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Working with architects

Issue 42 Apr / May 2008

In the first of a series of papers from the IALD's 'Power of Light' conference at The ARC Show 2008, Keith Bradshaw, Associate Director at Speirs and Major Associates, takes us through a relationship that has become increasingly important.

The collaborative relationship between a lighting designer and an architect impacts on quality of the completed project. One’s experience, knowledge, creative ideas and personality all play a major part in a successful collaboration and in my experience the more dynamic the relationship the more likely there is to be a good result. The end result will have been improved by the dialogue and discussions held over the multiple factors which impact on the appearance and quality of lit architecture. For a long time the good lighting designers have blurred the traditional view of buildings-by-architects, lighting-by-lighting designers in favour of a relationship where the architect and lighting designer play around with one another’s discipline. The end result is that buildings and places become imbued with a quality and presence of light that that would have otherwise been missing.

An important starting point in developing a collaborative relationship is not to feel that lighting design is a second tier position behind the lead designer/architect. Although it may not be manifest in the contractual agreements the lighting designer should rightly take their place at the most fundamental of discussions regarding architecture, materials, occupation and building image.

We as lighting designers often forget that the language of lighting design is littered with jargon that does not necessarily match the definitions of light used by a non-lighting specialist. Therefore it is important to find a common language when discussing light with architects and designers. The use of simple and evocative words and images can describe the quality of light one is trying to find; famous light scenarios or evocative words are often useful tools to unlock a dialogue about light. The uses of natural light scenarios, events, performances are all universally recognisable descriptions of light.

Design Tennis describes the dialogue and debate between architect and lighting designer where ideas are passed across only to be returned improved, altered or distorted in turn to be passed back with further alteration and development. The end result is not a victory for either party but rather a much enriched design. We often find ourselves encouraging workshop after workshop to solidify the key principles of lighting, the principles that will form the backbone of all concept and development work on a project. Speaking from personal experience the three key factors seem to encapsulate the main aspects of design tennis through workshop and discussion: 1) Good ideas, 2) drawing and 3) socialising. Drawings are a fundamental part of design, it is the basic vocabulary of all design disciplines and the means of communicating ideas and at the same time the integrity of the idea. The exchange of ideas through sketches is a form of non-verbal design tennis where the ideas are ultimately agreed and adopted by the architect or designer.
An extension of this dialogue, which is unique to lighting design, is the aspect of lighting mock-ups: proving it. Showing lighting tests 1:1 and using real materials is often the only way to show an idea. Given that the impact of light is affected by numerous factors 1:1 shows are the only real proof of an idea and an important part of the light designer’s decision making process.

Often design programs limit the time available to draw ideas and sometimes the 1:1 mock-up is a live design experiment, the results of which are there for all to see. Successful projects of this type often capture the very essence and simplicity of a good lighting idea.
We all know that good lighting is more than the sum of its parts and we should aspire to go beyond the normal realms of lighting to use the extraordinary aspects of light adding an extra dimension to a project. Playing with light, perception and emotion can have an extraordinary impact and response from the viewer. Designing with light gives us the opportunity to make extraordinary projects happen: the ‘wizard-of-oz’ effect where amazing things are made real by good design, a committed team and expertise. The softer edge of architecture is a place where we as lighting designer often find ourselves nowadays. In the age of the media animated facades we need to be careful that we don’t design TV screens and forget to provide varied content. The law of diminishing returns is very prevalent in media screens where an initial overwhelming impact is diluted on repeat viewing. The content schedule of any screen element should be changed, daily, monthly, seasonally.

The light image, projects where the light has a very significant role in the image and memory of a place, places where light and material are interwoven to create a single luminous image. Close collaborations with architects and designers result in seamless architecture lighting projects. Image and brand are strong tools used by marketeers at all levels to promote places and lifestyle - do not underestimate the impact that lighting and the image of places using artificial light have.

For me the lighting design profession must continue to develop a much stronger sense of its importance and relevance on projects. No longer are lighting professionals to be thankful for their place on projects, rather they should be sure that their design makes projects better, more complete. There is however, I believe, a fundamental difference between the lighting designer and the lighting consultant - it may seem like semantics but a lighting designer is by definition a creative thinking individual who uses and creates opportunities on projects for good lighting to enhance or extend the core values of architectural projects.

For me the lighting consultant fulfils a demand to solve specific problems that have been found by the architect or designer. The consultant solves problems in a clever and professional manner; the lighting designer however helps to create the problems with the architect and then sets about providing the answer. It goes without saying that good collaborations, mutual respect and a level of friendly exchange is implicit in the design process but in my experience strong minded architects respond well to strong ideas from other members of the design team – indeed self confident secure designers have allowed good lighting design to take centre stage on projects. If the process of design with architects and designers is not founded on mutual respect the end result will be sub-standard. Healthy collaborations lead to improved results, the relationship between set designer, lighting designer and theatre director is all but equal - the result is a complete experience. Similarly when the architect, lighting designer and design team work well when they are one force - we as lighting designers need to take our place at the table with our ideas, pens, experiences and insight at the ready – otherwise one might as well remain lighting-by-numbers.


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