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André Tammes

issue 47 February / March 2009

From lighthouse keeper to internationally-renowned ‘Visual planner’ - André Tammes looks back on over four decades of illumination.

by Jimmie Wing

As a young child of six or seven in Amsterdam, André Tammes was taken around the famed galleries by his grandfather and saw all the Dutch masters - Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Dyke, Van Gogh. “That was one of the things that triggered my awareness of lighting.” He recounted another formative experience: “My father had a little leather-covered box and in that box was the most beautiful prism. I remember closing the curtains in my bedroom, just allowing a chink of light into the room and putting the prism in the light and holding up a piece of white paper to see the rainbow result. I was fascinated.”

“The other thing was that when I was about eight, my parents moved from Amsterdam to Edinburgh to live in a rambling mansion in the country. Parts of it had been built in the 14th century. There was no electricity - an incredible shock for a young child - but we did have an amazing system of lighting candles, pump up Tilley lamps, and traditional oil lamps. And a gas making machine inside a shed on the gable end of the building - a wonderful contraption. Running up outside the gables was a counter weight hoisted up the full height of the building. Each night my father would wind it up until it reached the top.

In the ensuing 24 hours, as it descended it powered this contraption that made gas from high octane aircraft fuel mixed with air. That lethal mixture was piped throughout the house to light fittings with mantels creating a soft, lemony green, fluctuating light. As an impressionable child, living in that house with its wondrous quality of light massively influenced me”. That was not all. Inside another old shed in the back garden he discovered a model theatre - battery driven with its own lights.

In his wayward teens Tammes took up various positions but invariably there was a strong connection with lighting. His stint as a relief lighthouse keeper was brief. “I polished a lot of brass.” Employed by The Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, this was probably what inspired him to name one of the first companies he started, Northern Light.

His introduction to the theatrical world came at 17 when he took his first full time job at the Palace Theatre in Watford - under the grand title of Student Assistant Stage Manager. Despite putting in long hard days and nights, the bottom line was that his parents were paying to have him work there. Having expressed interest in lighting, he had been assisting the chief electrician but he (the electrician) had a heart attack and Tammes was fast tracked to a higher position, though still not getting paid. Fortunately he noticed a newspaper advertisement: Stage Manager Required - £9 a week. The location at Barrow-in-Furness was far from London but at just 18 years of age he had 2 older stage hands begrudgingly working under his command.

Eventually he progressed to a period at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh as Resident Stage-lighting Designer working with various interesting people such as Tom Conti, Brian Cox and Richard Eyre, who went on to become the director of the National Theatre. At the latter part of that period Tammes was also running Northern Light, the company he started in the early 70s. It was an entertainment industry service company that he founded because “we couldn’t hire reasonable equipment at reasonable prices; everything had to be carted up from London by rail”. Northern Light grew rapidly and successfully and is still operating to this day.

Through his theatrical endeavours Tammes had rubbed shoulders with the architects who designed the theatres. “They really didn’t have any ideas about how theatres worked and the technology required,” he stated. “I had evolved from working as a stage lighting designer and working as an equipment supplier into being a theatre consultant, advising architects about the finer details of designing theatres.”

“But,” averred Tammes, “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life handling equipment.” The notional jump from theatre was when going outside after shows, he noticed that there was a disconnect between what one saw on the stage and what one saw when going out into the real world. “That intrigued me because it was essentially the same medium - light. I started to seriously question why the quality of lighting in the outside world was so dire. I found out the answer very quickly - because the wrong people were doing it!”

“Lighting was incorrectly coupled with electrical engineering. It was like asking the chief electrician in the theatre to do the stage-lighting. I asked myself: Why is this gang of engineers doing the lighting? I had heard that people in the US such as Paul Marantz, Jules Horton, Howard Branston and Lesley Wheel, were doing some very interesting work in an architectural context and found that a lot of these people came from a similar background. Paul Marantz had hooked up with stage lighting designer Jules Fischer. It became obvious that they were already a leap ahead because they’d already discovered what I had begun to realise. So I thought: If they can do it ...”

