Issue 24 Shadows Winter 2006/07

Mirror, Mirror

Julia Bryan-Wilson

Nestled in an Alpine valley, the northern Austrian village of Rattenberg is known for its glass factories and hand-blown crystal figurines. Travelers come to browse the stores that line its medieval streets, but their numbers dwindle as winter nears. In November, the sun slides out of Rattenberg’s view, never quite arcing high enough to rise over the surrounding mountains that for centuries provided it protection against invasion. Darkness descends, and the village, cloaked by the long shadows cast by the nearby peaks, remains sunless until February. 


Rattenberg’s lack of sunshine for about a third of the year is considered by its inhabitants to be the single most difficult thing about living there. Many tire of winter’s dim and chilly noons and its perpetual nights lit only by the feeble glow of the moon. Not even the town’s annual candlelight Advent festival can compensate for this long stretch devoid of daylight. Sunshine is tantalizingly just out of reach; rays bathe Kramsach, a neighboring village ten minutes away, for a few hours a day even in the dead of winter. Rattenberg’s tiny population (home to 600 people, it is the smallest town in Austria) is ever-diminishing, as more and more residents depart in search of brighter prospects. 


These grim winters are not unique—about sixty villages in this region of the Alps alone go dark in the winter months—but the dwindling citizenry of Rattenberg has come up with an original solution to its collective seasonal doldrums.1 With financial help from the European Union, Rattenberg will soon capture the sun that streams to nearby Kramsach to illuminate its own dim streets. Plans announced in fall 2005 call for the erection of fifteen heliostats—specially designed, computer-operated, rotating mirrors—in an open field about a quarter of a mile outside 
of town. Mounted on poles and measuring about six feet 
in diameter, the heliostats’ mobile panels will track the movement of the sun, like giant, motorized metal sunflowers turning their faces to the light.


The heliostats will reflect the sun’s rays onto a tall, mirror-covered tower to be set in the center of town. In turn, the tower will deflect the light onto other mirrors mounted on building facades, diffusing the beams to prevent dangerously focused, scorching rays. The mirrors will not drench the town in an even, blinding glare; this is no movie set where, with the flip of a switch and a dozen flood bulbs, night dazzlingly becomes day. (Such broad, total illumination would require impossibly enormous mirrors.) Instead, light will cascade down to create areas of illumination, or “hotspots.” Preliminary sketches reveal a pleasantly dappled effect, not unlike the sun-speckled lanes of Thomas Kinkade paintings. These bright spots, however, will be about “lawn size,” large enough for people to cluster inside, like fish schooling in shimmering pools of sunshine.2

Bartenbach LichtLabor (BLL), the Austrian design firm behind Rattenberg’s mirror strategy, specializes in engineering and architectural applications of natural light. Creating corporate office environments that reduce eyestrain and maximize energy efficiency, BLL also has designed the lighting in airports, railway stations, and shopping centers, harnessing the sun’s invigorating powers to “stimulate the customers’ willingness to buy.”3 Thus the BLL proposal for Rattenberg is doubly canny. The heliostats will have salutary physical and psychological effects on the residents; they will also boost tourism (and tourist spending) year-round. Additionally, while bringing sun to Rattenberg is projected to cost about $2.5 million, BLL is footing the bill for the planning phase (about $600,000) in hopes that other sun-starved municipalities will take note and seize on the idea themselves. 


While it might sound like the improbable premise of a Guy Maddin film,4 Rattenberg’s mirror plan makes profound sense. When in place, the system of reflective surfaces will not just light up the town in winter, it will also metonymically stand in for the town itself, with its shining glassworks and prismatic crystal wares. The gleaming charms of “die Glasstadt Tirols” (the “Tyrol glass city”)—already jewel-like—will be illuminated and magnified. The town will surely capitalize on these connections, and perhaps take advantage, too, of the region’s historical fascination with gleam and sparkle. Fifteenth-century painters in northern Europe—Dutch, German, Austrian, and Flemish artists such as Jan Van Eyck—obsessed with oil paint’s ability to transmit luminescence, depicted many glistening gems and glowing mirrored orbs.5 This distinctly Northern realism was fixated on luster (in contrast to the Italian devotion to perspective); it is thus fitting that the streets of Rattenberg will soon twinkle. The plan is, in all the senses of the word, brilliant. 


