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Tue 10 Jul 2007 02:05 PM

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Light my fire

World-renowned architectural lighting designers Jonathan Speirs and Mark Major discuss the challenges of working in the Middle East.

World-renowned architectural lighting design firm Speirs & Major Associates has been responsible for lighting some of the region's most iconic buildings, from the Burj Al Arab to Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque, and is rumoured to have secured the contract to light the world's tallest structure, the Burj Dubai. S&S recently caught up with UK-based company founders and directors Jonathan Speirs and Mark Major.

Sound & Stage:You are both frequent visitors to the GCC and have first-hand experience working in this region. How does working here compare to more established markets such as Europe?

Jonathan Speirs:A large percentage of potential clients in the Middle East seem to believe that lighting a building simply involves installing a bunch of floodlights around its exterior. The reality is that there are a range of factors you must consider if you want the end-result to be extraordinary. But that takes time, and time is one thing you don't have in this region, because of the sheer rate of development.

Luckily, the bulk of our clients appreciate the effort that it takes to create something out of the ordinary. The greater challenge lies in preaching to the unconverted.

Sound & Stage:Do many developers in the Middle East prioritise lighting when it comes to designing a building?

JS:Some do, but a lot don't. We're working with [property developers] Emaar in Dubai and Aldar in Abu Dhabi which have been positive experiences to date.

Mark Major:We encounter issues here we did in Europe 20 years ago. Now in Europe we tend to work on a project from the conceptual stages. It builds some level of accountability into the various stages of development to ensure there are no mistakes made along the way.

JS:The secret to creating a beautiful looking building is all to do with layering. Various elements go into creating an identity, including the lighting.

Sound & Stage:You're developing the lighting design for Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque. How did you get involved in that project?

JS:We got involved with the architects after the completion of the concrete sub-structure, which meant we played a role in shaping the final vision for the building. We are quietly confident we will see something spectacular at the end of the day.

Sound & Stage:Can you explain the concept behind the lighting design?

JS:We've tried to be respectful to the building but we're also trying to ‘tell a story'. By day, the exterior is a brilliant white and it's exquisite, but by night, we wanted to create something of beauty. The lunar cycle is the inspiration for the lighting design. On a full-moon evening the building will be lit by a brilliant white light, but when there's no moon, it will be immersed in a very deep blue. Every second night, as the moon waxes and wanes, we're going to subtly alter the colour depending on the time of lunar cycle. One of the concept proposals that has been accepted is a texture on the domes and the minarets of the building, which give the appearance of clouds passing over the building.

MM:Great architectural design exploits the attributes of natural light, changing the appearance of a particular building depending on the time of the day. But you often find when it comes to lighting these buildings the typical approach is not very dynamic. They get turned into big lifeless monuments.

Our belief is that iconic buildings such as the Grand Mosque should have an element of mystery to them.

Sound & Stage:In last month's issue, Patrick Woodroffe spoke about taking inspiration from architectural lighting in his stage and theatre lighting projects. Do you ever borrow ideas from these sectors in turn?

JS:Both of us are inspired by stage lighting. If you look at some of our key projects over the years you'll see that we take inspiration from live event lighting design, particularly rock ‘n roll concerts.

MM:I would like to think our work has also had a positive influence on designers working in the theatre and live events fields. I mean we're not like [architect and U2 production designer] Mark Fischer who has crossed over into that world entirely, but I do like to think we inject a certain dynamic into lighting environments that might be too theatrical or lack subtlety for want of a better description.
Sound & Stage:There is a perception that you both favour strong and some might say less than subtle colours in your designs.

JS:We find it amusing when critics say we use a lot of colour in our lighting designs, because the fact is that less than half our projects employ colour. The reality is a lot of magazines like to publish our work and they like to show projects featuring coloured lighting schemes. The public also obviously responds to the use of colour.

Sound & Stage:Is that reflected by your approach to lighting the Burj Al Arab? Trying to combine both elements?

JS:Well, our original intention was to use more white light than colour, but the client preferred the use of colour. The building has become one of the most recognised in the world, and the prominence of images circulated in the press showing its lighting scheme is great kudos for us. Our aim was to create a design that complemented the unique nature of the building. Even after 10 years, we're both very proud of the result.

Sound & Stage:Many lighting designers have been quick to proclaim the virtues of LED technology and its ability to transcend the boundaries of architectural and stage lighting. What's your impression?

MM:There's a lot of hype surrounding LED technology at the moment and its potential application in both fields.

While we've been using LEDs for a significant period of time, we don't identify them as fundamental to our approach to a particular design. We see LEDs as another tool that is available. The problem is that there are many designers using LEDs for the sheer sake of it.

A question mark remains over the reliability of LEDs. While LED fixtures theoretically have a very long lifespan, we all know from practical experience that this largely depends on how well they've been designed and manufactured, and how they're being implemented.

JS:This is a really significant point, particularly when you have a large LED lighting installation. If one unit breaks, you can't replace it individually, because the rate of development of technology often means that model has more than likely been superseded. To replace an entire array represents a hugely expensive exercise.

Sound & Stage:Have you used LEDs in many projects you've worked on in this region?

JS:Our first job in the Middle East after the Burj Al Arab was the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in 1998-99. We employed LED fixtures extensively in the exterior lighting design. It was a particularly revolutionary approach at that time. But in the proceeding period, we've come to learn a lot more about the technology. But it's like anything; the manufacturer's goal is to sell their product and if they say it's the greatest thing since sliced bread, a lot of people will believe that.

MM:The technology is almost being treated as a consumer durable, in terms of its general usability and expectations of reliability. That's something we're not used to in our industry - we just don't throw things away! Many companies are marketing the technology with no view to the future. These attitudes will do the lighting industry damage.

Great strides have also been made in conventional lamp technology: 20w CDM lamps, CDMR lamps. When ‘experts' claim that all lighting will be LED based within seven years, it's just plain crazy talk. Philips for one is investing a fortune in conventional lamp technology, and there's no way it'd be doing that if it thought in less than a decade LEDs would takeover the world.

Sound & Stage:But surely the energy-saving aspects of LEDs are something the industry should be promoting?

JS:Yes, but this is not the exclusive domain of this particular technology. For example, the whole world is talking about what's happening in Dubai and the UAE. There's an amazing responsibility and opportunity for the rulers and the planners to do outstanding things. Not just build for the sake of building with a thin veneer of quality. This sentiment extends to other fast-developing countries in the region, whether it be Qatar, Bahrain or Kuwait.

The focus must be on renewable energy and sustainability issues when it comes to lighting. A case in point is Las Vegas, which consumes an enormous amount of energy and has the potential to become a pariah in this new world. Environmental issues are high on the agenda. We're working on a massive city development [Al Raha Beach] in Abu Dhabi at the moment, and the client is committed to reducing light emissions across the site. The Abu Dhabi municipality has agreed to accept European lighting standards, which are more stringent than existing standards in the UAE. It will reduce the amount of power consumed and the amount of light emitted.

Sound & Stage:People are talking about the Burj Dubai as being a landmark building not just because of its height, but for the lighting design that is expected to be implemented on-site. Do you think it will be relatively restrained, or do you think the designers will throw everything that's available at it?

JS:I think it will be relatively restrained [pausing]. There are images that have been published that portray the building at night and reflect the basic architectural lighting scheme... but to be honest we can't talk about it [smiling]. I'd like to, but it wouldn't be appropriate at this stage.