Electric Light

Electric Light

An Architectural History

By Sandy Isenstadt

How electric light created new spaces that transformed the built environment and the perception of modern architecture.





How electric light created new spaces that transformed the built environment and the perception of modern architecture.

In this book, Sandy Isenstadt examines electric light as a form of architecture—as a new, uniquely modern kind of building material. Electric light was more than just a novel way of brightening a room or illuminating a streetscape; it brought with it new ways of perceiving and experiencing space itself. If modernity can be characterized by rapid, incessant change, and modernism as the creative response to such change, Isenstadt argues, then electricity—instantaneous, malleable, ubiquitous, evanescent—is modernity's medium. Isenstadt shows how the introduction of electric lighting at the end of the nineteenth century created new architectural spaces that altered and sometimes eclipsed previously existing spaces. He constructs an architectural history of these new spaces through five examples, ranging from the tangible miracle of the light switch to the immaterial and borderless gloom of the wartime blackout. He describes what it means when an ordinary person can play God by flipping a switch; when the roving cone of automobile headlights places driver and passenger at the vertex of a luminous cavity; when lighting in factories is seen to enhance productivity; when Times Square became an emblem of illuminated commercial speech; and when the absence of electric light in a blackout produced a new type of space. In this book, the first sustained examination of the spatial effects of electric lighting, Isenstadt reconceives modernism in architecture to account for the new perceptual conditions and visual habits that followed widespread electrification.


$44.95 T ISBN: 9780262038171 304 pp. | 7 in x 9 in 27 color illus., 109 b&w illus.


  • In varying the scope of his reflections—from the detail of the light switch to the suspended temporality of a city's electrified streets—Isenstadt engages readers on a compelling journey at the intersection of society, culture, and technology. Rather than deploying aesthetic categories, Isenstadt focuses on new visual habits

    The Architect's Newspaper

  • Isenstadt's book explores an understudied field, making valuable contributions and connections between studies of science, technology, and society (STS) as well as art and architectural history. The book is also written in a sophisticated yet accessible manner for readers who simply want to expand their horizon.

    The Journal of Architectural Education

  • Isenstadt has created a work that is every bit as bright and kaleidoscopic as the Great White Way he describes with such relish. His prose is always provocative and punchy, whether he is describing the invention of the light switch or evoking Martin Heidegger, James Joyce, and Marcel Proust.

    Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians


  • Professor Isenstadt's five fascinating case studies of the architecture of electric light show how it created new kinds of space, precipitated new social relations, and simultaneously led to bedazzlement and obscurity.

    David E. Nye

    Senior Research Fellow, University of Minnesota. Author of American Illumination: Urban Lighting, 1800–1920s and Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940

  • In focusing on selective histories of what now seem largely mundane, unremarkable innovations in illumination, Sandy Isenstadt reveals the initial astonishment that greeted their world-changing capacities, the sense of wonder that prefigured their rapid transformation into institutionalized, standardized modern technologies. In five dazzling chapters, we learn of the amazingly instantaneous metamorphoses of space wrought by the humble light switch, the instrumental deployment of electric radiance to increase factory production, the phantasmagorical transfiguration of the nocturnal road in the glare of the car's headlights, the lurid commercial cajolery of Times Square and the multivalent advent of the blackout. Furnishing the account with bounteous empirical detail and theoretical elegance throughout, Isenstadt has written a fascinating, engaging book that will prove essential for historians and social scientists of all stripes.

    Tim Edensor

    Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, author of  From Light to Dark: Daylight, Illumination, and Gloom

  • For historians of architecture, this book provides valuable insights into the invention and evolution of this essential but underappreciated tool for creating modern spaces. And general readers will likewise enjoy this thoughtful and richly illustrated guide to what the author aptly calls 'modernity's medium.' We see electric light every day, but after reading this book, you will look at it in new ways.

    Ernest Freeberg

    author of The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America