“In the early ‘80s there was almost no precedent for professional architectural lighting design work in the UK apart from my dear friend Derek Phillips of DPA. Derek had already been mixing architecture with lighting for two decades or more. A great early exponent of good lighting solutions originating through the lens of architecture. He was the only one. I remember ringing him up “Well Mr Philips,” I announced, “I’m thinking of starting an architectural lighting consultancy firm but concerned about the financial feasibility.” “I wish you luck,” he responded “but it’s a hard yard. I continue to also do architecture, because otherwise it’s not possible.” His parting words of advice were “Don’t do it.” Tammes threw caution to the wind and decided to do purely architectural lighting regardless.

In 1984 he started LDP. He already had established a good working relationship with an architectural graduate and realised he needed to have someone on the team who knew about architecture. That was Jonathan Speirs. I told him my plans to do pure lighting design. He said: “I think that’s a great idea and would like to come on the team.”

“Working on a strictly fee paid basis was what would distinguish us from other people. So we began. Even though the idea was strictly mine, I don’t think I would have been able to do this as rapidly without Jonathan’s early involvement, not to mention all the other people, many of whom have gone on to becoming major players in lighting design. LDP went on to become the first major architectural lighting consultancy in the UK, at one time employing 40 people, working with wonderful architects such as Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw and the great theatre design team under Nick Thompson at RHWL.”

“It was a combination of several things (working in Australia),” Tammes revealed, “triggered by a decision after the last recession in the late ‘80s - never to have all our eggs in one basket - to diversify geographically.”

His first Antipodean project was in Perth with the colourful Australian character Alan Bond. “I became involved because Alan Bond had bought a collection that included Van Gogh’s Irises painting.” Present at the unveiling and unwrapping among full security, André Tammes and his assistant were then left on their own to get on with lighting it. “That was my first experience in Australia. I had designed the system essentially from the UK but often went to Perth to monitor progress.”

Following the Bond experience, Tammes buzzed across to Sydney and Brisbane for the ‘88 Expo. There he met an architect, Jon Voller, and that resulted in being asked to do lighting design for Brisbane International Airport.

“That year I went back and forth seven times so I started thinking about where I really wanted to be.” Having successfully started the UK’s first architectural lighting company and with the position of Visiting Professor at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment for some years, Tammes came to a convergence of influences. He was also aware that at that time there were no independent lighting companies in Australia. In those days lighting designers all worked within engineering firms. Lighting was an adjunct to engineering [partly] because the first lighting activity was lead by Barry Webb, an engineer with a passion for lighting. The other person who set the ball rolling was John Halliday who saw a future for lighting and started Vision Design - an offshoot of Lincolne Scott, a major services engineering group.

He saw potential in Australia, and that being based there, could more easily service the Asian market. He established LDP there in ‘96 but didn’t relocate until ‘98 when LDP secured the re-lighting of the Sydney Opera House. But (and because) there was a caveat: André Tammes had to be there and make himself available to oversee the Opera House project. So he was placed in a position where he had to make a decision. The rest is history. His business partner, Dhruvajyoti Ghose, came on board in the late ‘90s and they have been building LDP together ever since. “One of the things I miss in Australia is there are no really old buildings to light and one of the great paradoxes here is that there is not as much use of natural light as one would expect.
Possibly because of the traditional response to the heat gain issue.” 

Despite its geographical distance from the rest of the West, Tammes doesn’t feel isolated at all because of his frequency of international projects and the enormous amount of travelling which that entails. In fact, the huge majority of LDP’s work now comes from outside Australia. Currently there are 90 projects that the LDP offices are involved in across 15 countries.

The Visual Planner: “I no longer call myself a lighting designer - I’m a visual planner. Some may say that’s an affectation but it’s because this draws attention to what should be a holistic approach to lighting design. Light doesn’t manifest until it strikes a surface. Visual planning involves the relationship between light and the surfaces it impacts. People might say that’s very analytical. Well, my father was a psychoanalyst and I conclude that all lighting designers have to be visual analysts. We have retitled our business as visual planning first and lighting design second.”

