Light on the tiles

22 January 2020



From the visual restoration of ancient monuments and reactivating existing buildings to defining entirely new urban spaces, the power of architectural lighting can be truly transformative. Natalie Healey speaks to Arup’s Florence Lam, Michael David Llewellyn Lawless of LA Architects and KSLD’s Kevan Shaw about the need to wield such power responsibly and the extent to which the local community, both human and animal, should contribute to the final outcome.


Situated just south of the maritime grandeur of London’s Greenwich, Lewisham’s town centre can feel a little unloved, comparatively speaking. This part of London, home to many a dreary council block, is not somewhere that tourists are known to frequent. But walk along the busy Loampit Vale A road, passing the Asda store and chains such as Sports Direct and Matalan, and you’ll stumble across a leisure centre that has clearly been designed with more than mere function in mind.

“Members of the public pleaded with us: ‘Don’t make Glass Mill a grey building just like everywhere else in this town. Make it come alive.’ This is a diverse and vibrant community, and nobody knows it’,” explains Brightonbased Michael David Llewellyn Lawless, director of LA Architects, the firm tasked with designing the facility.

After listening to local residents, the team decided to make the front of the building look “a bit like a painting”, he reveals. They set about cladding the facade in 1,400 coloured glass panels, designed by local artist Phil Coy. The result is a vibrant patchwork that recalls children’s picture-book character Elmer the Elephant.

Here, light and movement come together to bring the building to life. Microphones on the pavement below detect noise levels from pedestrians’ feet and passing traffic, and this sound activates LEDs in the panels, creating modulated patterns of light.

More than five years after completion, Glass Mill is still bringing much-needed joy to the area, and it’s particularly noticeable after dark.

When less is more

Successful lighting design doesn’t always mean making buildings as vibrant as possible, Lawless stresses; it really depends on the project. He points to Irvine Townhouse in Scotland, which LA restructured to update the building and add an arts and cultural space. Originally built in 1860, the structure’s most important architectural features had to be lit in a subtle way, he reveals. Bright colours wouldn’t be appropriate here.

Lighting designer Kevan Shaw of KSLD faced a similar dilemma with another Scottish building, Scott Monument in Edinburgh – a Victorian Gothic monument to author Sir Walter Scott. It’s built of sandstone that has blackened over the years, and Shaw wanted to see if lighting efforts could bring it closer to its original colour. A cleaning attempt in the 1990s further damaged the structure, so he needed to accentuate the good bits without highlighting the flaws.

“We’ve ended up with a structure that is slowly cleaning itself due to rainfall. But it’s still pretty black. And in the daytime it looks very black. We had to play around with different light sources until we found something that brought out the sandstone colour,” he explains.

Shaw cut his teeth in stadium lighting for rock bands. He’s worked on a number of high-profile projects since moving into architecture and establishing his own lighting firm in 1989, from the Kipco Tower in Kuwait City to the Aspire Tower in Qatar. But he particularly enjoys working on historical buildings, especially ones in his native Scotland.

“The method of lighting historical buildings used to be: find a great lamp, put it in a big box and throw a bucket of whitewash over the building,” he says. “But now you could say we’re doing a bit of a visual restoration.” 

He wanted people to discover a very different form of the building when they look at it at night, compared with during the day. When the sun goes down, architectural details are highlighted to give the public a better idea of what the structure might have looked like when it was first built.

“It’s using light not just as an illuminating medium, but also as an interpretive medium – something that can add and inform. Now, if you look at it at night, sculptures start to lift out. This makes it more threedimensional and lifts the colour out of the mile of soot and grime.”

Design with diodes

The advent of LEDs has made these ambitions more achievable, Shaw says – not to mention more energy efficient. And now the technology can be used to really complement a building’s tonality. Florence Lam, global lighting design leader at engineering and design firm Arup, agrees that LED lighting has been transformative in her field of expertise. “Some 15 years ago, when people said LEDs will be revolutionary, no one believed it,” she says. “But, looking back, there’s been far more than just small, incremental improvements, from an energy perspective. And the technology has got to a point that it can give us an almost-daylight quality in terms of spectrum.”

Making use of – and mimicking – daylight has come to be one of Lam’s specialities. When Arup was brought in to rejuvenate the western concourse of London King’s Cross station, which was unveiled in the spring of 2012, she was determined to create some drama with natural light.

“We intentionally placed the opening of the roof much closer to the heritage facade, so when the sun comes in it would graze across and bring some nice textures into the foreground, and make the space more interesting,” she explains. “We wanted to marry the old and new and make it more asymmetric – but at the same time not create other visual challenges for the space, such as light reflections and glare.” At dusk, colour-stable, ceramicbased metal halide projectors add warm hues to the diagrid roof, connecting passengers to the vibrant city outside of the station, while also creating a calming counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of one of London’s major transport hubs. “Because good lighting design isn’t just about light levels and energy-saving, it can also influence people’s behaviour in that space,” points out Lam.

Lighting’s power in influencing social outcomes is an interesting point. Lam believes that it can change the pace and mood of a particular area – similar to when they dim the lights in a bar or restaurant to give the space a more intimate feeling. “People already take their cues from lighting. It’s just being able to sense how we want to encourage people to interact with the space,” she says.

Lam is currently working on a neighbourhood development in south London. She has to consider the way that facade lighting could boost the nighttime economy in the area, but also make it feel safe so that people want to travel there later in the day.

“That doesn’t mean you spotlight everything, but you want to create an outdoor space where people would actually like to hang out. By having a few more nice people hanging around, that adds to natural surveillance in the area as well,” she points out. “Lighting goes beyond just the art and architecture. Before we even think about the design, there’s a whole lot of social science to consider.”

On camera

There’s also social media, something that Shaw is quite conflicted about prioritising. This wasn’t much of a factor in the past, but now he wonders whether designers should first consider the camera before they do the human eye. Scott Monument is now an incredibly popular Instagram spot after dark.

“Quite often, stuff we’ve done doesn’t photograph that well because lighting for a camera and lighting for the eye are two different things. Maybe we’ll need to start thinking about tweaking our designs,” he says. “There have always been designers who have done that because they know they get fame from the pictures in the magazines, not from people turning up and visiting the building. That’s never been our philosophy, but this is now a question that we’re going to have to spend a lot of time thinking about.”

Beyond designing for the human experience, whether that’s in real life or for a smartphone, Shaw, Lam and Lawless all caution against another big issue with lighting at night: its effect on the local ecology. Birds and bats need to be considered as much as the people who will be using or enjoying the building. Contemporary LED technology has given architects more flexibility to control for light spills or choose colour temperatures that are less likely to cause environmental upset, but it’s still something to be aware of. Collaborating with an ecology consultant can help ensure that a structure’s lighting plan won’t disturb nocturnal creatures in the area.

“Allowing the lights on during the hours of darkness is a problem,” Lawless emphasises. “Think about the number of birds that die smashing against the glass walls of buildings. This is one of the things we need to front up to as an industry, because we cannot keep destroying our environment. Everything we do in lighting of buildings must take account of that.” 

Glass Mill Leisure Centre, Lewisham, UK, by LA Architects.
Kipco Tower, Kuwait City, UAE: LED lighting mirrors a cascading waterfall.
Scott Monument, Edinburgh: lighting was chosen to hide certain features.


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