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Claude R. Engle

issue 42 Apr / May 2008

Claude R. Engle's four decade career extends from the earliest recognition of lighting design as a profession to his current involvement in international landmark projects. Vilma Barr met up with the great man in New York.

“I have been amazingly fortunate to have stumbled into the right scene at the right time,” Claude R. Engle III told those attending his February presentation given at the historic Great Hall of New York’s Cooper Union. “There was a time that it was a special thing when someone who believed that light would be integral to the project sought you out,” he said.
“When I arrived in New York, there were four lighting consultants: Richard Kelly, Abe Fader, Bill Richardson, and Seymour Evans. The lighting design profession grew out of theatrical lighting. Architects were always in control of the natural lighting. Manufacturers did the artificial lighting design. In cities like Chicago, Houston, and London, there were virtually no lighting designers. Then, Ed Kook of Century Lighting began to mentor a group of us. I worked with Howard Brandston in design; David Mintz was in sales. I established my own firm in 1968. Ten of us founded the International Association of Lighting Designers.”
In his 40 years of active practice, Engle has been the lighting consultant to the who’s-who of twentieth-century architects: Marcel Breuer, John Burgee, David Childs, Arthur Erickson, Norman Foster, Bruce Graham, Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, Walter Netch, I.M. Pei, Renzo Piano, Warren Platner, Richard Rogers, James Stirling, Rafael Vinoly, Minoru Yamasaki... the names go on and on. He has solved problems at all architectural heights, from the Pyramid at the Louvre plaza, to the Freedom Tower spire 1776 feet above the World Trade Center Plaza.
Engle was introduced to the audience as “having been there from the beginning, leading to some of the most extraordinary buildings in the world in which light is one of the most important factors.” The list includes Buckminster Fuller’s Geodesic Dome for the 1967 New York World’s Fair; Johnson/Burgee’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, 1977; the Pyramid at the Louvre for I.M. Pei, 1985; the QVI Office Tower for architect Harry Seidler, Perth, Australia, 1987; with Foster + Partners, starting in 1984, a sculptural private residence in Japan; The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Hong Kong; Reichstag, Berlin; Clark Center at Sanford University, and the Winspear Opera House, under construction, Dallas; Freedom Tower Spire, New York, for SOM under construction; the public spaces for the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, Rafael Vinoly, architect, plus the Millennium Bridge, Wembley Stadium Arch, St Pancras International Station, all in London.


The actual beginning of Engle’s career in lighting began at age 9, when he started to study magic with a family friend who had worked with the legendary magician Harry Houdini. Young Claude became intrigued with creating illusion. In high school, he was in charge of lighting for student-produced plays. He decided to study electrical engineering at Princeton University, where he did lighting design and technical direction for the original musicals mounted by its famed Triangle Club. Engle then designed both scenery and lighting for the Princeton Savoyards and also was involved with the McCarter Theater, also located in Princeton.
From 1960, when he received his degree, until late1961, he worked under Stanley McCandless, regarded as the father of modern stage lighting, at Century Lighting. He was drafted into the Army and worked at its Pictorial Center in Queens, N.Y. where he was involved in lighting for television and film. In 1963, he joined his father’s Washington, D.C.-based electrical and mechanical engineering practice, and was married to SOM architect Bruce Graham’s sister. When SOM received the commission to design the new World Bank headquarters, he asked his brother-in-law if he’d consider designing the lighting. A quick acceptance was forthcoming.
About this time, Graham introduced Engle to inventor/manufacturer, Edison Price, which developed into a long, mutually beneficial collaboration. “Learning from Edison how to design lighting fixtures taught me that it wasn’t necessary to begin with a palette of light fixtures and then try to find the solutions they could provide,” Engle says. “Rather, it was possible to begin with what lighting the architectural design called for, and develop fixtures that achieved those goals.”
In 1968, Minoru Yamasaki asked Engle to take over the design of the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center. This was his biggest commission to date, and began a collaboration that lasted until Yamasaki’s death in 1986. Other collaborations began about this time, first with Philip Johnson’s Pennzoil Place project in Houston, and then with I.M. Pei for the National Gallery East Wing in Washington, D.C.. A subsequent visit by Norman Foster to Washington resulted in Engle being commissioned to work with him to get the maximum impact of natural light with little heat for the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, which was designed to be a non-air conditioned building. Their collaboration exists today, with the completion nearing on Winspear Opera House in Dallas.
Another extended professional collaborator was Klaus Maack of ERCO Lighting. He adopted Edison Price’s concept of providing fixtures to suit the functional lighting requirement of the project. ERCO won the contract for the special fixtures on the Hong Kong headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, and later created the special fixtures for the Louvre Pyramid where Engle’s designs had to be placed into the building’s structural concrete.

