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Ray Grenald

Issue 48 Apr / May 2009

As Ray Grenald enters his fifth decade in lighting design, he is unswerving from the tenet that light can seduce observers into buying a chair or believing in their own good health. By Vilma Barr.

Raymond Grenald, NCARB, FAIA, FIALD, and FIES, is one of the living legends of the lighting design profession. Grenald, who just celebrated his 81st birthday in February, divides his time between Philadelphia and St. Croix, U.S.V.I. When in Philadelphia, he puts in full work days at the offices of Grenald Waldron Associates in a small former bank building in suburban Narberth.

A long-time observer of people’s cultural habits, Grenald’s conversations are packed with recollections of the places he’s visited and the spaces he’s experienced and designed, and the phenomenon of how people see. He was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects in 1985, is a founder and past president of the IALD, and has chaired the IES’s national committee on museum and art lighting. Long active in professional education, Grenald has served as a faculty member or visiting lecturer at more than a dozen major universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of Southern California, and has been a board member of the Lighting Research Institute.

Last year, Grenald was honoured with the IALD’s Lifetime Achievement Award. It is the organization’s highest honor, recognizing the pioneers and visionaries in the lighting design field. The introduction by IALD president Jeffrey I.L. Miller at the presentation cited Grenald’s “skill and mastery in harnessing the power of light.” His considerable body of work was adjudged to significantly contribute to a better public awareness and appreciation of lighting design.

Born in Louisville, Ky., Grenald inherited design and technical influences. “My uncle was an architect and engineer in Europe,” notes Grenald of his Swedish heritage, “and my father was an artist.” Early aptitude tests indicated that Grenald could achieve success in technology and/or artistic pursuits. But before he could begin his professional studies, World War II broke out and he was a drafted into the U.S. Army, assigned to the Air Force as a research engineer on experimental aircraft. He remained in the military, and was then posted to Korea as an Army combat engineer.

When a plane in which he was traveling crashed in Korea, he suffered severe back injuries that confined him to a military hospital for a year. Following his discharge, he relocated to Washington state, and enrolled in Washington State University. Grenald, earned a B.S. in Engineering with a specialty in aeronautical engineering.

His first career move was a job with the Boeing Co., solving problems in materials and methods of construction and fabrication. At about this time, Grenald became interested in learning how the human brain processes perception and how people react to their surroundings. But his engineering education wasn’t taking him in this direction. As he recalls, “I decided that I had to unlearn how an engineer thinks.” To accomplish this goal, he went back to WSU and successfully completed the Bachelor of Architectural Engineering program. “I worked the swing shift at Boeing so I could take the required courses when they were offered.”

He recalls his first classes in architecture involved esoteric projects from the Beaux Arts era. “The favoured concept at the time was to shoehorn people into spaces. But I didn’t see any future following this line of thinking. So I asked the professor, ‘What do you mean by environment? What about people? What about surroundings that evoke a response?’ The professor, to Grenald’s annoyance, disagreed that such considerations were what the acceptable practice of architecture was all about.

For Grenald, this approach lacked the excitement of discovering and applying new concepts and revelatory theories. His interests tended toward psychology, physiology, and ‘human geography’. He decided to forego aeronautical engineering and stuck with architecture, hoping that it would provide a design basis for pursuing these topics.

He had been hearing that Philadelphia at this time was undergoing a major urban redevelopment program, spearheaded by the city’s legendary mayor, Richardson Dilworth, that was turning the staid municipality into a lively centre for art, culture, industry, and finance. New construction and major renovation programs were underway to house the offices and headquarters for the expanding economic base. All this appealed to Grenald, and he left the Northwest and headed East to Philadelphia. It turned out to be an advantageous move. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he muses.

He started his own architectural practice that he operated for 14 years. He compares the decision-making process for the engineer and the architect. “For an engineer,” he explains, “there is but one correct solution. For the architect, on the other hand, there is never one solution - there is a compromise.”

Lighting for his projects through the early 1960’s was typically carried out by electrical engineers. “They designed lighting by the numbers,” he says. He decided to take on the responsibility of creating the lighting for his architectural commissions. “It was an opportunity to pursue the effects of ambience on activity, and see for myself how lighting can enhance a space.”

