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Kaoru Mende

issue 41 Feb / Mar 2008

The chief detective is clad in a fashionable trench-coat and plods through central Tokyo metropolis. His team follows as he
carefully scans the surroundings. But instead of the traditional gumshoe’s magnifying glass, he wields a Minolta light meter, and the only crime being committed here, if any, is that of unsightly or inefficient lighting. Jimmie Wing investigates...

The man in question is Kaoru Mende, founder of The Lighting Detectives, multi award winning lighting designer, founder of Lighting Planners Associates Inc., Professor of Lighting Design at Musashino Art University and a lecturer at Tokyo University, Tokyo University of Art, and other institutions. And no, even though the name “Kaoru” is more often than not a female name in Japan, he didn’t get teased or beaten up when he was a kid.
Despite his string of major accolades and accomplishments, it was not until 1987, at the age of 37, that his work as a lighting designer really began. “Everything to be seen by myself from that time has been food to fuel my lighting designs. The social changes that surrounded lighting design after 1987 were a whirlwind. In those days, lighting design referred to either a gorgeous pendant or illuminance calculations .... focus was on the lighting fixture and its form as product design or, a figures-oriented engineer, skilled in the design of quantity of light ... I did not want to do, or be, either but was interested in designing the relationship between people and light.”
Since then, as well as monumental achievements such as the Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, Supreme Court of Singapore and Tokyo International Forum, he has also been very actively involved in altruistic lighting projects. For Candle Night, held twice a year near his office in Omotesando, Tokyo, the local shopping street community and students from the university where he teaches, collaborate on the nights of the summer and winter solstices. People are encouraged to “turn off the lights and take it slow”.
In 2004 he was overall producer, organising a Creator’s Candle Design Exhibition inviting architects, graphic designers, product designers, interior designers, and artists to participate. He says “It was only a one-day event but created quite a stir. The exhibits weren’t just about the form of the candles but the meaning of candles, enjoying firelight as the candles burned down, and the outrageous concepts that surrounded some of the candles. Design is not just an idea but has to contend with an overall concept, costs, production timeframes, and manufacturing technology, all of which were essential to this exhibition.”
He thinks the importance of candle design is increasing and is beginning to improve. It’s not such a long stretch from candle light to incandescent and Mende strongly shares the sentiments of those ruing the looming demise of the old bulb. He declares that “after sunlight and firelight, the incandescent lamp is a very important source of light .... and can understandably be counted next to sunlight and firelight as another source of natural light. I’m always saying, ‘Learn from natural light!’.” He believes work as lighting designers cannot exceed beyond the “technology” of natural light and that the world of lighting design created by natural light is incredibly profound and is a source of inspiration for all of us.
“In Japan too, when problems like CO2 emissions and energy efficiency arise, campaigns for using fluorescent lights instead of incandescent lamps, are in full force. This is a considerably precarious idea. It is important to use energy efficient light sources. But not everything needs to change... We might need to learn to enjoy life again with a minimum amount of light like before the 19th century and review the morals that created brightness equals happiness in the 20th century. Effective utilisation of energy does not mean we have to deny the incandescent lamp. We need to recapture artistic shadowing and darkness created with a purpose.”
In addition to his H.Q. in Tokyo, he has an office in Singapore, just one degree north of the equator and having done major projects around the world means he’s in the perfect position to understand intrinsic differences in lighting design from country to country, culture to culture and climate to climate. “It is only natural that because of geography, climate, social situations, indigenous culture, ethnic groups, religion, history and so on, there are differences in lighting culture, perception, comfort, and value and, accordingly, there should be differences in lighting design. Where I live in Tokyo sometimes has a sense of value of light that resembles that from Scandinavian countries, yet also shares the same set of values widely expressed in the Asian region. Compared to Japan, in Singapore there are many differences in lighting design concept and goals necessary for this environment. People living near the equator hate the scorching sun during the day and love the coolness of shadows. From dusk long into the night, people can be seen out on the streets enjoying open-air venues. On the other hand, (for) Scandinavian people who are not quite as blessed with sunlight and consequently deeply attached to it, I get the impression that flashy lights are too bright since they are used to smaller amounts of light. Even the sparse light of a single candle receives careful attention. Other important differences in lighting values are also visible across religion, ethnicity, culture, society, and history, but the essence is in response to the globalization of lighting design technology, the localization of lighting design itself.” He believes local values concerning lighting and lighting design are essential to design.