•    A successful lighting design must have a strong concept, a thoroughly detailed design, and good execution with all of the participants working closely together as a team.
•    The lighting system itself should be invisible. Fixtures must be placed graphically in the correct places, have the right size and proportion, and have as little brightness as possible. Working with Edison Price, fixtures were developed that had a wide range of functions while looking virtually identical and using aperture sizes in proportion to the space.
•    If I were to design a lighting curriculum, I’d make the students study architecture for two years, and then add lighting to it. In architecture programs, students are taught how to see in three dimensions. It is also important to develop the ability to look around a corner, to think in a succession of spaces. 
•    Lighting design is a discipline based on what we see. We should not let the computer become the master rather than a tool. Students should still be given the opportunity to study an actual model, and look at it right, left, and from all directions.


Since Engle started his practice, he has kept it small so that everyone could be involved in all projects. Currently, there are five designers including John Wood, who trained as an architect, and has been with Engle almost since its founding. Noted designers who have worked in Engle’s office include George Sexton, Charles Stone, John Coventry, Cheryl Flota, Scott Watson, and Jean Sundin. In 1997, Engle’s son, Claude IV (aka C4) joined the firm, and is working on projects in the U.S. and overseas.
Engle has served as past chairman of the Capital Section of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, has been a judge of the IES national lighting competition and the American Institute of Architects jury for interior design in several cities. He has been a faculty member at Princeton University’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning.

Any projects you would like to change?

Memorable jobs
Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Corp. headquarters, Hong Kong.
Historically, there had always been the major banking hall with a grand skylight at One Queen’s Road Central. When the bank decided to have Foster and Partners design a 41-storey Headquarters tower on the site they still wanted a 12 storey daylit Banking Hall.  The problem we faced was bringing skylight into the hall with 29 stories of offices on top of it.  Norman remembered a project that we had designed together near the Arctic Circle, where we used a system of mirrors on the north side to bounce the low south sunlight into the interior. After some calculations based on navigational tables we realised that on any given day the reflection of the sun of an array of stationary mirrors would travel on a defined path down the west wall, across the floor, and up the east wall. The movement of a sufficiently concentrated pattern of sunlight through the space created the desired presence of sunlight.

St Pancras International Station, London
St Pancras, which was completed in 1868, is one of London’s greatest Victorian Gothic buildings. Its train shed, once the world’s largest enclosed space, was once a cathedral of a golden age of engineering. In the mid 1990’s, a much-needed £800 million repair program began, led by the engineering firm of Ove Arup. We decided that the historic train shed should be returned to its original glory with no addition of new lighting elements. The only architectural lighting is the washing of the polychromatic brick walls. The new additions to the space are the modern TGV trains and these are made to glow. We washed the sides of the trains to dramatise them as passengers walk down the platform. These same lights delineate the edges of the platforms after the trains depart making them feel safe.  The light reflecting from the array of platforms lights the beautiful restored glass roof.

