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Al Borden

Issue 72 April / May 2013

In the space of a week last autumn in New York City, Al Borden attended the public relightings of two of his highest profile projects: the top 30 floors of the Empire State Building, and the façade of the 34-story 230 Park Avenue Building. Vilma Barr caught up with him to discuss the highlights of a glittering career.

Growing up in New York, Al Borden was fascinated with the lights of Manhattan’s skyscrapers. He couldn’t imagine that in 2012, his lighting designs for two of its most famous buildings would become part of the cityscape.

On November 28, the new LEDs at the top tier of the Empire State Building, from floors 72 to 103, were switched on. A week later, and fourteen blocks uptown, the north façade of the 230 Park Avenue Building, came to life with choreographed rippling patterns of holiday hues.

Alfred R. Borden founded The Lighting Practice in Philadelphia 24 years ago. Now, with partners Helen Diemer and Michael Barber, Borden manages TLP’s staff of seventeen, occupying offices in the neo-classic Public Ledger Building in the city’s historic Independence Hall district.
His fascination with lighting began when he started working on shows in high school. “I never wanted to be an actor,” he says, “but I became very interested in creating the fantasy worlds where the acting happened. Lighting absorbed me; nothing seemed to make a place more ‘real’ than the right lighting.”

Borden pursued theatrical lighting design at Temple University in Philadelphia and then went on to the Master of Fine Arts program at New York University. “The instruction was amazing and very demanding. I was privileged to take lighting classes from John Gleason and scenic design classes from Lloyd Burlingame and Fred Voelpel,” he says. “I learned a lot about design but even more about always striving to be better and what it really means to be a professional.”

The NYU connection gave Borden opportunities to work in the New York theatre. “I knocked around for a few years in New York and Philadelphia, including the first US production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Andre DeShields, and did the lighting for some dance performances and some concerts. But by the mid-1980s I had had enough with theatrical lighting. I wanted to work on things that lasted. Somehow I heard about this specialty called architectural lighting, so I bought Bill Lam’s book, got inspired, and started searching for a job.”

His first position was with a small electrical engineering office, where the work, he states, was not terribly creative but the steady paycheck was wonderful. “And I started learning how the architectural lighting industry works, from the first conceptual glimmer through the cheer-leading and consensus-building of the design process, through the perilous minefields of bidding, procurement, installation and commissioning to finally: Lights Up!” He didn’t stay long at that job, and the next few years were a trail of offices, large and small. “Nothing felt like the right fit. Eventually, I realised that I should have my own office and I was lucky enough to open my own architectural lighting practice. I became much luckier when my good friend Helen Diemer joined the practice. And we have managed to stay pretty lucky ever since.

“Our job is to keep everybody in the firm interested and involved, so that they feel a personal ownership in the firm’s completed projects,” says Borden. ”Some people have been with us for ten years, and we have an ongoing search for new people - we are always looking, always. Our designers have come from many design fields such as interior design and architecture, and others are recent architectural engineering graduates. They need to show us that they have a love of working with light, that they want to be part of our company, and that they are prepared to do the diligence and follow-through to make it all work,” Borden indicates.

When asked if TLP had a signature style, he responded that the firm does not have a style but has developed a process. “In our designs, we try to be storytellers. I learned in the theatre that a design wrapped around a strong narrative has the best chance for success. Each decision needs to be checked against that central allegory. We try very hard to listen to our clients and really hear their goals. Their resources and willingness to participate in the process will ultimately shape the project’s outcome.”

One of the most challenging projects Borden has worked on was the new lights atop the 103-story-high Empire State Building at 350 Fifth Avenue and Thirty-fourth Street, part of the half a billion-dollar modernisation of the 81-year-old skyscraper icon that includes making it ‘green’. Borden began working on the project in December of 2006. “Before, there were just seven colour discs for each of the old metal halide floodlights. They were 18-inch diameter disc lenses that had to be changed when they were no longer functional. A team of technicians had to bolt them in place on the setbacks on the seventy-second and eighty-first floors,” Borden says.

The Lighting Practice was contracted to Philips Lighting to help them develop the lighting design. “At that time, they were competing against Color Kinetics. Then in 2007, Philips acquired Color Kinetics. TLP’s role was as consultants to the owner when the project came back to life in mid-2011, and installation began in April of 2012,” he says.

