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MONDO ARC

Uwe Belzner

Issue 38 : Aug / Sep 2007


Trained architect and theatre lighting designer Uwe Belzner works in many aspects of lighting design. His office in the southern German city of Heidelberg, which he runs with his partner Andrew Holmes, is involved in projects for the stage as well as for internal and external spaces. here, Marco Ludwig talks to one of the first exponents of light architecture.

Before considering the concept and guidelines with which Uwe Belzner brings such major urban lighting projects to fruition, we should first throw light on where the roots of his long-standing occupation as lighting designer lie in the form of many awards and, in 2001, a Professorship for Light and Colour Design at the University of Applied Sciences in Coburg.
As multifaceted as Belzner’s range of work is today, his origins are in the theatre. The designer, who during his architectural studies was already active in the theatre and was put in charge of lighting at the Stuttgart State Theatre under the artistic directorship of famous director Ivan Nagel, admits that “I discovered my love of light here”. He worked there regularly with Robert Wilson, the famous tableau innovator of the modern theatre at a time when theatre lighting evolved from a purely technical to an artistic discipline.
“During that time it was no longer appropriate to speak of a ‘Head of Lighting’. For the first time the description ‘Lighting Designer’ appeared in (theatre) programmes. So we in Stuttgart, together with Max Keller at the Kammerspielen in Munich, were the first. It was clear to us, that lighting was a separate discipline.”
Belzner’s time in the theatre provided the basis for his versatility, which he still follows today: “There is a difference whether one lights something as instructed, or is involved in the design process from the beginning. I unequivocally prefer the latter.”
Furthermore, Uwe Belzner sees the theatre “as the best school for Lighting Designers, because there one can best learn how to bring a dark room to life, the interplay of light with differing materials and how pictures created with light can be given chronological cohesion”. If one considers, for example, his Stage-Light-Spaces for Euripides’ play ‘The Bacchae’ (Theatre am Kirchplatz in Schaan, 2004), their clarity and slimmed-down shape and space catch the eye. The lighting equipment and opulent decor, which usually divert the attention of the audience, are neither visible nor recognisable. The scene lighting itself merges into geometrical stage defining elements, as it were. It creates thereby a single optical unit. Theatre lighting is not primarily the lighting medium, but a space-creating medium reflecting Uwe Belzner’s aforementioned mentor, American artist & director, Robert Wilson, who coined the essential phrase: “There is no space without light”.
Belzner stresses that the reverse is also true, that there is no light without space. To the question as to what influence on architecture his accomplishments in the theatre have had, Belzner answers in a way in which every juxtaposed dependent relationship of space and light reappears.
“I am a lover of minimalist buildings, as my experiences in the theatre show me, the emptier a room, the more developmental possibilities it offers and it is, therefore, free to be interpreted by light.”
Which components are relevant to the way in which Belzner fundamentally understands space interpretation? The Heidelberger considers the time factor to be significant: “It plays, insofar as it is dramatically conceived, an ever greater role in architectural lighting design today. The relaying of critical values of perception can be well learned on the stage. Take for example what is possibly the most true-to nature representation of a sunset in its light-colour-progression. The theatre has taught me to see architecture in time sequences. Architects often relate to their spaces statically, and do not explore the effects of their designs on the surroundings at different times, by day and by night. Architectural form changes at night as a result of the emission of light. Particularly in open, transparent architecture, the buildings which play a specific role in the cityscape should be lit.”
The light engineering by Belzner + Holmes at the ERCO Logistics Centre P3 in Lüdenscheid (Architects: Schneider & Schumacher) exemplify the visual expression of these ideas. As this light architecture follows its own intrinsic rhythms of time, so Belzner underlines the relevance of a conscious, temporary application of light, also relative to light events as the manifestation of a general wave of aesthetic configuration, in the course of which ever more cities should be made more attractive. He counters the provocative question as to whether he sees an inflationary association with light in the current lighting design boom in different ways; “I don’t see it as inflationary yet. For example, we were recently commissioned to light a bridge, several times a year, on special occasions. I find that acceptable. If however, the event was to occur every day, that would be too much. In natural light, colour, combined with intensity and shadows permits the pictorial discernment of time; there are no excess rules.”
According to Belzner, it also holds true to tame the artistic use of colours. He declares this to be a delicate subject. “When our office started out with light architecture, already some years ago, we were among the first to adopt coloured lighting. Those were projects for the ERCO exhibition stands in Hanover. If you look around the exhibition stands today, and see how the lighting manufacturers present themselves, you will see that everything, also in the field of the LED euphoria, has become coloured. There are basically projects where colour belongs, but also those where it simply has no place. To make a colour spectacle of every building facade can lead to the loss of just that which one wants to achieve, namely uniqueness. Everything lives from change, from the contrast between one thing and another, between silence and noise, between multicoloured and monochromatic, speed and slowness. Only alternating between all of them creates quality. So there is a problem in planning urban lighting, if each project is treated in isolation and not in tune with the others, and its implementation toned down, it loses its effect.”
How light architecture can be expressed through the graduation of intensity, achieving its impact without the blatant deployment of colour, can be seen impressively in Belzner + Holmes’ design of the Coburg Marktplatz. The German lighting engineer speaks of “composed variation”. However, what infuses space-light-composition in Belzner’s mind, which “basic melody” underlies it?
In interpreting space, which components lead to the harmonious production design of a play or what shapes the nocturnal picture of a city “internally”, so that it is not only recognisable to the beholder “on the surface” but also communicates its expressive content, so that he is moved or even gripped by it?
“Emotional expertise” is Belzner’s catchphrase for it. But how does the lighting designer flesh out this concept with content? Although, as mentioned at the outset, Belzner’s stages are empty and uncluttered and he looks, in the same way, for diminution in architecture, his space-light projects in no way give rise to an emotional vacuum.
On the contrary, precisely because of his minimalist style, the space can become charged with emotion, and that in such a way as to “jump the orchestra pit” to the spectator and enrich what he sees with feelings to animate his optics. In order to achieve this, says Belzner, the designer must “first set free his emotional expertise, in order to convert it into a work which communicates the intellectual content to the spectator and the listener by way of the emotional memory and thereby over a deeply sensed feeling”.
That emotional capability also means the perceptive expertise of the recipient. Belzner knows the effectiveness of light on their perception, when he gave the following example: “In the theatre, during the performance, the spectator is emotionally led, not least by the lighting direction. As a lighting designer, one gets a feeling as to how particular situations, i.e. emotional moments, can be communicated. If, for example, two fearful people huddle together at night and talk softly with each other, I would position them in front of a candle and not in a strong spotlight. In this way, creative lighting communicates itself to the spectator. It sends out signals, which reach people’s emotional memory and calls up the combination of external information and feelings stored there. Experience is, of course, personal. At the same time, there is primal knowledge regarding this. As a lighting designer, I have at my disposal a fund of experience, accumulated over 30 years, as a result of which I know roughly which lighting dispositions can awaken which moods in the beholder.”
That lighting designer Belzner understands perception not only as visual, is proved by his keen interest in the auditory phenomenon, which he correlates with light. This finds its expression also in popular formulations such as “all colour” for example. Thus, there is a connection between ear and eye, and the ear plays a large role in perception. Thus light not only supplies a feeling of wellbeing, a need, incidentally, which is primarily associated with light, as Belzner also put it. In addition, the experience of space is important, as it is well known that Man perceives with his entire body. As for technical expertise, Uwe Belzner is convinced that it is to be found at a high level almost everywhere in this age of globalisation. He understands it only as a precondition for creative work with light. It is primarily emotional expertise which makes it possible to discern creative work. “In the same way that cities are distinguishable by day, so they should also be at night.”
So, once again and finally, emotional expertise is Uwe Belzner’s key to success as a lighting designer. It is “cement” for the various components of the creative process. It is being able to sense the singularity of a play, a building or a city and convert this into a composition of colour and space, place and time: in Light & Sound..

