Lighting a Flemish Masterpiece: Making Bruges Sustainably Charming

At Schréder, we help make cities people love to live in by creating beautifully-lit urban spaces, working with urban planners to discuss their needs. So when a tender was held to update the lighting in Brugge - also known internationally as Bruges, the city’s name in French - we saw an opportunity to preserve their heritage with futureproof lighting. In this blog, we’ll hear from the Councillor responsible for the upgrade, the local community and Schréder staff about how we brought the project together.

One of the world’s most famous tourist destinations, Bruges has a picture-perfect medieval centre. Famed for chocolate, lace and pretty canals, it’s been the backdrop for films starring Audrey Hepburn and Colin Farrell, as well as a host of romantic comedies. The city was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000, meaning that its heritage is considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. All this means any changes to urban landscape have to be considered very carefully. Including updating 2,700 of the city’s iconic dark green lanterns.

Green Spaces, Green Lighting

A city is liveable when it has a good and high-quality public domain with lots of green spaces, trees and plants.” says Mercedes Van Volcem, the alderwoman responsible for the Bruges Public Domain. Having overseen the planting of 52,000 trees, the city is greener than ever. Other factors in liveability include effective management of tourism, the city’s student population and spaces that invite people to stay there for a while, such as benches and seats in parks, she adds - and lighting.

Lighting is an important factor when it comes to safety and giving people the opportunity to come outside in the early mornings or at night.

Mercedes Van Volcem - Alderman of Bruges Public Domain
Mercedes Van Volcem
Alderman for Bruges Public Domain

The streets of Bruges have been lit by the same lanterns for a century, contributing to its iconic cityscapes with their distinctive flair. The proprietary design belongs to the city, so it can’t be used anywhere else, and the originals were made by local craftsmen decades ago. The quaint appearance was charming, but problematic – they had old-fashioned sodium light bulbs in them, as well as a tendency to get clogged with spiders and cobwebs due to the open top.

Fluvius, which manages lighting throughout Flanders began the search for a new version of the old design. A jury which included the city, SLIC (which provided EU funding for the project) and Fluvius put up several contenders in the streets as part of the tender process, to see which one had the best look and feel.

New Lamps for Old

We decided to keep the traditional lanterns that you can see in the streets of Bruges as they are extremely nice and show the historicity of the city,” says Van Volcem. Attached to the facade of houses, in the parks, on squares, or standing with two, three or even five arms, they are an integral part of the city. “It was a clear decision from the start for the city council to keep these lanterns.” she adds.

Schréder recreated heritage lanterns for Bruges that can be dimmed at night to reduce energy and costs

It’s also a matter for UNESCO. “Bruges is characterised by a continuity reflected in the relative harmony of changes,” it says in the city’s World Heritage listing, noting the late 19th century renovation of facades introduced a Neo-Gothic style that is particular for Bruges. “The remarkable visual coherence that characterises its urban form is vulnerable to rebuilding.”

Schréder worked on a design which respected the classic lantern, while thoroughly updating the components inside. We have a bit of a secret weapon here - a forge in Hungary where we make beautiful lanterns the old-fashioned way. Local authorities were delighted by the replica that Kandelaber was able to make with modern technology inside, without compromising the city’s ancient charm.

Schréder fitted the replicated heritage lanterns for Bruges with a diffuser to recreate the soft nocturnal ambiance

The special touch was that we put a diffuser under the LED unit. LED lights tend to be flat, whereas the traditional bulbs which lit the streets of Paris, Berlin, Budapest and Bruges were round. The diffuser completes the illusion. “We wanted to put the diffuser to provide a sense of connection and continuity to the classic lantern,” says Christophe De Vos, Area Sales Manager for Schréder Belgium.

Light Dark and Dark Light

Bruges is also famous for the work of the Flemish primitives. Just like the complex interplay of light and dark in their stunning paintings, the streets sometimes feel like one is walking through a film set. This is where Schréder’s expertise came to the forefront. As well as the lanterns, we thought about light.

The city wanted to keep the photometry, the lighting distribution had to be just the same as it was. Bruges is not so ‘perfectly’ lit, its heritage status means that it has certain exemptions from modern standards. 

Christophe de Vos - Area Sales Manager - Schréder Belgium
Christophe De Vos
Area Sales Manager - Schréder Belgium

To keep the unique patterns of shade and brightness, we measured the output of the existing lights and tuned the LEDs to match it. We also tuned some to modern standards of brightness so that busy junctions and intersections could be lit safely, without losing their charm.

Connected to the Future, Looking Like the Past

There’s another surprise hidden away in Schréder’s update of the classic Bruges lantern. As well as the diffuser underneath, a little NEMA node on top makes the light part of the Internet of Things (IoT). These are connected to a Schréder EXEDRA system which gives Fluvius, and the city, unprecedented control over its lighting network. Lights can be switched on and off, and dimmed remotely, saving on maintenance and energy costs.

We’ve already switched 70% of the lights in Bruges to LED, greatly reducing our energy consumption. We are also able to dim the lights to a level of 30% or even 50%, something we were not able to do with the regular street lights.

Mercedes Van Volcem - Alderman of Bruges Public Domain
Mercedes Van Volcem
Alderman for Bruges Public Domain

The Best Part Was Nobody Noticed 

Due to the energy crisis, we had to dim the led-lights already installed to 50%,” says Van Volcem. “None of the citizens have noticed the difference, which was a good sign for us.”

Dirk Niess has lived in the centre of Bruges since April. A retired lighting engineer (who didn’t work for Schréder) he’s used to paying attention to urban lighting. “In my opinion, it’s done very well,” he notes. “It’s not blinding, it’s comfortable, and it has very good light distribution,” with warm, comfortable lighting that is easy on the eye.

The lighting bring a new sense of security to the city centre, smoothing out the dark patches in between luminaires and removing glare.

It’s a real success. The luminaire is a one-to-one copy of the old one, I think a lot of people won’t notice it has changed.

Dirk Niess
Resident - Brugge
Schréder replicated the heritage lanterns in Bruges to preserve the city's old charm with a lot less energy

In the meantime, Bruges is set for another winter season. The backdrop to a thousand selfies, the city understands the importance of light, both as a permanent fixture and a seasonal attraction. Winter Glow is a winter festival which includes a light experience trail, ice skating and Christmas markets. With the new lighting, residents can enjoy the city after dark, tourists can experience the city’s many charms, and the council can save energy and money. It’s a fairy tale all round.