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LA's Street Lamps Could Someday Include Poetry, Shade And Even More 'Élan,' Whatever That Is

A girls plays under columns of Urban Lights, a 2008 large-scale assemblage sculpture by Chris Burden, in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (JOE KLAMAR/AFP via Getty Images)
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The notion of L.A.'s street lamps has, in recent years, been almost completely co-opted by Instagram and "Urban Light," the lovingly over-'grammed display in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (see above).

But soon, we might all be singing a different tune (in, or out of, the rain). The city is holding an international competition to redesign our local street lighting, and the bar has been set quite high:

"[T]he marriage of safety to beauty, efficiency to charisma -- is central to the L.A. Lights the Way competition. Many of the historic Los Angeles streetlights we now cherish for their élan were designed as site-specific streetlights for neighborhoods within the City of Los Angeles... Los Angeles now has a chance to combine our rich streetlight tradition with the freedom opened up by progress in lighting technology to produce a standard design emblematic of 21st-century Los Angeles."

At the moment, there are 223,000 street lamps in Los Angeles, the care and maintenance of which is overseen by the Bureau of Street Lighting within the Department of Public Works. The contest won't replace all of those lamps, said Christopher Hawthorne, the city's chief design officer.
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"This competition will not affect the historic designs that are all over the city," he said. "Those will remain in place, and there are many neighborhoods that are understandably protective of those designs, and don't want to see them go away."

What the contest will do, however, is refocus the artistic aim of the standard street lamp design.

"The standard design [was] introduced in the 1950's," he said. "At very much response to car culture... it doesn't really have a connection to neighborhood character or pedestrian scale."

He hopes that entrants will incorporate elements of earlier eras, as well as consider the lamps' roles in the overall aesthetic of the community. That might mean adding a shade lower down on the pole so the lamp functions as sun protection during the day, or including room for something more thought-provoking.

"For example, can we have some kind of space for text?" said Hawthorne. "That could include poems by the L.A. Poet Laureate, or references to nearby architectural landmarks, or community history. We want to think about that daytime role as well as the nighttime role."

Friday is the final day for contestants to submit their registration and entry fee. The first round of designs will be due in March, and a winner is expected to be announced in June.

For more details, visit the competition's website.