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Peter Fordham

Issue 76 December / January 2014

Olivia Collette talks to Peter Fordham of DHA Design about his work for the Victoria and Albert Museum and the trip to Pennsylvania that changed his life.

Peter Fordham and I have something in common: our fathers were both jewellers, and they were also seduced by the lure of showbiz before settling on jewellery. While mine was a guitar-playing, free-living hippie with aspirations of becoming the next Jimi Hendrix, Fordham’s went from being a film extra to operating a lighting Strand console for a theatre production of The King and I in the 1950s.

By sheer coincidence, the same kind of Strand lighting console decorates the London office of DHA Design, where Fordham is Director. “When I once brought my father to our office, he couldn’t believe that they still existed,” he recounts. “Ours doesn’t work, but it’s quite a fabulous piece of history.”

There was an echo of history when, in 2008, Fordham provided a dramatic lighting scheme for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s exhaustive jewellery collection, featuring some 3,500 jewels both rare and priceless. “There were issues of conservation,” he recalls. “We’re not just talking about precious stones and rare metals. There were quite a few objects that had some very delicate organic materials that the jewels were embedded in. Fibre-optic lighting allowed us to meet the conservators’ requirements. It’s almost a miniaturisation of modelling light the way you do in the theatre. Using more than one narrow-beam source; placing light exactly where you want it to go.”

Growing up in a suburb of Essex, about 20 miles east of London, Fordham’s childhood fixation on Lego would prophesy, to some extent, his adult life’s links to architecture. His family’s life largely revolved around his father’s jewellery shop, where Fordham especially enjoyed meeting the designers behind some of the jewels in the display cases.

He was able to delve fully into design during his college years, three of which were spent at the University of Leeds, together with an exchange year spent at Pennsylvania State in the U.S. Though he studied architectural engineering, he had a change of heart in America, a country that had fully embraced lighting design by the late 1980s, while the field was still slowly emerging in many other countries.

“Back at Leeds, we were all being groomed to become structural engineers,” he says. “It was heavily based in civil and structural engineering. But during the exchange year to Penn State, I took my lighting design 101 class, and never looked back.”

While in America, Fordham found inspiration in many places, from his professor, Craig A. Bernecker, at the lighting department at Penn State, to the Chicago O’Hare airport, where he saw artist Michael Hayden’s influential “Sky’s the Limit” installation.

“It’s a long tunnel with a cold cathode sculpture,” he says. “It’s quite dynamic; it changes as you walk along the tunnel. I’d never seen anything like that at the time.” It was one of the works that convinced Fordham to pursue lighting design.

To extend his stay in the U.S., Fordham followed his studies at Penn State with an IALD internship that took him to the offices of HLW in New York, and had him meeting designers from the offices of Howard M. Brandston and Fisher Marantz Stone. “Many of the big-name lighting designers in New York were very much involved in the internship,” he remembers. “It was a great opportunity to see the practices and their work.”

After wrapping up the internship in 1989, and graduating from Leeds University the following year, Fordham travelled around Australia and Asia before returning to the UK in 1992, where he was hired by the lighting design department of Imagination, the communications company in London. He describes the firm as a creative place that was rooted in theatre, making it all the more compelling for him to apply engineering principles to projects. One standout scheme was the lighting of the Art Deco Hoover Building in North London. “The design was already complete by the time I worked on it,” he says. “I was working on site mainly, really getting my hands dirty with the fixtures.”

In 1994, Fordham went back to Australia for a brief stint at NDYLight, first in Queensland, then starting the NDYLight office in Sydney. The company worked on a lot of retail spaces and large shopping malls. Fordham recalls the Strand Arcade, a Victorian building in the heart of Sydney, as one of the gems.

Almost a year later, the move eventually led him to Hong Kong, where he accepted a position as Design Director at Linbeck Rausch. Here, a seminal project would shape his career and his perspective on design.
Fordham was assigned to the Lantau Fixed Crossing, a 3.5 km-long suspension bridge linking different parts of Hong Kong to its international airport, which was being built at the time. Under the wing of American lighting designer Robert A. Shakespeare, with his theatrical background and inspirational use of Radiance and early lighting visualisation software, the Linbeck Rausch team tried to create an evocative, coloured lighting scheme that would emphasise the awesome structure, rather than over-light it.

“With the ever-changing skyline in Hong Kong, there were attitudes that developers wanted their buildings bigger and brighter than anything else,” Fordham says. “What we were trying to do with many of our exterior projects was to develop different ways of lighting a tall façade, avoiding the ‘bucket of light’ approach, where you throw so much light at a building and hope some of it sticks. We were encouraging architects and developers to work with the architecture and the cladding design to incorporate lighting within the façade itself.”

It’s in 1997 that Fordham joined DHA Design, founded in 1988 by David Hersey. Becoming Director in 2000, he feels at home in this London-based company, where most of the staff have been there as long as he has, if not longer.

The company’s theatrical know-how came in handy when lighting popular attractions in Las Vegas, where buildings typically command attention. DHA Design are well known for lighting the façades of the Bellagio hotel, as well as earlier Las Vegas projects such as the Buccaneer Bay pirate show in front of Treasure Island, and the erupting volcano outside the Mirage.

Though Fordham wasn’t involved in these particular projects, he was called upon to shape a similarly showy cityscape: Dubai. Hired to provide a scheme for the twin Emirates Towers in 1997, Fordham hearkened back to his days with Linbeck Rausch.