The Demise of Incandescents: How does André Tammes feel about impending bans on incandescent lighting? “The demise of incandescents isn’t an issue yet because for the time being, and I stress for the time being, a significant number of normal incandescent lamps are being replaced by mains voltage tungsten halogen capsule lamps which are virtually the same but they don’t blacken over time. Up to now they just meet current energy codes but if that bar gets raised any higher it could become an issue. Hopefully by which time LEDs will have come of age.”

Geographical and Cultural Observations: “The tradition in Europe has been on a less is more tendency to underlight, using lighting more sparingly, discriminatingly and selectively.” Working all over the planet André Tammes has observed that there seems to be a preference for cooler lighting within certain latitudes of the equator. Is this because of arbitrary conclusions that people prefer cooler light in warmer climates? Interestingly, after LDP conducted tests in India with variations of warm and cool lighting, when asked about flesh appearance, fruit, food and colour swatches, the general response was that most people actually preferred the warmer tones.

The Present: “Sant Nirankari is one of the most fascinating projects I’m working on now. Commissioned by the Nirankari Sect (a sub-sect of Sikhism), it’s what might be called a Monument to Nothingness - it is actually a large water sculpture set in an artificial lake to be completed this year. It’s my pet project. The living guru who leads the sect is quite involved. He looks at plans, joins in around the table and gets involved in design workshops.”

Issues: Tammes asserts that one of the biggest single problems facing the lighting profession is that many potentially great lighting designers are joining engineering firms. “This is further exacerbated by clients and project managers that have the impression that lighting is a part of the engineering”. Half jokingly he adds: “The only reason there is any connection between electrical engineering and lighting is because the power comes through copper cables. However, if artificial lighting had remained as gas lighting, we would have had mechanical engineers handling the lighting because the energy came through pipes. There is no rational reason why electrical engineers should have anything to do with lighting. Just because the power comes through a cable!”

The Solution: There’s a lot of confusion in the market place. Some clients think it best to do one stop shopping but often they end up dissatisfied with the results and decide to bring in fee paid lighting designers. Graduating lighting designers should not be induced to join engineering companies but encouraged to join fee paid lighting companies or, perhaps, architectural firms. Because there’s an obviously stronger bond between architecture and lighting than lighting and engineering. Instead of being relegated to the corners of engineering offices, it is essential that these newcomers are given the opportunity to be in a position that will guarantee them wide spread work.

Signing Off: Sadly, lighthouse keeping has become an anachronism but the relevance of dedicated lighting designers is becoming more and more vital in the 21st century.

“It’s been a lovely adventure” declares André Tammes, “The book is coming ....”

Projects you would like to change
All external lighting of buildings based on the sole use of a High Pressure Sodium light source.

Projects you dislike
Any project where permanent lighting draws the eye more than the architecture does, through the insensitive use of colour, excessive brightness or inappropriate placement of equipment.

Projects you admire
Any which demonstrate the principle of ‘less is more’ – the Louvre exteriors in Paris, the canals in the old part of Amsterdam, the interior of Chung-Tai Chan Temple in Taiwan, and the external lighting of some small hill towns in southern Europe. 

Lighting hero
Tadao Ando for his fusion of light and architectural form, and Richard Kelly for creating and demonstrating a credible language of light.

Notable projects
Erasmus Bridge, Rotterdam, Netherlands; masterplan for the federal capital city of Putrajaya, Malaysia; Durham Cathedral interior, England; Federation Square, Melbourne, Australia; Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel – concept work; Golden Temple, Amritsar, India – long term lighting planning; Sydney Opera House, Australia – concept, demonstration stages and northern elevations.

Current projects
Brisbane International Airport, Australia; Al Reem Mall + Towers, Abu Dhabi, UAE; Palm Deira masterplan, Dubai, UAE; Government of Hong Kong Headquarters and legislative complex; Sant Nirankari water sculpture, Delhi, India; among some 90 projects which the LDP offices are involved in across 15 countries.


Andr Tammes
Federation Square Melbourne
Federation Square Melbourne
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Singapore
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple Singapore
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