The Genteel
February 26, 2021


Internationally acclaimed artist James Carpenter unveils "Lake Light Threshold" in Toronto. Photograph by Tom Sandler.

It can seem as though there aren't many opportunities to stop and smell the roses within a big city's maze of skyscrapers and concrete facades. People rush by with their faces embedded in their smartphones. Awkward eye contact is avoided by cold and deliberate tunnel vision. Not a second is wasted on acknowledging one's surroundings.

But when the clouds part and the sunbeams fight through, do you stop to look up at the sky? To feel the warmth of the light on your face? To notice how it reflects off the glass towers? And even on your gloomiest days, can the light make you smile?

A view of Lake Light Threshold on the
pedestrian bridge. Photograph by Karen Lin.

James Carpenter is a man who sees the light. An artist, architect, and glass technologist, he has built an internationally renowned career around the simple pleasures of light. To him, there is more to light than meets the eye.  

Through the work of his award-winning design practice and studio, New York-based James Carpenter Design Associates, Carpenter's main agenda is to enrich the public realm by integrating qualities of light within the material fabric of the urban context, enhancing the sensory experience. "[My work] is based on engaging people with a sensibility of understanding light as you would recognise it in nature and how you can synthesise that and bring it back to an urban environment," Carpenter explains. "We often think of light events experienced in nature or outside of the city being quite remarkable, but we normally don't think of it in an urban context. How do you make light something exceptional within the city?"

A few weeks ago in Toronto, Carpenter unveiled his first permanent Canadian public art installation. Lake Light Threshold is an illuminated pedestrian bridge located just a few kilometres north of Lake Ontario's waterfront and at the base of one of the main entrance points into the city. The bridge connects the city's burgeoning Southcore Financial Centre to Union Station (the main hub for commuters) and the downtown PATH network (an underground pedestrian walkway that links to kilometres of stadiums, condos, businesses, shopping and entertainment).

Looking north towards Lake Light Threshold, one can see the ebbing and flowing of the lake translated into the mysteriously transient and kinetic glow of the interior wall of the bridge.

At the start of every project, Carpenter seeks out the natural relationship between the environmental concerns of a project and the desire to heighten the individual's experience of a place. Carpenter described the moment that inspired Lake Light Threshold: "It was during a visit to Toronto in the dead of winter. The lake was frozen, but for whatever reason it had been broken up, and the whole surface of the water was covered with these huge blocks of ice that were slightly disengaged from each other. Very early in the morning, you could see an amazing low light that came across the ice. It was so beautiful, something you just get five minutes of when the sun is at the right angle and all of a sudden, it's like, 'Wow, what is that?' All of a sudden you see something that enriches your day."

Looking north towards Lake Light Threshold, one can see the ebbing and flowing of the lake translated into the mysteriously transient and kinetic glow of the interior wall of the bridge. When the bridge is vacant, the artwork glitters like silver and gold sequins. When pedestrians pass through, it takes on a different kind of light, casting a sepia glow around the travelling silhouettes. "The artwork creates a dynamic and interactive experience which is activated by the viewers' movement in relation to the multiple depths and prismatic effects of the artwork," explains Carpenter. "As pedestrians pass through the bridge, their passage interacts and enhances views of the north wall. Their passage is registered within the layers of its surface, further activating the sense of wave-like flow. Day and night the bridge is a significant luminous threshold that is activated by human activity, the sculpture's lighting and the viewer's shifting point of view, broadcasting an experiential sense of Toronto's unique light."

Gucci Ginza, Tokyo: multi-dimensional
glass facade by James Carpenter.

Through Carpenter's eyes, light is very specific. With each project, he tries to understand and communicate what is unique about the light in every location, unlocking a new idea or form of expression. We experience these differences in his many representations of light around the world.

Carpenter designed the largest cable-net wall ever for the Time Warner Center in New York City, a concert space and home to Anderson Cooper's talk show. The wall unites the indoor atrium with an unobstructed view of 59th St. and the treetops of Central Park. In Tokyo, Carpenter composed two layers of hanging glass panels for Gucci's flagship store in Ginza, one of the world's most luxurious retail districts. The panels softly emanate classic glamour and complement the city's spirited shopping culture.

Carpenter explores and celebrates the many properties of light at the intersection of fine art, architecture and engineering. While others see the role of light in art as one of a complementary bystander, he takes the opposite perspective. "The architecture itself should be designed to reveal qualities of light rather than light revealing the architecture," says Carpenter. "The architecture is subservient to making light the most powerful component of our experience."

Watch a film about the Lake Light Threshold, produced by Public Art Management and Inkblot Media.



Sign up to receive a weekly dispatch from The Genteel.

About Us

The Genteel unearths the forces shaping global fashion and design through the lens of business, culture, society and best kept secrets. 

More about us

Our Contributors

A worldwide collective of contributors currently form The Genteel. On a daily basis our team dispatches thought-provoking and insightful articles from the streets of Oslo, Toronto, Beirut, Moscow, United Arab Emirates, Seoul and beyond.