There might be, however, inadvertent effects (beyond the obvious squinting perils) of the town’s newly mirrored surfaces. Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, for instance, serves as a warning. The building opened in October 2003, but come springtime, with the increasing intensity of the sun and its particular angle in the sky, Gehry’s signature metallic aesthetic went awry as one section of the building’s mirror-polished stainless steel exterior began to emit excessive glare.6 Residents of the condos across the street complained about the reflections off the building’s northwest corner, some claiming to record temperatures of up to 138 degrees Fahrenheit where the sun was focused. While the assertions remained controversial, apocryphal tales circulated of road cones melting in the streets. In 2005, cowed by pressure about traffic accidents the glinting building might cause (none had actually occurred), Gehry agreed to have about 4,000 square feet of the building sandblasted to dull its harsh glitter. 


Throughout history, mirrors have reflected the sun for a variety of purposes. Sometimes the effects are deliberately injurious. It is said that around 212 BCE, Greek mathematician Archimedes defeated the Roman army with his sun-powered “death ray” during the siege of Syracuse. The Epitome Ton Istorion, a twelfth-century text by Zonaras, narrates how Archimedes “burned up the whole Roman fleet. For by tilting a kind of mirror toward the sun he concentrated the sun’s beam upon it; and ... kindled a great flame, the whole of which he directed upon the ships that lay at anchor in the path of the fire, until he consumed them all.”7 In 2005, MIT students, seeking to prove that this tale of devastation might be more than the stuff of myth, set a small boat on fire using a device made of more than 100 mirrors that focused the sun into laser-like rays. Accounts of the students’ success provoked much skepticism, and they were asked to recreate their experiment for the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters program; the results of that trial were inconclusive.8 Still, as anyone who has ever killed ants with a magnifying glass knows, focused light can be deadly.


Yet mirrored sun can also heal; the benefits of soaking 
up the sun’s vitamin D have long been touted. Roland Barthes, in his meditation on the Eiffel Tower, recalls the never-realized plans for a second tower in Paris. “A bonfire placed on top of the structure was to illuminate the darkness of every nook and cranny in Paris by a system of mirrors (a system that was undoubtedly a complex one!) … the last story of this sun tower (about 1,000 feet, like the Eiffel Tower) was to be reserved for a kind of sunroom, in which invalids would benefit from an air ‘as pure as in the mountains.’”9 This tower, “quite mad technologically,” as Barthes notes, would have been at once a sophisticated surveillance mechanism and a medicinal chamber, a conjunction that sheds light on several nineteenth-century fixations: safe cities, healthy bodies, and the promise of technology. But this quixotic hybrid was not to be. 


More contemporary reflective applications are no less mad or fantastical. In 1999, the Russian space station Mir attempted to launch a “space mirror” that would have, if perfected, cast a circle on the earth five miles wide and as bright as full moonlight. The mirror would have become, in essence, an artificial, or mirror, moon. It could have been honed and focused to light up darkened northern regions; 
it also might have aided farming, disaster relief, and military efforts.10 Regardless of its potential, the space mirror was widely condemned for its presumed negative effects on the circadian rhythms of animals, plants, and humans. Worse, critics saw it as a narcissistic endeavor, an attempt to trump nature that might disrupt fragile ecosystems built on regular cycles of light and dark. These fears were allayed when the space mirror was damaged as it was being deployed, and the experiment was shelved for the foreseeable future. 


