiful. It’s also at the end of a pier, which makes it a beacon.
As you’d expect, The Canary Islands has many lighthouses most of which aren’t trying to be beautiful, and therefore are. This one at Punta del Hidalgo is the exception. With more than a touch of Malevich architecton about it, I assume it emits a light seafarers are grateful for.
Me, I need to see a photograph of this lighthouse from the sea side before making a call on its unlikely colour. Oh.
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Architects are offended by the idea of anything useful and of value such as vernacular architecture, IKEA kitchens, lighthouses, or basically anything that can exist without them. To me, this reveals an insecurity, quite likely a sickness. Please check this out – hopefully with a certain amount of disgust.
Participants are asked to redefine a contemporary lighthouse typology and take into consideration advances in technology, development of sustainable systems and its metaphorical value which has made it one of the most inspiring structures in the world. Lighthouse design should become a tribute to the Costa Concordia Disaster and highlight the vulnerable borders between the elements of Land and Sea, Sky and Ground, Light and Darkness. Even today when global positioning systems diminish the role of the lighthouses, they still play and important role and are inalienable parts of the marine navigation tradition.
The recomended project area is located on the small peninsula north of the Giglio Porto village on the Giglio Island in Tuscany, Italy. Coordinates of the peninsula: Latitude: 42.365821 / Longitude: 10.920206. Lighthouse can be positioned anywhere in the highlighted area, including the sea. Please see the map and the DWG in the Download section.
There are no restrictions in regards the size and particular position of the lighthouse on the peninsula. The only requirement the design has to meet is that the new Lighthouse should accommodate at least one living cell for a lighthouse watcher or visitors. The objective is to provide maximum freedom for all participants to develop a project in the most creative way to push the boundaries of how the contemporary lighthouse should appear and function.
“… function.” !? I’d have thought there’ wouldn’t be much scope for the contemporary function of a lighthouse to be that much different from the traditional one. But more to the point, the entire competition is in acutely bad taste given that the primary cause of the Concordia catastrophe was, I understand, neither the fault of a lighthouse or the absence of one sufficiently architectural or contemporary. Here’s the winners.
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To conclude, I’d like to speak up on behalf of lighthouses. Leave them alone! They do very well without architecture and, because of that, happen to look quite nice as well. What we’re really admiring is the absence of architectural pretension and the quiet dignity and integrity it confers. To generate this aesthetic effect, architectural pretension has to be designed out, not in.
Any gallery of lighthouses not trying to look beautiful is not complete without the contribution of Vladimir Shukhov’s Adziogol Lighthouse built in 1911 on the Dnipro Estuary in The Ukraine.
It’s still there a century on and, despite being made of steel and in a corrosive environment, it has withstood the elements the same way that ships do. In the same way that lighthouses resist architecture, Shukhov structures resist replacement because they are difficult to improve upon. Notice how the lighthouse keeper’s house is, for a house, also as simple and efficient as possible?