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Ulrike Brandi

Issue 70 Dec / Jan 2013

Underpinning life in innumerable ways, sunlight influences the work of many lighting designers. Yet for German lighting designer Ulrike Brandi, daylight is “the starting point for all thinking about architecture and lighting design. Not only from a functional angle, but in a human-centred approach that places strong emphasis on the basic need for natural daylight.”

As for the technical aspects of lighting design, reducing it to just that is something Brandi strongly disagrees with. “Debate on energy issues does not go far enough in many cases. Light is like food,” she says, “and - staying with this analogy - only talking about calories and nutritional value all the time is not enough. They are the tools we must have a good grasp of, but an excellent meal is created in a different way! It is essential to be creative with light and produce values over and above the anticipated technical results.”

Growing up with a photographer mother and a great aunt, Brandi developed an appreciation for light early in life, and she is “fascinated by daylight and all its facets. Every place has its own specific light, and nature has an endless repertory of moods, ranging from early morning mist to dramatic cloud formations.”

From beyond the clouds, light from the stars and even the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn draws her admiring gaze. “I have been fascinated by astronomy from an early age,” she says. She also admires the work of great physicists and astronomers, such as Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and Galileo Galilei, and their discoveries relating to light.

Studying design under Dieter Rams (the influential German industrial designer, best known for his Ten Principles of Good Design) in Hamburg, Brandi designed a piece of work called Sun Luminaire, and in doing so discovered that she was “more interested in light than in design”. This first student lighting project was a solar-inspired installation at the Folkwangschule, now the Folkwang University of the Arts, in Essen in Germany.

“A large ‘sun’,” says Brandi, “measuring 80 centimetres in diameter, travelled on a teeter board (a seesaw-like wooden board used in acrobatic displays) from east to west in a staircase. It took twelve hours to move six metres, which is about the length of daytime. At the time, the greatest technical challenge was to make it run at a consistently slow speed.”

It was this project that prompted Brandi to set up her own practice in Hamburg in the late ‘80s. In 2008, Brandi opened another office in Munich for the design of a new satellite terminal at Munich Airport. The firm is now working on other projects there, too.

Since opening her first office, Brandi’s lighting portfolio includes the lighting of buildings and public spaces such as the British Museum in London, the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, the façade of the town hall in Hamburg, the town centre in Bremen, the lighting masterplan for Rotterdam, EXPO 2000 in Hanover and the International Airport Pudong, Phase II in Shanghai.

On the current state of the lighting design profession today, Brandi believes that “university education is often inadequate and unstructured”. Young designers that join her firm still need on-the-job teaching, despite having the academic qualifications. So, in response to university education’s shortcomings, Brandi has set up a new lighting design institute.

From next year, would-be lighting designers can study at the Brandi Institute for Light and Design in Hamburg. There, students will learn the ins and outs of lighting design on a practical level “free from manufacturers’ interests,” says Brandi, “in addition to creative aspects of lighting design, which are sometimes neglected with all the technical specifications and requirements.”

Brandi’s own approach to lighting design involves starting with natural light, the Underpinning life in innumerable ways, sunlight influences the work of many lighting designers. Yet for German lighting designer Ulrike Brandi, daylight is “the starting point for all thinking about architecture and lighting design. Not only from a functional angle, but in a human-centred approach that places strong emphasis on the basic need for natural daylight, the existing situation on site and in wider terms, the location in the city or in the landscape.

Brandi also studies the character of the proposed architecture, and considers how the lighting will contribute to people’s enjoyment in the building and its surroundings, the lighting’s affect on the building’s appeal, and whether the lighting is to be “representative, create a certain mood, define spaces or be functional”.

Embracing shadows and incorporating areas of darkness is something Brandi has long been interested in. At Expo 2000 in Hanover, for which Brandi masterplanned the lighting, large areas of the site, including parks, were left dark at night. “There was only some subtle path lighting and a few islands of light,” she says. “The clients soon overcame their initial skepticism about the concept, when they saw that visitors actually liked these areas after the sensory overload at the Expo.”

Another large-scale project that Brandi worked on was the lighting masterplan for the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands. The municipal administration wanted to simplify the city’s lighting, and to make the place more attractive to tourists and high earners.

Brandi worked on bringing visual cohesion to the city’s lighting, and “the great achievement,” she says, “was that we were able to integrate what we call functional lighting into the project, which was not intended at the outset. I managed to convince the municipality that functional light makes up a large part of a city’s ambience.

Of course, street lighting has to have good colour rendition and the mounting heights certainly have an effect on atmosphere. There’s more to it than illuminating facades of outstanding buildings.”

When designing lighting, something else she bears in mind is “less is better”, learned from Dieter Rams. “That also influenced me a lot,” she says. “As we have so many disturbing things around us, I very often think less is better!” In terms of lighting design “this means not the brightest is the best,” she says. Brandi recalls an LED light column next to Hamburg’s town hall. The structure “outshone everything else,” she says. “The column’s theme was Hamburg as the European Green Capital 2011 - a complete joke!”

As for the industrial designer’s other principles, Brandi thinks that two in particular can be applied to lighting design. “First, a good design tells the truth!” she says. “In lighting design we find situations where ugly spaces or buildings are converted to superficially beautiful spaces.”

That the work should be sustainable is another belief Rams espoused. “Lighting design,” says Brandi, “has to be sustainable, and I think the most sustainable is daylight which is inconspicuous, traditional and innovative at the same time.”

Over the years, Brandi has designed the lighting for hundreds of built projects, and next year she starts teaching the next generation of lighting designers, influencing the way forward for the lighting design profession.


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