Terry Grimley drops in on preparations for Birmingham's international Light Festival...
Lighting designer Tim Downey and his team of international students have had just four days to transform the bus subway beneath the Bullring.
It was never intended as a pedestrian route, but planners have had to accept that it has become one, thanks to the insistence of human beings on taking the shortest visible route between two points, even if it means walking round barriers put in their way.
Now the gloomy stretch of subterranean road is undergoing a transformation as part of the East-side Light Festival, which was switched on last night and runs until February 26.
The event is the 22nd in a series held around Europe by the European Lighting Designers' Association (ELDA), and the first to take place in the UK.
Six leading lighting designers from the UK, Slovenia, Germany, Finland, United States and Belgium have each each carried out a lighting scheme in Eastside, assisted by a total of around 50 students from countries as far-flung as Indonesia, Malaya, Israel, India, Canada, US, Mexico, Australia and mainland Europe. The six sites form a 45-minute walk around the area.
"The six lighting designers came over in May, we went around and they selected sites," explains Eastside arts officer Nigel Edmondson.
"They have their own concepts of what they want to do. They ordered a range of equipment, came here on Monday and met the students.
"It's not just a question of realising the designers' concepts. The students have to contribute ideas as well."
Apart from the Bullring under-pass, the sites are River Street, the railway viaduct at Floodgate Street, Typhoo Basin, the railway bridges at New Canal Street and Fazeley Street, and the Custard Factory's Digbeth frontage.
Funded trough the Urban Fusion programme, the festival seems a perfect gambit to help kick-start awareness of Eastside's potential as a new cultural quarter for the city.
"One reason for getting these people involved in Eastside is about demonstrating confidence in the area," says Edmondson.
"All the projects are about making links, highlighting routes to the city centre and communities around it."
The idea of bringing ELDA to Birmingham came from Martin Lupton, who lives in Solihull and runs the lighting unit at nationally renowned architects Building Design Partnership.
"Two and a half years ago I led a group of students in a workshop in Sweden, and I thought I really wanted to make it happen in the UK," he says. "If you look at the architecture down in Eastside some of it is phenomenal, but people don't realise. They think of it as a tumble-down, derelict area."
This week he is taking the role of technical co-ordinator, working closely with the council's street light manager, Peter Harrison, to turn the visitors' visions into practical realities.
"It's a matter of knocking on doors and asking people if they mind if we knock a hole in their wall and put a lantern on it," says Peter. "We're calling in so many favours. It's the goodwill of the council workforce that makes it possible."
ELDA was founded 11 years ago in Gutersloh, Germany, by journalist Joachim Ritter and his teacher wife Alison.
Joachim believes that good lighting can bring great benefits to urban areas - perhaps even in discouraging antisocial behaviour - but that it is difficult even to have a debate about it when the public has no concept of what good schemes look like.
So the workshops set out to give practical demonstrations, and have enjoyed particular succes at the little Swedish town of Alingsas, half an hour from Gothenburg, where workshops have been held in each of the last six years. The event has been so successful that it draws 30,000 visitors to a town with a population of 40,000.
"The lighting culture in Sweden has really developed," Joachim says. "A survey comparing several countries showed that in Sweden every second product is going into a high-quality lighting scheme. In other countries it's between three and ten per cent.
Edmondson and Martin Lupton both agree that the standard of lighting design in the UK is already improving, but that Birmingham - one of nine founder members of LUCI ( Lighting Urban Centres International) - needs a comprehensive plan if it is ever to achieve the kind of nocturnal transformation achieved by its twin city of Lyon.
Meanwhile, Tim Downey and his colleagues quickly decided that their scheme in the Bullring subway would be based on primary colours and use the work of American minimalist light sculptor Dan Flavin, recently seen at Tate Modern, as a reference point.
Though quickly sketched out, their concept still looks dauntingly complex for the limited time available, though Downey points out that half the lighting can be delivered by changing the colour of the existing fluorescent lights.
Was he confident that their scheme would transform the environment? "I am, because I've done it before," he said. "The students are pretty worried, though."
The festival paves the way for possible permanent lighting installations in Eastside. River Street, for example, has been selected as an example of how a typical Eastside Street might be lit, while the railway viaduct at Floodgate Street may pave the way for a phased series of schemes highlighting this spectacular piece of Victorian engineering.
"We have some funding next year from Urban Fusion to start getting some permanent lighting on the viaduct," says Edmondson.
"It would be a massive investment to do the whole of it, but we'll make a start. The way to do it may be to get a small section done as a demonstration and then persuade developers to take on sections."