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Howard M. Brandston

issue 45 October / November 2008

Howard M. Brandston mixes philosophy, science and an innate sense of the elements of spatial beauty. Vilma Barr reports

After a distinguished international career that spans nearly five decades in the elite world of top-tier lighting design, Howard M. Brandston would not be criticised for kicking back and pursuing some creative relaxation.

But such is not the case. “I am legally retired,” he admits. Of his current status, Brandston comments: “However, I’m morally responsible for some projects at the Brandston Partnership Inc. which are currently underway, so I continue to work as a design consultant. In work that I do on my own today, I see myself as a ‘design provocateur’...producing sketches; offering opinions.”

In 1966, Brandston founded the New York-based lighting design consultancy now known as the Brandston Partnership Inc. (BPI). During the next 44 years, he and his staff were responsible for more than 3,500 projects around the world. The firm currently employs a total of 30 people with offices in New York, Shanghai, and Beijing.

An early influence on his design career was Leon Freund, an art teacher at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. “Leon had been involved in the government-sponsored WPA projects of the Depression,” Brandston recalls. “He called us his ‘Art Squad’. In art studio, he would say to the class, ‘You have a blank piece of paper in front of you: it represents an opportunity to create a work of art. Let’s see what you can do.’”

Two classic books of the last century also influenced his outlook on life and design. “If it isn’t new, creative, or art, why do it?” Brandston asks. “I agree with the outlook expressed by language theorist and educator Rudolph Flesh: ‘Creative thinking may simply mean the realisation that there is no particular virtue in doing things the way they have always been done.’” (from ‘Enchanted Mind - Random Acts of Silliness’ by Rudolph Flesh).
He considers the 1909 book by the German-American mathematician and engineer, Charles Proteus Steinmetz, ‘Radiation, Lighting & Illumination’, to be the consummate book for the educated person. “It clearly explains the derivation of the mathematical foundation for lighting,” Brandston says.

Brandston’s own book, ‘Learning to See - A Matter of Light’ (reviewed in this issue), was published this spring by the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America. “It took seven years of synthesising my ideas of what it takes to be a designer, that begins after you know every code, calculation, equipment and energy consequences. It describes facets of a lighting designer’s career that are rarely discussed in other books, such as interacting with the client,” Brandston indicates.

“Communication,” he stresses, “is not a single methodology. Speak clearly; know how to draw and how to write. In a presentation, you must be perceived as open-minded. The best presentations elicit the best critiques.” Criticism, he believes, leads to the most successful lighting projects.

“From my early student days,” Brandston says, “I’ve used my ability to draw quickly the ideas that I want to study and for others to respond to. It’s a traditional and still an important form of information transfer that gives the designer and the client another level of insight into determining the final solution. Seeing the idea on paper helps to develop a truly open-minded viewpoint in the subsequent evaluation of the proposed solutions. The hand and the eye become linked, achieving an invaluable step toward learning to see,” he emphasises.
“Yes, the computer has become a valuable tool in the visualisation process,” states Brandston, “but it is not a substitute for testing concepts by hand-drawing at an early stage of the process.”

Brandston credits his experience in theatrical design as his first step to creative freedom: ”There are no lighting codes restricting what you can do to dramatise or augment the action on the stage.” 

“For the lighting designer, the objective is to produce an emotional response on the part of the audience. Light reinforces the actions of the people on the stage. It’s much the same objective for architectural lighting design,” Brandston explains. “I ask my students questions such as: What is the purpose of the project? What will it achieve? How does lighting help to communicate that objective? Your solution will help to turn the client’s aspirations for the project into a reality.”

Teaching has been part of Brandston’s professional activities for 45 years. During his two years holding a chain in Lighting at Cooper Union, he assigned students the preparation of at least a half-dozen philosophical papers on light and lighting along with projects involving the analysis and solutions for challenging architectural lighting situations. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), where he led a design studio for 13 years, Brandston made sure his students understood that while he was their instructor, they were responsible for their own education. “They studied three parallel fields of concentration concurrently: time, light, and architecture,” he points out.

Brandston’s teaching technique stressed an intellectual analysis of the project under consideration. “Even before putting pencil to paper, I urged my students to participate in a valuable exercise that is basically a free-thinking review session of the project,” he notes. “For example, I suggest the following to be considered. ‘If you are a lighting designer who is being considered for a museum project, you would ask yourself: What is a museum? What type of museum is this? What is its mission in this community? What is its impact on the visitor? What is your responsibility as the lighting designer to the project? Where does your input fit into the end result?’”

When he was interviewed to participate in a Ford Foundation grant to study teaching methodology, he relates that the Ford Foundation Fellow called him into her office to discuss his plans for the course. “I responded that first I had to see what the students already knew before I could define the course’s content. As you can imagine, she was quite surprised,” Brandston recalls. In 1981, he founded the Annual Workshop for Teachers of Lighting, and endowed the annual Brandston Student Lighting Competition as part of the awards programs of the IESNA.

