Architectural lighting

A discussion on whether lighting can be considered ‘architectural'.
Architectural lighting
The lighting of Guggenheim Bilbao allows the titanium facade to shimmer.
By Middle East Architect Staff Writer
Fri 19 Feb 2010 04:00 AM

A discussion on whether lighting can be considered ‘architectural'.

What is lighting? Isn't ‘lighting' merely illumination of a particular space? If that's the case, why is lighting design often considered a must-have skill for 21st Century architects? Perhaps lighting is more than just illumination. Perhaps architecture and lighting design are forging a relationship that will see the former swallow the latter and spit out some sort of rogue brand of design architect.

Architecture is about creating order, building shelter and choosing designs and materials that best allow a structure to be experienced. Where does lighting fit in to that equation? I think these questions beg one more: If lighting is about illumination and architecture is about structures, does ‘architectural lighting' truly exist or is lighting something that should be left to facilities managers and MEP professionals?

MEA sat down with several of the Middle East's top lighting manufacturers and designers to explore the issue of architectural lighting and to determine whether or not light can help architects to do their jobs better. It might be best to take these questions one-by-one.

What role does lighting play in architecture?

To answer this question, it is crucial to first address the implied assumption that there exists a fundamental relationship between lighting and architecture. For Gary Turner, general manager of Fagerhult Lighting in Dubai and Henrik Clausen, director of Fagerhult's Lighting Academy in Copenhagen, the answer to that question is a foregone conclusion.

"Lighting, with regard to architecture, is fascinating," explains Turner. "People from similar backgrounds can walk into a space and perceive totally different visuals and feel very different emotions, all because of the impact of light."

Turner & Clausen consider the Middle East a unique environment where - due to the larger-than-life profile and publicity of some projects - lighting designers, architects, contractors and developers have no choice but to collaborate. "The lighting has to be created in close cooperation with the architect who designs the building. Essentially, the lighting design should build upon the architect's vision of the look, form and function of the building."

More than just the necessity of collaboration, however, Gabriel Abdelhakmi, marketing manager for Zumtobel Group MENA, believes light and architecture are connected on a deeper, more ethereal, level. "With integral lighting solutions, Zumtobel creates lighting scenes which enable people to experience the interplay of light and architecture in all its diversity. Light unfolds its special creative power [as it] interplays with space and architectural form."

"It is only through the thoughtful use of light that a structure or space is really experienced," agrees Richard Holmes, business development director, and Sergio Padula, light planning manager, both of iGuzzini. "Aesthetic lighting creates ambience and atmosphere; functionally speaking, [lighting] increases user security and well being."

The point that Holmes, Padula and Abdelhakmi make is not dissimilar from that which is made throughout the ranks of lighting designers and manufacturers the world over. The fact is, some of the most iconic architecture in the world is defined by its nocturnal aesthetic, thanks to the beauty and complexity of an intricate lighting scheme.

"Quality internal lighting promotes health, increases productivity and ensures accuracy in the workplace, whilst exterior lighting accentuates architectural elements, which may otherwise be lost come nightfall. Whether internal or external, lighting creates an energy that enhances identity and evokes emotion in the observer," explain Holmes & Padula.

To be sure, some of the world's best examples of quality lighting can be found in the Middle East. "Locally I would give the example of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi; whenever I pass that building in the day I feel very humbled, I get a sense of my place in this world," explains Chris Rimmer, business development manager for Targetti Poulsen. "But, every time I pass it at night, I feel the sensation of wonder. My experience of the building changes from one scene to another...through the addition of lighting."

Going back to the initial question of whether a fundamental relationship exists between lighting and architecture, the answer would seem to be a resounding affirmation. While the role it enjoys may vary, it is clear that lighting plays a role and that role is crucial.

Raman Krishnan, regional manager of Lighting Design Alliance, sums up: "If architecture is the art of conceiving forms, architectural lighting is the art of using light to enhance these forms. Light has a direct impact on how building interiors and exteriors are designed. It influences the form of spaces and the materials of which they are made."

Where are the ‘light architects'?

So, it's safe to assume that lighting and architecture are intimately connected. But, if so, why - naysayers and purists might agree -don't architecture firms employ ‘lighting architects' whose sole responsibility is to ensure the perfect integration of illumination and form?

