Many hands make light work

26 July 2019

Thoughtful illumination can shine a light on architectural elements that would otherwise remain hidden in plain sight, but only if all parties involved begin talking to each other at an early stage. Elly Earls meets Alex Lifschutz of Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, Mark Major of Speirs + Major and Arup’s Laura Phillips to find out why lighting design demands such a high degree of collaboration – and how to ensure these partnerships function.

Starting this summer, Londoners will see the Thames in a whole new light. Through a collaboration between British architecture firm Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands (LDS) and US artist Leo Villareal, up to 15 bridges spanning 2.5 miles altogether will be painted with light after dark, highlighting their unique historical and architectural features, connecting communities and, when the project is completed in 2022, forming the longest public work of art in the world.

Commissioned following an international competition in 2016, which briefed entrants to find a way to celebrate the river and how its history and geography connects the whole of London, Alex Lifschutz thinks what really stood out about his team’s entry was its combination of boldness and simplicity, along with the fact that it would stand the test of time.

When night falls, light will begin to shift and surge across the bridges’ surfaces in sequenced patterns, an effect Villareal achieved through using a combination of custom software and the latest LED technology. And while his lighting design for each bridge engages specifically with its history and form, the integrated motion across all 15 also works together to create a unified piece of artwork: Illuminated River.

Lifschutz says the collaboration between his firm and Villareal’s can be likened to a Venn diagram, with a substantial overlap. “He intruded into our territory by bringing a real sensitivity to the functional realities of bridges and their historical qualities, and, hopefully, we likewise intruded into his territory by looking at the form of the bridges and the way in which they could best be represented by light,” he says.

“But his particular contribution, which is not one we could make, is this idea of painting with software – his very personal way of interpreting how the light could change and alter, while we brought an understanding of how the bridges sit in space and how light can help make those bridges have a quality at night that is very idiosyncratic and fits with the bridge.”

The most rewarding part of the project, Lifschutz found, was the way Villareal’s art was able to reveal something about many of the bridges’ architecture that couldn’t be seen during the day. “Most people aren’t very aware of the fairly muscular railway bridges, for example – they’re hiding in plain sight. But in the light and at night they take on a completely different character, becoming poetic and extraordinary. Nobody would have thought of doing that in the normal course of events.”

Creation of context

Of course, there was a more practical side to the partnership too. “Leo would say, ‘I would like to see this happen’ and we’d say, ‘OK, we can do it this way’,” Lifschutz says. In other cases, a lighting designer may be brought in to act as a technical consultant, bridging the gap between the architect and the light artist.

Laura Phillips is an associate director and lighting designer at Arup, who often works collaboratively with other disciplines within the practice. She says context is where lighting designers can play a key role.

“We spend all our time and experience developing skills in terms of how surfaces, brightnesses and luminance (the reflected light from a surface) work, so very early on our role might be to set the scene and help to provide a backdrop, an interface, for the light artist to work with. We can really help to control the context they’re going to be working in,” she explains.

“In addition, light artists can’t work in complete isolation – the building still needs to function – so we often have to help them understand some of the more practical requirements and technical aspects of light delivery, levels and uniformities. We tend to find it’s more about taking light away to allow the light art to really be optimised.”

Managing client expectations can often be the biggest challenge. “It’s crucial that the art delivers in scale, brightness and impact in the way the client expects it to, and that comes down to having a good collaboration with the design team and giving the artist the best opportunity to present their ideas,” Phillips says. “There’s nothing worse than the artist doing something very beautiful and subtle, and then the space is over-lit around the piece and it doesn’t read the way it should.”

Clear visual and verbal communication can also help avoid misunderstandings, according to Mark Major, co-founder of UK lighting design practice Speirs + Major, which occasionally collaborates with artists but will often take the creative lead on projects.

“At Speirs + Major, we pride ourselves on the fact that the way we present things – whether that’s using sketches, diagrams or CGI – clearly communicates our ideas,” Major says. “That makes them intelligible and allows people to discuss the project openly and come to the right conclusion.”

And while there are clearly parameters that can’t be strayed beyond, the team at Speirs + Major tries not to let pragmatic issues talk them out of an innovative solution. “I think clients employ designers to go further than they might imagine themselves,” Major observes. “The last thing you want to do as a creative designer is go in front of a client where their expectations are high and completely underwhelm them.”

Get involved early on

The lighting design unit at Arup tends to be very strong as a team when it comes to the creative use of daylighting. Phillips says that the only way that can develop effectively is when they begin conversations with architects at a very early stage of a project.

The Fulton Street Transit Center, which Arup worked on with James Carpenter Design Associates, is a good example. “It’s a piece of architecture that comes very much from an artist’s viewpoint, so we collaborated heavily with both James Carpenter and the architects,” Phillips says.

“It’s a large sky reflector that goes up right through the centre of the building that gives a different appreciation of daylight – very different to how it would be handled by an architect. And that’s something we do quite uniquely – work with light artists not just on the artificial lighting side but also looking at how we can play with daylight in an exciting way, and work with artists to modulate and play with reflection.”

Major agrees that getting involved early on is critical to the success of any project. “We work very closely with the architect with a series of workshops where we look at the problem – whether that’s a functional problem, a problem about expression or the interpretation of architecture – most projects are all of those things. Then we work up some creative proposals and present those to the client and the architect,” he explains.

“It’s a highly collaborative process in the sense that we can’t come up with those proposals and integrate them into the architectural programme without collaborating with the architect. The collaborative relationship often extends much further too – to the structural engineer, particularly if it’s a bridge, the M&E engineer or the landscape designer.

“It’s essential because we will quite frequently need to change the architecture, or talk about colours or material finishes. A lot of the time we will actually influence pretty major decisions about the architecture itself through that dialogue.”

For that reason, he thinks speculative design is not suitable for the lighting design field. “Our projects grow out of the dialogue around the needs of the building, the needs of the client, the needs of the context and the needs of the project,” he says. “Lighting design is a very collaborative discipline, which cannot take place in isolation of all the people that need to be involved.”

While Illuminated River was born from an international competition, no decisions have been taken in isolation. “Our two offices have collaborated from the most detailed level – a bracket here to a box of electrical tricks there – to the most strategic level, talking about the whole river and how we might approach thinking about it. The collaboration also extended to talking to local residents’ groups, wildlife specialists and so on,” Lifschutz explains. “It’s been intense and friendly, and each of us has found a way to contribute something without stepping on the other’s toes.”

The first four bridges – London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium – will be illuminated this summer, with more following in 2020 and the final batch completing the commission in 2022. Reflecting on what has so far made the collaboration successful, Lifschutz thinks it comes down to two things: mutual respect and an affection for the built environment and for people.

“It’s not an abstraction that’s only for experts – we’re interested in people and so is Leo, and we’re delighted if people want to use our structures or look at our art,” he says. “That’s what gives us the biggest thrill.”

Fulton Street Transit Center, New York, US, by James Carpenter Design Associates and Arup.
Kings Cross Station, London, UK, designed by Speirs + Major.

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