With his team at TLP, Borden developed a performance specification for the new instant colour-changing LED system. Borden participated in a competitive evaluation to select the turnkey system provider; worked collaboratively with Philips Color Kinetics - the successful bidder - on the system’s technical and creative aspects; and critiqued system mock-ups.

The LED illumination program extended from floors 72 to 81 through the structure’s Horizontal Bands, the Mooring Mast, and the Halo. The building’s owners required that the metal halide system be replaced without a shutdown. “Early in the process we set up a couple of nights when the LEDs were tuned to the colour to match the original metal halide lamps with the colour filters,” Borden describes. “Work proceeded each day and each night that the tower was lighted. The public never knew that gradually the light changed to all LED.”

Annual estimated savings with the LED system is 80 percent compared with the former floodlights in energy costs and maintenance. TLP was also involved in the relighting of the Empire State Building’s Art Deco lobby with the architects, Beyer Blinder Belle. Borden points out that Anthony Malkin, chief executive for the building’s ownership, was close to the decision-making throughout the entire planning and implementation phases. “The project was meant to be a lighting system replacement, but we achieved a complete reimaging for the owner, more than a replacement. That’s the magical part of working with LEDs,” says Borden.

Borden has directed recent projects with a major urban scope, such as City Hall tower and several façades along the Avenue of the Arts in downtown Philadelphia. He finds their scale and context very inspiring.
“The best approach to such projects is to look for simplicity in the design concept and the lighting applications. A simple solution is usually the toughest one to find but it can be the most rewarding to execute. It also has the best chance for longevity, especially in the realm of public funding,” he believes.

A few years ago, Borden served as the IALD’s director of marketing. His main objective was to communicate to the broad spectrum of clients the benefits of professional lighting design. “But I underestimated the scope of the task, which is huge, and I didn’t have the resources to carry it out. That kind of effort is just not possible,” Borden says. Instead, he believes the effectiveness of a professional lighting organisation is to be “…sort of a watch dog on legislation that can affect the profession, things that would affect lighting codes and ordinances and technical hurdles to business.” The platforms IALD provides for sharing information receive Borden’s vote as a benefit to members and the profession as a whole. “Focusing on making a better business environment for practitioners is a really good thing. And then there’s the friendships and educational opportunities. Even though we are all competitors we ultimately help each other by being the best we can be,” Borden believes. “I met some great people serving on the IALD and IESNA boards and had some very rewarding experiences. But I’m glad that I decided to get out of the way and let others take over. IALD, like most professional organisations, derives its life from the interest and energy of its members. All members need a chance to get involved at the highest levels of the organisation. An organisation that is continuously run by the same people will become hidebound and ultimately irrelevant.”

For several years, TLP has awarded cash scholarships to outstanding college students in programs relating to lighting and lighting design. “Our staff is very involved in running education programs through IESNA” Borden says. “We host student events, including inviting a local design school to use our office mock-up room for their hands-on technology sessions. It is in our interest to help cultivate future designers,” he believes.

Borden taught lighting as part of the evening architecture program at Drexel University for about seven years until the steady demands of his work schedule proved more than he could comfortably handle. He now limits his instructional activities to guest lecturing at a few schools.
TLP is growing and, with his partners, Borden intends to keep up the momentum.

“We had a second office in Dallas for a few years. It made sense for a while and then it didn’t. The business world is a very fluid environment. Operating a successful business means constantly re-evaluating your decisions and staying nimble,” he notes.

“I tell people we are like investment advisors. The client wants to get something done, and they have this many dollars to spend to make it happen. What’s the very best thing we can do to get closer to that goal with the funds available? Sometimes we can be exact, but at other times we have to tease it through a couple of budgeting processes or mock-ups to get to a successful solution.”

Borden continues: “Lighting design is a service business, a people business, a communication business. Our business philosophy is that if we can earn our clients’ trust, things will work out. We build relationships with clients and suppliers. I want to work on things that last and I want to work with people in relationships that last.

“There are amazing possibilities in the technology that is out there and being introduced almost every day. Technology change is one of the reasons why we have a job here. We work at discovering if the new technology is robust enough, and if the value it provides is a significant advancement for our consideration.”

“It’s not unusual for a client to say to us: ‘I saw this building at night the other day. How did they do that and why, and can you guys do it too?’ The more we learn about what their idea is of a project’s success - and what their concept of good lighting is - then we can tailor our solutions to meet or exceed their expectations. I enjoy working with clients to enhance their facilities and to solve their problems. I am a doer. I want to facilitate a successful process,” Borden states in conclusion.


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