Brandston stresses to his staff and students the benefits of a business relationship based on a mutual give-and-take of ideas between sponsor and lighting designer. “A few years ago, I designed the lighting for a project at the University of Pennsylvania that was funded by the publisher and philanthropist, Walter Annenberg. At the walk-through on opening day, Mr. Annenberg turned to me and said, ‘That looks precisely the way you told me I would see this place.’ That is the type of response that only comes after a successful two-way communication between the client and the designer from the project’s outset,” he relates.

Representative organisations he has been instrumental in founding are the International Association of Lighting Designers, Lighting Research Institute, The Lighting Research Center at RPI, and the Lighting Research and Education Fund.

As a participant in activities that deal with major industry issues, Brandston is outspoken on what he feels is the lack of the profession’s public response to the potential banning of the incandescent lamp. “Is the lighting design profession resigned to having the incandescent light banned?,” he asks. “No matter how busy I was with my practice, I always made time to confront major industry issues. For the National Energy Code Committee, Standard 90, this includes helping to determine the final version of the mathematical equation that was used to set the upper power limit for lighting, adopted and published in ASHRAE/IES 90.75. I also successfully protested ASHRAE’s attempt to eliminate the IESNA from the standards writing process of this critical standard.

“I’ve read many articles in the professional press decrying the potential banning of the incandescent lamp. But where are articles in the consumer and business media? Who is communicating to the public-at-large? My concern is: who is carrying this message to the legislators? Are we talking just to ourselves?” Brandston asks. “We need to rally every lighting design organisation to confront their country’s governing bodies and demand a reasonable solution. Political support is increasing to legislate the incandescent lamp out of existence. If that happens, an important option we use to best serve client needs will become unavailable.”

For Brandston, his education continues on a daily basis. “I’m still learning,” he affirms. “Bertrand Russell once said: ‘People, they enrich you.’ There’s no disputing that observation. If I’m doing my job as a mentor correctly, I feel that I have an impact on the lives of my students. These people are my real legacy. I’m most proud of that.”

Any projects you would like to change?
Not really

Memorable jobs
Statue of Liberty
It is the most publicly viewed of any of BPI’s projects. One of the problems was that nobody had ever made this lady with green skin look attractive. When it was first conceived by Bertholdi, there was light emanating from the crown only because it was intended to be a lighthouse. For the redesign, fixtures were concealed within five bunker depressions around the perimeter of the island to provide light at gradually increasing levels from the fort, up to the pedestal, and then on up to the statue itself. The folds of her gown are highlighted as are the classic colonnades of the pedestal.

Library at Maria Hostos Community College, Bronx, New York
There was minimal budget. A prime objective was to have the library open to residents in the area, and to make it a friendly place. The solution was ultra-simple, using readily available commodity fixtures and standard materials. Long-life light sources and simple maintenance were significant factors in the design. The lighting had to reinforce the openness for the community so they would feel free to use the public portion of the college facilities, especially the library.

Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
We worked with an almost unlimited budget to light the towers, the concert hall, and the public spaces. The inner surfaces of the towers’ shafts are illuminated to create a bright channel that emphasises the unusual form of the 88-story towers that were completed in 1998. We incorporated floodlights into the exterior mullion system to further define the stainless steel and glass façades and the connecting skybridge.

Other memorable jobs: Master plans for New York’s Central Park, Bryant Park, and Battery Park City; Detroit’s business district.
Lighting Hero
My lighting hero is my mentor, Stanley McCandless. McCandless was a remarkable human being who not only designed great projects but advanced the art of lighting with each project. The list of new lighting fittings he created is incredible, but I think his most important contribution to light and lighting was the long list of students and others he educated who continue in his footsteps and are part of his legacy. I am proud to be one of them.
Projects he likes and dislikes
Likes: The American Museum of Natural History in New York City. It is a place where education thrives. I particularly like the dinosaur hall. I think Millennium Park in Chicago is captivating.
Dislikes: I almost never say I dislike any project in particular as I feel I don’t know what the client had asked his design team to do, nor do I know enough about the occupancy to comment.  On the other hand, I don’t like seeing ordinary work, e.g. museums relying on endless miles of track fittings to light paintings with little regard for anything else.

Current projects
• The new San Francisco/Oakland Bay Bridge. A replacement bridge for the current structure, which is not fixable, is now in construction, scheduled for completion in  2013.
• Goldman Sachs headquarters in Manhattan’s World Trade Center. Scheduled completion is winter 2009.
• A 100,000-sq.-ft. (9,300sq.m.) facility for the Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, on the campus of Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.
• One of his current personal projects is “The Spirit of Belfast,” illuminated art piece designed with New York artist Dan George, for Arthur Square, Belfast, Ireland. A previous collaboration was the Tobin Street Redesign in Cork, Ireland.
Some of his 105 career awards
Honor Award for Contributions to Architecture, American Institute of Architects; Lifetime Achievement from IALD, and elected a Fellow; Medal and Distinguished Service Award, IESNA; elected to the Interior Design Hall of Fame; Honorary Fellow of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE).


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