Dazzled just by looking at the lights

Dazzled just by looking at the lights

In an earlier hymn of praise to the new floodlights at Manuka Oval (in illuminating action for Wednesday's day/nighter between Australia and the Windies), this columnist mentioned that in their daintiness they were reminiscent of lingerie. Now it emerges that the lights' designers, Cox Architecture at Kingston, have their premises above a famous lingerie emporium!

Can it be, Gang-Gang challenged Cox's Ian Smith (one of the firm's directors) as our interview began, that when you designed the lights you were subconsciously influenced by the things you see every day displayed in the shop window? Smith was amused by this but insists that he and his colleagues had other, higher considerations. There are things about the designs of the skyline-changing lights not dreamt of in the philosophies of those of us who admire them.

Manuka Oval.

Manuka Oval.Credit:Ben Wrigley

One thing that emerged from his conversation is an explanation of why it is so many of us love the looks of the Manuka lights when the lights at, say, Canberra Stadium or the MCG have only ever struck us as being just, well, useful. Then, what he reveals raises the question of what might have happened if the Manuka district had been the home of floodlight-opposing celebrity NIMBYs.

But to begin at the beginning, Smith explains that the need for lights emerged after Cox was first commissioned to think of a whole masterplan for Manuka Oval and its environs. The ACT government thought its piggy bank might yield $30 million for the project and wondered what it might spend that money on to get the most benefit from it.

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''And so we commenced consultation with various stakeholders including Cricket Australia and the AFL, and that identified the priority of installing lighting at Manuka. That would give them more flexibility in scheduling games. Day/night games are much easier for people to attend because they don't have to take a full day off. The game runs on into the evening. And then there's an extra excitement about them [games under lights].''

Why are the lights somehow so eye-catchingly fetching to look at?

''If you look at light towers in other venues around Australia, like at the Canberra Stadium, you'll see that they look very agricultural, very utilitarian. In part that's because most of the lights around Australia were done in a period when elevating the design element wasn't such a priority. But as an architectural firm, everything we do is about trying to propose solutions that function very well but also consider aesthetics too.

''And then the form of something like this responds to the function. At Manuka there were various constraints about maximum heights … they had to be built to fit into the National Capital Plan, and so the inclined tower [the lights look like six excited archaeologists all with their necks bent, their inclined heads looking down at something fine they've just unearthed] was a response to that, and to the challenge of how you get the lighting geometry [the spread of illumination] right.''

The lights at Manuka Oval.

The lights at Manuka Oval.Credit:Ben Wrigley

Gang-Gang wondered if any other stylish sets of lights somewhere else in the world had been an inspiration but Smith says that, no, because although ''we cast a pretty wide net'' and looked at what's been done elsewhere, there are very few companies in the world, let alone in Australia, that do such things, this tailoring of lights to specific places. So Cox thinks we have at Manuka something ''actually unique'' albeit with the collaboration of clever Abacus Lighting of Britain that had installed some smart lighting at some lordly cricket venues in England. ''For Manuka, we were really conscious that it's perceived as being almost a village green, a series of pavilions in a park as opposed to a coliseum-like stadium … so we though that, 'Yes, they're very big structures. but let's make them as sculptural and elegant and slender as possible.' ''

Some local burgher-curmudgeons have demanded to know why the lights at Manuka Oval are not retractable so that, when there's nothing going on there, curmudgeons can be given back the views they've known and loved. Masquerading as a curmudgeon, I demanded to know why this hadn't been done. After all, it's what's been done at Lord's.

''It was done at Lord's for a very specific reason. Because of the very strict planning controls at Lord's. The real estate around Lord's is incredibly expensive. There are some really heavy hitters like Paul McCartney and Madonna who live across the road … But we took the view that if we're going to put lights in, let's not try to pretend they're not there. Let's kind of make a statement with them, make them distinctively Manuka's.

''The Lord's response was actually an attempt to try to make them disappear, but of course they only play cricket at Lord's. All of the round venues in Australia share between cricket and AFL so they're used the whole year round. In Britain they have a cricket season and then they take the lights down for the winter. But that would be farcical at Manuka.''

''We've tried to create something we hope will become thought of as distinctly Manuka. People will see the venue [on TV] and they'll recognise it because of the character of the light towers towers and say 'Oh, that match is being played at Manuka.'''

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