Rimmer's answer is one of specialization and practicality: "Maybe we should consider why architectural practises don't employ structural engineers, building services engineers or vertical transportation consultants? Each of these disciplines, along with many others all contribute to architecture...yet they tend to stand alone as specialist companies whose services are used when required.A lighting designer, or ‘light architect', is no different...I would not use an internal lighting designer when I was working on a building façade, just as I wouldn't use a landscape architect to detail the inside of my building."

Holmes & Padula point to budgetary constraints as a key reason for the lack of ‘lighting architects' in the industry. They do, however, believe that inviting lighting specialists to the concept design table is the best way to achieve the desired integration of illumination and form. They point to the Yas Hotel in Abu Dhabi as a perfect example of this collaboration. "Lighting is a physical part of the [building's] architectural design and the outcome is architecturally sympathetic in the day and truly stunning at night!"

In fact, Holmes & Padula suggest that including a lighting professional at the design stage should be essential - especially if architects are interested in ensuring controlled placement of efficient light sources, minimizing light pollution and lifetime maintenance costs and maximizing the design elements of their structure.

Abdelhakmi's message is more direct. "Architecture firms do actually work with ‘light architects'. They're the lighting specialists who - in close cooperation with architects - bring the architects concept to life during the night."

How does lighting help architects do their jobs better?

Put aside the argument about whether or not true ‘lighting architects' exist. Also, disregard the ambiguity of whether or not a lighting professional may be considered a lighting ‘architect'. As to the question of architects collaborating with lighting consultants, it begs the question: How does it help them? How does the presence or absence of light affect the way in which architecture is planned, built or used?

Apart from arguments based on aesthetics or appropriateness, Holmes & Padula tackle the issue of quantifiable solutions and attempt to answer the question of what a lighting consultant brings to the table. "Using quality luminaires results in visual impact but they are also vital when considering the...longevity of a solution - a longer life, lower energy consumption and ease of maintenance ultimately reduces long-term costs of a building."

Rimmer agrees: "Moving past the lighting design, the selection of the light fitting becomes critical. The light distribution created by a product is one of the main considerations as to why that product is selected. However, not only does the product have to perform with visual satisfaction it has to physically perform in the environment it is installed. A well designed product compromises on neither of these characteristics."

This function is perhaps where manufacturers play their most important role. While lighting designers need to design and build a fitting that will fulfil the vision, perhaps more importantly, they also have to be able to demonstrate that the product will be able to perform the promised function.

Rimmer recommends rigorous testing by the manufacturer to ensure that the product will operate in the environment it has been designed for and, photometrically, it will distribute light as intended. This, he explains, is the essence of what lighting professionals bring to the table: "If an architect or designer can access this information and they are confident that the information is accurate, then the design process and product selection becomes much easier."

There is, perhaps, another fundamental role that has been overlooked throughout this discussion. According to some in the industry - Rimmer included - architectural lighting fundamentally impacts on the ‘purpose' of the building.

Consider this: Different tasks require different levels of light provided by different types of light source. Equally, different demographics require more or less light. For example, if a library is provided with too little light, nobody can read the books. If this is the case, what is the point of having a library?

Perhaps another example would drive home Rimmer's point: "If a monochromatic light source were to be used in a store," he explains, "The shoppers would not [be able to] perceive the goods in a way their brains understood. Thus, the shopper is dissatisfied with their purchase and future sales in the store decrease."

The last word

It's clear that lighting professionals benefit from working closely with architects - their products get chosen, their profile increases, their solutions become more popular, etc. etc. - but it would seem that the relationship is one of mutual benefit.

Architects who consult regularly with lighting professionals have the opportunity, through lighting alone, to ensure that the way in which their building is projected at night is consistent with their original vision. Few things would cause more distress to an architect than to drive past his or her newest completed project, only to find out that some rogue lighting designer has cast their building in Las Vegas-style lighting.

Lighting defines the form of a building for 10-12 hours per day, or, half of its life. The final form of a building should reflect architectural intent as closely as possible. Therefore, it seems clear that lighting is as important to the true character of a building as its façade, materials or orientation, and should be considered with equal care.

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