“Fresh from my experience in Hong Kong, I looked for opportunities in the architecture where lighting could be concealed,” he says. “The architecture consists of two tall towers, each over 300 metres high. The elevations have a number of horizontal fins that wrap around one corner of each tower. I suggested incorporating a linear lighting source within each of these fins that could be addressed individually, so that you have this sort of stacking effect, using two colours of cold cathode, cool white and cyan, controlled on separate dimmer channels.”

The effect extends the verticality of the towers, which, at the time, were the tallest in Dubai. Despite the competition today, the scheme still manages to withstand the test of time. “Taking advantage of the small size of the cold cathode source within the architectural details, the scheme creates a unique identity for the buildings at night,” Fordham adds. “Its night-time presence was quite different from the impact the façades were having by day.”

These days, Fordham’s projects have revolved a lot around the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He recently completed a retrofit for the V&A Museum of Childhood, a lofty, expansive space dating back to the 19th century, marked by a very high vaulted ceiling.

“At the time, the lighting scheme in this triple-height space consisted of two parallel lines of suspended trunking, fitted with fluorescent battens attached to the underside,” he explains. “It was rather harsh, it was inflexible, and it was very dated.”

Fordham did more than update the system by converting it to LED; he also brought out the beautiful ceiling and all the details that were left in obscurity with the previous scheme. He achieved this with suspended linear fixtures that provide both direct and indirect light.

“The environment has been much improved during the daytime and at night, revealing much more of the historic architecture of the building to the visitor,” Fordham says.

Meanwhile, at the main V&A Museum, Fordham has been busy lighting the façade along Cromwell Road, and revisiting the lighting of the Grand Entrance, first lit by DHA Design in 2003. He calls the scheme understated, opting for warm white light to accentuate the stonework of the cladding.

The first phase of the work introduced an efficient luminaire hidden in the moat that runs along the front of the museum’s external façade.

Precise optics graze the surface and hit the underside of the cornice along the roof line, creating a horizontal band of light around the top of the building. The second and third phases included the outside of the main entrance, and the three-tier crown above it.

“Some of our throw distances were quite long in the Grand Entrance,” Fordham recounts. “We can now achieve a very tight 5-degree beam using LED luminaires, which was not so easy in 2003 when it was last lit. The results are fantastic! It is totally lit with LED sources now, which helps the museum with their maintenance.”

While LEDs have given lighting designers much flexibility, Fordham acknowledges that “not all of it is good and not all of it is correct.” He remembers how a few years ago, at the Light + Building show in Frankfurt, many manufacturers were desperate to launch LED products, often using metal halide or fluorescent housings and inserting LEDs into them. Since then, things have changed. “More is being designed around the lamp and the technology, rather than incorporating the new technology into an old luminaire,” Fordham points out.

That said, the lighting market has become very saturated with LED sources. While lighting designers have no difficulty sifting through ranges of products, it can sometimes pose a challenge for the client. It’s also redefined the role of the lighting designer, who needs to educate clients more and more, and find ways to minimise energy consumption.

“There’s a lot of listening involved – very careful listening – to understand what your client wants and expects,” says Fordham. “Each project, of course, is different. That’s been said many times before. There’s not a set of rules that we abide by, but it’s essential to do that listening at first.”

Ultimately, lighting design is one of the many moving parts in any project. “You’re being led, partially, by an architect’s vision or an interior designer’s vision,” Fordham concludes.“Together you have to nurture it to see how it can be best achieved. It’s down to the skill of the lighting designer to get the most out of this vision and to be able to come up with a scheme that can be built on budget and on time, and still meet all of the client’s expectations.”



Projects that you would like to change:
I would love to have an opportunity to light the Sydney Opera House. It is a tricky piece of architecture to light on a permanent basis, although some of the temporary lighting and art projections during Vivid Sydney this year were quite spectacular.

Projects you admire:

Some of the façades in the Beijing Olympics were quite interesting. The Aquatics Centre was stunning, an ethereal lighting design by Arup. From a daylighting perspective, Corbusier’s Notre-Dame-du-Haut in Ronchamp cannot be beaten.

Projects you dislike:

Coloured and colour-changing façade lighting that is totally unsympathetic to the architecture. Too many to mention! How long have you got?

Lighting Hero:
This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many. I go back to the beginning of my career and the American lighting designers who were influencing me at the time: Fisher Marantz Stone and Ross De Alessi were always very inspiring. I also owe a lot to lighting designer Tony Dowthwaite in Queensland, Australia, who helped kick-start my career.

Notable projects:
I tend to light a lot more external façades than interior spaces. It’s really fantastic to see the architecture completely evolve at night around something that you’ve done so directly; that you can make such a big impact on the architecture. As a recent example, I’m very pleased with the façades of the Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman.

Most memorable project:
The Emirates Towers in Dubai come back to me time and time again.

Current projects:
I’m working on a rather large resort in the Caribbean at the moment. It’s a 400-hectare site and we are looking after the exterior and landscape lighting design. It won’t be completed until the end of 2014. We’re doing quite a bit of work overseas; currently I’m also working in India on a large residential project in Mumbai, consisting of three towers, each about 70 stories high. We’re designing the façade and landscape lighting and also the lighting for the amenities spaces. You’ll have to wait a few years to see the results!


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