One of his most bizarre projects is the Supreme Court of Singapore. The upper area, which houses the Court of Appeal, is a contemporary reinterpretation of the earlier courthouse’s classical dome, the circular design is cited as representing the impartiality of justice. And, to all intents and purposes, looks just like a flying saucer. Designed by Lord Norman Foster, Foster and Partners, it’s difficult to get them to admit that the UFO-like design is intentional. Mende however is less circumspect. “I’m not the only one to think (it) resembles a UFO. This architectural structure designed by Lord Foster is what can clearly be called a sturdy drum or distinctly shaped disc. As lighting designers, our job is to use light to enhance the architectural characteristics and personality of each building, along with creating a different expression at night than what is seen by day. Instinctively, I thought the drum should look as if it is hovering over the top of the structure or making a soft landing”. Unfortunately there have reportedly been problems with reflected light on the structure, apparently due to lax city regulations on floodlighting. “Even now, the client is still trying to improve the lighting effects and often asks us for advice,” Mende explains.
Could this be a case for The Lighting Detectives? In Singapore they have a well established presence. The Lighting Detectives is a non-profit group formed within Lighting Planners Associates (LPA) in 1990. Instead of studying light in the classroom Mende and the first group of ten detectives decided to go out and study lighting in its environment. The idea was borrowed from the architect and architectural historian, Terunobu Fujimori, who had written a book about the adventures of Architecture Detectives. According to their mission statement, The Lighting Detectives are “dedicated to the study of lighting culture through practical methods, mainly by engaging in fieldwork... to go to places where light is found and observe, detect, and gather many experiences to a deeper level... leave our books behind, and go out into the world where many examples of lighting are found. Natural light teaches us many wondrous ideas / techniques, and from street lighting, we learn the reality of the properties of light. With new discoveries, we continue to feel both excitement and anger”. This sentiment led to the emergence of The Lighting Detectives (also known as Shomei Tanteidan in Japanese). The first city walk was officially held in 1997. Four years later, by which time other countries had become involved, the first Annual Transnational Tanteidan Forum was held in Tokyo. Transnational Tanteidan (TNT) is the name for the international group of Lighting Detectives Mende started in 2000. There are active chapters all over the world now - in New York, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Singapore, Belgrade, Beijing, Brussels and Berlin.
An interesting offshoot of The Lighting Detectives is Light Up Ninja. The purpose of their original event was to sneak around illuminating the ordinary and everyday street corner and then sneak away without being detected. The first event’s original title was “Light Up Guerillas,” but for understandable political reasons a new name was needed. Rachel Nakayama of LPA came up with the fun and appropriate new title. Light Up Ninja’s official activities have already spread to Singapore and Bali, Indonesia. Their unofficial activities may never be known.
I was invited to join Mende and his team of colleagues and students on their most recent night watching tour in Tokyo. Just a few weeks before Christmas, the city was full of decorations and temporary and permanent installations (some of the major ones created by Mende himself). The walk was concluded with a dinner discussion after viewing Tokyo metropolis on the top floor of the Mori Building in Roppongi, a building lit by both Motoko Ishii and Kaoru Mende. During the dinner, the detectives voiced their impressions of what they’d seen during the walk. A foreign journalist quizzed Mende San about Light Up Ninja, “If the ninjas go off on their own and see horrible lighting does that mean they should destroy it somehow and sneak off?” “Oh, no no” replied Mende, “but they might find a way to conceal or hide it.”
Later one of Mende’s acolytes escorted me back to my hotel through Tokyo’s maze of subways and subterranean shopping centres. After the short time we had spent with the master, we couldn’t help but be continually evaluating the quality of lighting that surrounded us. “Yes, that happens with everyone who spends a few hours with Mende San,” the enthusiastic student told me.
For someone who professes to be inspired by natural light more than the work or concepts of any individual, Kaoru Mende has already become the lighting hero of many

Any projects you would like to change?
Japanese residential lighting still remains in poor taste and I’d like to do something about that. 

Projects you dislike
Many historical architectural structures and showy commercial buildings are just brightly lit with floodlighting. I hate this method. Particularly in Japan, often the so-called ‘lighting up’ are buildings brightly bathed in floodlighting and a lot of it. This is a troubling method and a waste of energy.

Projects you admire
Some of my favourite nightscapes include Japanese city streets where a few paper lanterns still hang outside eating and drinking establishments and the soft lighting that spills out onto the streets from inside these buildings. The red lanterns are a trademark of these small pubs and I really like the atmosphere of a pub decorated with paper lanterns. The lights of the street fairs and annual ‘Tori no Ichi’ - open-air markets at temples and shrines, are also fascinating to me.

Lighting hero
Without a doubt, (what inspires me most ) the various settings created by natural light.

Notable projects
Tokyo International Forum, Nagasaki National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims, Sendai Mediatheque, and Kyoto State Guest House.

Current projects

Chino Cultural Complex, Konami Super Campus, National Museum of Singapore.


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