photo: Chris Burden's "Urban Light," installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, features several of L.A.'s historic streetlight styles.
Chris Burden's "Urban Light," installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, features several of L.A.'s historic streetlight styles. Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

A new competition from the L.A. mayor’s office invites designers to reimagine the rich history of civic illumination and create next-generation streetlights.

There are 220,000 streetlights spread across sprawling Los Angeles. With more than 400 different designs on thousands of miles of sidewalks, L.A. boasts more sheer streetlight variety than any other American city. In older pockets of downtown, they come in a wild assortment of ornate historic styles—with candelabra arms, fruit-shaped luminaires, and rounded bases.

But the vast majority are more utilitarian: Since the 1960s, the city’s no-frills standard model has been the kind with galvanized steel masts and rounded arms. They tower over traffic, little noticed as they buzz on at dusk and play coat-rack to traffic signs and police cameras.

An official design competition from the mayor’s office is aimed at changing that. On Wednesday, Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that Los Angeles is on the hunt for a new standard streetlight, calling on teams of architects, designers, lighting experts, and engineers from around the world to submit their ideas.

The hope is to elevate the look, as well as the utility of the lamps, especially for Angelenos who aren’t driving cars, as the metropolis invests billions of dollars into public transit, walking, and cycling options ahead of hosting the 2028 Olympics. With a fresh design, the city’s streetlights might also become visual touchstones for stronger civic identity.

“Our city is in the midst of an unprecedented effort to reinvest in and reanimate its public realm,” Garcetti wrote in a competition brief that went live online today. “We need a streetlight that safely illuminates all of that activity while at the same time expresses a design sensibility that is unmistakably contemporary—and proudly of, and for, Los Angeles.”

This is an initiative spearheaded by Christopher Hawthorne, the former architecture critic for the L.A. Times who took on the new post of chief design officer for the city in 2018. The humble and omnipresent streetlight attracted him as a subject for a civic design project in part because of their unusual potential for citywide impact: The winning streetlight designers can expect to see 10,000 to 20,000 copies of their creation erected across L.A. over the coming decade, Hawthorne estimates. “That is just a huge opportunity,” he said.

Both professionals and students attending local high schools and universities have opportunities to compete, with a deadline for preliminary proposals in March 2020. Once a panel of jurors selects a design, the fresh model will be phased in over time, as old streetlights needs to be swapped out or as public works projects overhaul boulevards. The city’s most historic styles will be maintained.

Where the new poles will go “will probably depend on whether the location is one block or one pole at a time,” said Norma Isahakian, the executive director of the L.A.’s Bureau of Street Lighting. “Concrete poles in residential areas will remain, but on major streets they’re dated. It’s time we get a unique and modernistic pole.”

To write the competition brief, Hawthorne dug into the city’s extensive streetlight design catalogue—which featured illustrious names like Wilshire Double, Hollywood Special, and Benedict Canyon Pendant—and dove into their colorful past, which turns out to be a lens for the broader cultural history of the city itself.

Gas lamps had been around since the 1860s, and electrification arrived in L.A. in 1882, months after the young Los Angeles Times ran a front-page article touting the arrival of a 200-foot-tall light tower in rival San Jose. “Electric Light,” the headline declared. “Los Angeles Wants and Must Have One.”

Towering electric masts like this one lit downtown L.A. in the late 19th century. (Historic photo courtesy of India Mandelkern)

L.A. did indeed erect several of these gigantic early masts, but by the early 1900s they gave way to the smaller incandescent lamps with a more familiar shape. Dozens of elegant designs bloomed across the growing city, often ordered and paid for by neighborhood residents.

In a dusty cow town that hadn’t yet made its mark, the beauty of these public objects mattered, and the world did take notice: In 1909, Charles Mulford Robinson, the journalist-turned-pioneering “City Beautiful” urban theorist, praised L.A.’s street lighting in a report for city leaders: “The lights are so fine, the effects on the city so beautiful and so rare in this country, that they deserve all the protection and development you can give them.”

Streetlights also became a chance for L.A. boosters to brand the city as equally modern as New York, Chicago, and other heavyweights lighting up in the east, according to India Mandelkern, a historian writing a book about the history of L.A.’s street lighting with whom the city consulted on the brief. “They were attempting to show the world that they’re a city of the future, with electric light ennobling and beautifying its streets as a progressive place,” she said. Illumination was linked to a sense of safety, with some newspapers referring to them as “stationary policemen.”

But by the second half of the 20th century, streetlights stopped being civic centerpieces and become spotlights for the city’s new star: the automobile. To accommodate cars, urban lighting had to grow in scale, just like the streets and buildings they fronted. L.A.’s standard model is about 30 feet tall, making them 10 to 20 feet taller than many of the historic ones, which were designed to light the way for pedestrians rather than drivers. The city also doubled down on their use as passive law enforcement, with the Bureau of Street Lighting vastly expanding its reach after the Watts Rebellion.

An abnormally empty Santa Monica freeway shown after the January 1994 earthquake highlights the utilitarian look of L.A.’s standard streetlight. (Lois Bernstein/AP)

Today, with the arrival of police and traffic surveillance cameras, data-gathering sensors, and the coming of 5G internet, streetlights in nearly every globalized city have also become infrastructure for “smart city” projects—sometimes controversially, as Hong Kong protesters have recently highlighted to great effect.

All of this history bears on L.A.’s competition. For one, designers are encouraged to draw inspiration from the high aesthetic standards to which L.A.’s lamps once aspired, Hawthorne said: “We want to think about bringing back the design ambition that marked those early decades back to contemporary production.”

And L.A.’s modern streetlight should also be able to sleekly accommodate the glut of smart-city sensors and other devices that are likely coming down the line, said Isahakian: ”Poles are the real estate where those products are going to go.” Meanwhile, L.A. is already in the midst of transitioning from large sodium bulbs to to smaller, more efficient LEDs, which require less space and cast a different kind of glow. Competitors are encouraged to consider how new lighting technologies affect energy use and the quality of illumination in a heavily light-polluted (and air-polluted) city.

Jurors will also look for ways for L.A.’s new lamp to incorporate bits of text, such as poems by local authors or community memories inscribed in plaques near their base. And as the city tries to kick its driving habit, the new design must be considerate of pedestrians, cyclists, and people using wheelchairs, strollers, and other mobility devices.

Chances are, the streetlight of the future will be called on to do even more in L.A. and beyond, as demands on public street space grow with population and as the planet warms. Hawthorne said he could see poles doubling as masts for shade-giving sails by day (something Jerusalem has tried out), for example, or as electric vehicle charging stations (something the city is already piloting). And there’s a good chance streetlights will be more contentious objects than in the past, considering the privacy concerns that have already arisen in other cities dangling digital data-collecting technologies on their poles.

Yet streetlights have always struck a delicate balance between letting residents engage in civic life and serving as eyes on the street, Mandelkern said. The competition is a recognition of their importance, even though they’re usually hardly noticed. “Usually, when we’re not talking about our streetlights, that’s when they’re doing a good job,” she said. “But even if they’re not at the foreground, they’re very valuable pieces of real estate. People are sort of catching onto that.”

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