Grenald began to win awards for his lighting. “I recognised that lighting is a phenomenally powerful means of manipulating behaviour, by evoking a predetermined response.” In 1968, Grenald founded his architectural lighting firm in Philadelphia.

Lee Waldron, whose background was in theatre and television lighting, joined Grenald in 1976 and became a partner in 1983. He has overall responsibility for design conceptualisation and project management as well as business development. “Our relationship is symbiotic,” Waldron states. “Ray had structured the practice so that its approach was holistic, the type of professional environment which most appealed to me,” he points out.

“We agreed from the beginning that the firm should function as a place where we all want to learn and have fun while producing distinctive, high-quality lighting design,” Waldron says. They have chosen not to specialise. GWA’s active project categories range from urban lighting to shopping malls, from museums to offices, from retail stores to health care facilities, and from schools to embassies. “We look for people to join us who are talented and curious,” he indicates. “Our staff members are exceptionally bright, enjoy solving challenging problems, and work well under pressure,” he affirms. “They have a expertise in controls, industrial design, fixtures, landscape architecture, and electrical engineering.” Three design studios comprise the Philadelphia office, headed by Waldron, Sandra Stashik, and Mark Harris. A Beijing office was recently opened, headed by lighting designer Ma Ye.

In 1976, the same year that Waldron joined Grenald’s practice, Grenald was finishing the four-year-long relighting of the Carlsbad Caverns for the National Park Service in Carlsbad, New Mexico. It is one of Grenald’s all-time favourites, as it documents user behavioural change initiated by his lighting design. The Cavern’s three-and-a-half miles of underground trails represent one of the world’s largest underground chambers. It was physically arduous, professionally demanding, surprising, rewarding and to this day, remains his favourite job.

His assignment was to design an energy-efficient lighting system that would be cooler and less harmful to the cave’s environment and that would establish scale while drawing out the natural beauty and colours in the stone formations. He considered diminishing the brightness of the lamps as visitors’ eyes get accustomed to the dark; helping the sense of disorientation by making the light come from the same direction; adjusting colours to help depth perception; and eliminating sightseer burnout.

“We had to adapt the Cavern’s 400,000 annual tourists slowly to the lower level of illumination they would encounter at the bottom,” he describes. His final plan involved seven transformers, almost 1,000 fixtures with almost two dozen broad spectrum lamps ranging from 3,000°K to 5,000°K. All the sources were white to illuminate the cave’s natural elements without distorting them. To establish scale and accent the cave’s vast depths he used warm spot-type lights close to the visitors walking the trail and cooler flood-type lights further away. His new lights, placed strategically, created shadows and depth and lit the hall the way nature would have, if sunlight could have crept in and done the work.

The combination of techniques successfully combated “museum fatigue”, a boredom he had noticed in tourists during his research. “When I began, 35 percent of the visitors didn’t finish the tour,” Grenald points out. “After I finished, 95 percent of those who began a tour finished it, and of the 95 percent a third returned the next day.” He is also proud that he reduced the maintenance team to a single man on a half-time schedule to handle group relamping for 1,000 lights after 2,000-hour level. On July 4, 1976, the lighting project was complete. “You could not see a single bulb anywhere,” Grenald says.

Grenald Waldron Associates received a Presidential Award in 1988 with the relighting of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., a 20-year project that links the Capitol and the White House. The project gradually expanded from major to monumental, to include utilities, paving, and landscaping, plus lighting.

“For Pennsylvania Avenue, we didn’t focus on fixture types,” Grenald explains. “Rather, we identified how the Avenue worked, what it should be, where and why it succeeds and fails. Then, we studied the usage of the space and then established three hierarchies,” Grenald points out. He cited the perception of the Avenue as an entity, the need to reinforce its image at both terminuses, and an ongoing appeal to stimulate pedestrians both by day and evening.

Another favourite landmark project that Grenald virtually single-handedly brought to life was the outlining of the Schuylkill River boathouses in Philadelphia. The original high-visibility project was initiated in 1979 to outline the frames and portals of the early twentieth-century structures used by university and local boating clubs to store their sculls and as a clubhouse. Grenald stretched the $55K budget to include the wiring for 9,818, 71/2-watt lamps that cost the city about $44 a day to run. “We used low-wattage lamps that give off a warm yellow colour. You saw individual points of light instead of a band,” Grenald says. (Grenald’s lamp specification was later changed by the city. The buildings are now lit by LEDs, producing an antiseptic utilitarian effect that lacks the distinctive glow of the original.)