Kamakura House, Japan
We and Foster and Partners had a 20-year relationship with the owner when he commissioned a new house in Kamakura Japan. The house is all about the views of gardens, cliffs and caves where the original Samurai sworns were fashioned. The spaces and views are organised by the building structure very much like the notes of music resulting in a combination of a traditional Japanese home and a beautiful modern dwelling. Upon entering one a space is lighted by a 100mm wide acrylic light guide. As the sun moves, it casts a sliver of sunlight on the wall and floor. One moves to a hanging lantern that begins the journey through the house. One is drawn down the main corridor towards an illuminated Buddha 60-ft. away. Along this lourney one discovers the living room and the first view to the caves. In this project, we really do draw light from shadow.

Lighting heroes
Stanley R. McCandless
He was an architect and an artist, and established the art of illumination. Mac convinced Yale University that the profession of lighting could be taught just as are law and medicine in a university setting, and went on to hold the title of Professor of Stage Lighting for 40 years. He was also the architectural lighting designer for such projects as Wing N at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the U.S. Pavilion at the 1957 Brussels World’s Fair.

Edward F. Kook
Ed was the founder and longtime president of the Century Lighting Company in New York, and created the lighting for more than 1,000 Broadway shows. Based on some articles I had written on Color and its Use in Stage Lighting for the Princeton Engineer, Ed hired me to work at Century in Mac’s laboratory. The “Class of ‘60” at Century also included Howard Brandston and David Mintz.

Richard Kelly
Richard Kelly graduated from the Yale School of Architecture in 1944, and by 1950 had defined a vocabulary for modern architectural lighting. He collaborated with some of the mid-century’s most important architects and designers: Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn. When he couldn’t find what he wanted, he developed new products and technologies, like the custom luminous ceiling for the Seagram Tower. He really defined the profession of architectural lighting design. Although I never met him, I have often tried to consider what Richard Kelly would do as we began our conceptual study of a project.

Projects he likes and dislikes
Seagram Tower, New York City, and the Kimbell Art Museum, New
Haven, Conn., by Richard Kelly.
Kresge Chapel and Auditorium at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, by Stanley R. McCandless.
Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, by Edward F. Kook.
Buildings that hide behind LEDs. “Don’t turn buildings into a piece of
theatre by covering them with color-changing LEDs. A building shouldn’t hide behind tricky lighting.”

Notable projects
The Pyramid of the Louvre, Paris
I.M. Pei’s 71-ft.-high glass skylight was his concept in 1985 for a single entrance to the museum. Because plate glass doesn’t glow – it’s not crystalline and can’t break up light – the way to make it glow was by side lighting the wires. A narrow curtain of light traveling one meter wide like a spider web within a transparent solid allows the view to see the sky. ERCO built all the fixtures and convinced the museum that a control system was needed, but they don’t take full advantage of it.

Reichstag, Berlin
Norman Foster won an international competition for the redesign of the original stone structure by placing a transparent hemisphere inside the dome. Inside, there are interlocking helical ramps that give visitors views out across the city and down to the plenary hall. To bring natural light all the way down to this lower level, we created a sunscreen based on navigational charts. It knows where it belongs at any given moment to block the sun, and moves around to the right position. Over 8,000 people daily now visit the building.

Wembley Stadium Arch, London
The 133m tall arch above the northern half of the stadium is visible across London. Previous attempts to spotlight it from the ground or from the top roof didn’t work. We built a model and played with light and a computer model to make it as bright as we could.

Current projects
Winspear Opera House, Dallas
Norman Foster is the architect for the building now under construction that is a total rethinking of musical performance venues. The red glass drum is the central structure that is enclosed by clear glass will be lit with red lights for additional depth.

Freedom Tower, New York City
At the top of the building will be mounted a new symbol for New York. It is really a piece of sculpture that will be like a rotating beacon, floodlit from below. SOM is the architectural firm for the project located on the site of the destroyed World Trade Center.


Claude Engle
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