Pioneers of the Internet

Untangling the Web
Shedding Light Around the World
Reunion 2000


President's View

At Rensselaer
From the Archives
Hawk Talk
Making a Difference

Class Notes Features

RAA Annual Report

Alumni Weddings

Alumni Travel Program

Looking Ahead

By Jodi Ackerman

According to ancient Greek myth, mortals came to grasp light with their hands when Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to man. The titan was greatly punished for his deed because the gods feared their brilliant flame would give humankind greater power than they possessed.

Howard Brandston, adjunct profesor at the Lighting Research Center and world-renowned lighting designer, pictured with his two hunting dogs, Purdey and Corey, at his Hollowville home in Columbia County.

We have not been transformed into gods because of Prometheus' gift. Yet the flame we have cultured to brighten the depths of darkness has allowed us to take full command of not only how we live, but who we are, how we think, how we express ourselves to others.

The power of illumination as an art form, bringing out deep emotion and wonder of the individual, is what Howard Brandston has worked to achieve around the world for the past 35 years.

"Light is the primary fact of our existence. It governs our daily life in the most basic and comprehensive ways,'' says Brandston, a world-renowned lighting designer and adjunct professor at the School of Architecture's Lighting Research Center at Rensselaer. "Light symbolizes understanding, emotional as well as intellectual—the sudden grasp of a concept, that flash, that moment of empathy of when we can say 'we get it' and we have seen the light.'"

Through his company, The Brandston Partnership Inc., based in New York City, Brandston has shed light on more than 2,500 projects all over the world, ranging from skyscrapers, museums, and subways to waterfalls, historical buildings, and monuments that continue to touch the minds and hearts of millions.

Since Brandston opened his lighting design firm in 1966, he has received countless awards from professional associations, including the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America and the American Institute of Architects. As an energy conservationist, Brandston, who wrote the mathematical equation for lighting standards in the first U.S. energy code, helped set the initial energy standards for lighting from 1975 to 1985.

Brandston is probably best known for relighting the Statue of Liberty as part of the 1986 restoration of the 150-foot copper monument that stands in New York Harbor as a symbol of freedom and opportunity. The year marked the centennial of France's gift of Lady Liberty to the United States to commemorate the American Revolution.

Although it wasn't Brandston's biggest project, to him it still holds great symbolic meaning.

"Light symbolizes freedom. The Statue of Liberty carries a torch that can be seen not just in New York Harbor, but in the hearts and hopes of people around the world," he says. "Miss Liberty also carries a book, which she can read by torchlight when it gets dark. Because of manufactured light we can control and turn light on to see whenever we need to. And reading is the indispensable building block of freedom."

Brandston and his 14 associates illuminate architectural masterpieces throughout the world. The company recently completed the lighting for Petronas (National Oil Company) Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Erected in 1998 and rising to 1,483 feet, the buildings are the tallest in the world.

Some of Brandston's additional lighting projects in the United States include New York's Central Park Zoo and Battery Park City. He also developed the lighting master plans for the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey and the Central Business District of Detroit.

Yet, despite his successes nationally and internationally, Brandston generally prefers to talk about projects in New York, the state he has called home for most of his life.

In recent years, Brandston has paid particular attention to Central and Upstate New York. Last November, his company completed the lighting for Niagara Mohawk's famous 1932 art deco building, which houses the utility company's headquarters in Syracuse. The idea was to replicate and add to the spectacular illumination of the building as it had existed before World War II using modern technology. This undertaking represents the significance of Niagara Mohawk's civic pride and community responsibility, Brandston says.

Brandston is currently assisting in redeveloping Columbus Circle in Syracuse. Home to several majestic churches, the historic Fourth Onondaga County Courthouse, and the internationally known Everson Museum of Art, the circle is the city's center of civic, cultural, and religious life.

"We are going to turn it into a really wonderful celebratory part of town," he says. "The lighting is really meant to be an expression of civic pride and responsibility and to create great places for people to enjoy. A city is the living room center of the region of which it serves, so one has to keep the grandeur and display the context of what the city is."

The Columbus Circle concept calls for a downtown square with its own distinct character, and separate from the typical streetlight grid that tends to highlight city traffic and crowded highways at night. To create this "special room," Brandston will use soft white light to turn the area into a warm, safe, and inviting plaza for families and other strollers to enjoy festivals and celebrations while discouraging motor vehicle intrusion.

Brandston used a similar soft light approach—dimming the lights just a little more—in illuminating the falls in Ticonderoga, just north of Lake George, last spring.

"You'll see these falls in a natural way, like we turned up the moonlight just a little to create a romantic place within this park, where couples can walk around and hold hands and get away from the computer world," he says.

Brandston, who attributes good mentorship not only to his successful career but to a life of personal satisfaction, is known by many to be an ”in-your-face" kind of man.

His warm, infectious smile and deep philosophical conversations speak to how far he will go to meet the stars, to see the light, and to transform what could be to what is. So it's not surprising that he did not passively wait for the chance that a great mentor might happen to cross his path. Instead, he was determined to find the one who would serve as the launch pad for his career in lighting design.

While studying at Brooklyn College, he pursued Stanley McCandless, a legendary pioneer in lighting design at the advent of the incandescent lamp in the 1920s and 1930s.

McCandless, a part-time professor at Yale University at the time, liberally gave Brandston advice and eventually offered the young college student a job as his assistant at Century Lighting.

For nearly five years, Brandston immersed himself in everything the professional designer had to offer, becoming a McCandless protege. "I learned to be a human being. I got more opportunities and more latitude than most people ever did in school. He [McCandless] was the one I would look toward for the answers," Brandston says. "There were others who wrote articles and books. But they never had quite the same clear, educated approach that he did. He wrote the foundation from which other work came and I was really fortunate to get a job as his assistant."

Brandston designed lights for touring shows and eventually for off-Broadway productions before he left stage work in 1959 to pursue artistic challenges in the world of architecture. Besides the substantial comfort achieved in being paid regularly, Brandston says he wanted his work to have greater meaning and to stamp his name more permanently on the product.

"In theater ... if it's a good play it will last a while, whereas if you build the pyramids, you create a culture," he says ."Architecture is the chronicle of the times, and light is part of that if you build it into the architecture. If it's a good piece of work, your contribution will always be there."

Rensselaer Alumni Magazine On-Line