Any projects he would like to change?
All those in which the engineering is out of date and so has a negative effect on the project.

Project he dislikes:
All insensitive and undistinguished projects, all projects “coloured” without rhyme or reason. All well conceived projects which were not implemented.

Project he admires:
Other than individual highlights of some colleagues, the sensitive projects of Roger Narboni and the clarity of Speirs & Major.

Lighting hero:

Robert Wilson, with whom I studied. My partner Andrew Holmes and Roger Narboni.

Notable projects:
Architectural - Erco “P3’’; Bridge in Duisburg; Coburg Market Place. Theatre - Faust at Milan’s La Scala; Lohengrin at the Zürich Opera House; Antique Cycle with Georg Rootering in Liechtenstein. Fairs - Erco; Kenzo. Exhibitions: Museum “Universum“ Science Centre in Bremen; State Exhibition “Saurier (Dinosaurs) – Successful Models in Evolution“ in Stuttgart; Automotive Museum in Shanghai.

Current Projects:
Jugendkulturkirche in Frankfurt; Rosengarten Congress Centre in Mannheim; Mercedes Benz Centre in Milan; Dornier Museum in Friedrichshafen; Alte Brücke (Old Bridge) in Heidelberg; Stadtlicht (Street Lighting) in Hammerfest (Norway).


www.belzner-holmes.de

 

Uwe Belzner
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