All mirrors inspire charges of narcissism, of course, 
and even Rattenberg’s clever solution to its wintry gloom does not escape this accusation. Will tourists flock to see the mirrors of Rattenberg and bask in the flickering promise that humans can reroute the sun and supersede nature? Or will they recoil at this high-tech hubris, mourning the village’s old-fashioned candle-lit Yuletide celebrations? 


As we all know, there are good mirrors and bad ones: those that are flattering and those that are unkind. If mirrors have an implicit doubleness, so, too, does the sun, especially as we reckon with global warming. While its rays might alleviate depression, they also increasingly rain down the radiation that causes skin cancer. Might a town like Rattenberg take a different tack and market its very lack of sun? In this eco-tourism with a difference, it could become a vacation haunt for photosensitive shade-worshippers, and those seeking respite from the harmful energies of a sun strengthened by ozone depletion. 


In Germany, there is another Rattenberg, but it is not likely to be confused with its Austrian mirror town. The 
official tourist logo of the German village, which receives ample natural light, is a whimsical line drawing of an orange sun rising above two wavy green mountains. Imagine the design possibilities for the Austrian Rattenberg’s logo were it to embrace its sunless months: pale-faced visitors brandishing flashlights? 


Inasmuch as it is a reflection of our activities, the earth, too, is a kind of mirror, yet our interference has distorted its surface. The Russian’s proposed artificial moon was seen as human folly akin to false idols, but even more dangerous is the vast narcissism and anthropocentrism of ignoring our ill effects as the planet deteriorates. If a mirror were to reflect the face of the earth (our own face, after all) would we confront what we cannot, or will not see—or would the glare be blinding? 


  1. For more on the plans for Rattenberg, see John George, “Alpine Town’s Plea: Let the Sun Shine In,” The Washington Post, 11 December 2005, p. A26; and Michael Dumiak, “Lifting the Winter Dark: Mirrors to Reflect Light into Town that Receives No Sun,” Scientific American, vol. 294, no. 4, April 2006, pp. 20–21.

  2. One is put in mind of the children pleasuring in the warmth of the sun in Ray Bradbury’s short story “All Summer in a Day,” first published in The Magazine of Fiction and Science Fiction, March 1954; reprinted in A Medicine for Melancholy (New York: Doubleday, 1959).

  3. BLL website, www.bartenbach.com/en/index.html, see About Us/Planning/Shopping Centers.

  4. See, for example, Careful (1992), about a Canadian town so precariously perched in the snowy mountains that any noise might cause an avalanche; even the dogs have their vocal chords snipped.

  5. One general introduction to the question of reflective surface in Northern European art is found in Craig Harbison, The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in its Historical Context (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995).
  6. Robin Pogrebin, “Gehry Would Blast Glare off Los Angeles Showpiece,” The New York Times, 2 December 2004, p. E1. 

  7. Zonaras’s account itself relies on Dio Cassius. The relevant passage is available in Dio’s Roman History, vol. 2, trans. Earnest Cary & Herbert B. Foster (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1914), p. 171. 

  8. For news on the successful immolation, see John Schwartz, “Recreating an Ancient Death Ray (They Did It With Mirrors),” The New York Times, 18 October 2005, p. F1; for the Discovery Channel’s follow-up challenge, see, “If the Ancient Greeks Had a Death Ray, This Wasn’t It,” The Los Angeles Times, 29 October 2005, p. A11. 

  9. Roland Barthes, “The Eiffel Tower” [1964], in The Eiffel Tower and Other Mythologies, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), pp. 6–7.

  10. For instance, it could have illuminated nighttime rescues in remote locations, or spot-lit enemy maneuvers attempted under cover of darkness. Paul Evans, “Blinded by Light,” The Guardian, 10 February 1999, p. 8.


Julia Bryan-Wilson is assistant professor of contemporary art at the Rhode Island School of Design as well as a frequent critic and curator. Currently a Getty Trust Postdoctoral Fellow, she is finishing a book about artistic labor in the 1960s and 1970s.

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