Grenald designed seven lighting fixtures during his career when there was nothing on the market that fulfilled his project needs. They include early forms of track lighting, metal halide street lighting and decorative street lighting fixtures for Pennsylvania Avenue modified with full cut-off optics.

“Light is magic,” he believes. “That’s something I learned from Lesley Wheel, a fellow lighting pioneer, that has stayed with me all these years. Architecture is the art of expressing space and the science of enclosing it. Light is the medium by which it is perceived. We use light as architecture. We build with light.”

Any projects you would like to change?
Certainly, with new technologies available, there are always new solutions, but the basic principles of lighting always remain.

Lighting heroes
I have admired two early practitioners of lighting design, Stanley McCandless and Richard Kelly. McCandless applied his stage lighting methods to the development of architectural lighting. Richard Kelly was the first true architectural lighting designer. Additionally, I have a deep regard for Sonny Sonnenfeld. While involved primarily on the entertainment side of the business, he was an early advocate of establishing architectural lighting design as a valued profession.
From an early historical perspective, there is Sir Isaac Newton, the British physicist. He became so fascinated by the nature of light and vision that he risked blinding himself by staring at the sun. He poked the sides of his eyeball with a small knife to assess how such activities would affect his sight. These experiments subsequently led him to formulate his revolutionary theories about the nature of the spectrum and the refraction of light.
The interest in light and colour by the German poet, Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, is evidenced by his 1795 work, Das Märchen. The opinions he expressed in this fairy tale are very much about “learning to see”, as evidenced in this quote: ‘If you ask next, Who these other strange characters are, the Snake, the Will-o’-wisps, the Man with the Lamp? I will answer, in general and afar off, that Light must signify human Insight, Cultivation, in one sort or other.’

Memorable jobs
• Carlsbad Caverns, Carlsbad, New Mexico
The previously installed incandescent system was drying out the cave and was unflattering to visitors. Grenald redesigned the entire system, combining 14 different white light sources, from incandescent to mercury, using lamp colour and distribution characteristics to render the cave’s scale and depth. Lighting intensity was gradually reduced so visitors could adapt to the Cavern’s lower levels.
• Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C.
The Nation’s Main Street was relighted in a 20-year-project from 1976 to 1996, sponsored by The Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. Grenald, as the design team’s lighting consultant, reviewed the original 1964 Master Plan and redefined its scope to reflect his interpretations that is was a significant, proud urban boulevard, and not as a dim place to be avoided after dark. A series of sub-systems was created to carry out different functions. Pennsylvania Avenue is now a lively day and evening destination.
• Boathouse Row, Philadelphia.
Granald was influenced by turn-of-the-twentieth-century lighting techniques of outlining special purpose buildings with lights, such as those employed for the Chicago World’s Fair. In 1979, the century-old boathouses along the Schuykill River assumed a new life as the 9,000 lights were turned on and the city had a new urban landmark, visible from the busy roads and highways flanking the river on both sides. .

Notable projects
• Locust Walk, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia
The Walk from the College Green to Thirty-eighth Street is the third phase of the University’s multi-phase campus lighting master plan. The current phase includes the lighting of Locust Walk and the illumination of The Furness Building and College Hall.
• Liberty Bell Pavilion, Philadelphia
The National Park Service moved the historic Liberty Bell into a new building in 2004. Grenald was the principal in charge for the lighting team that designed the museum’s exterior and interior areas. The objective was to create a subdued environment that would offer viewers an appropriate setting in which to experience this symbol of the young country’s successful fight for freedom.
• Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Designed by architect Frank Furness, known for his flamboyant interiors, the building in the Center City area underwent extensive renovation for its one-hundredth birthday in 1976. Grenald designed a series of lighting subsystems tailored to enhance the polychromed and gold-leaf stenciled walls while also illuminating its collection of art.
The Academy is also an art school which had lacked consistent lighting. Grenald implemented a lighting system that combined sources that could be modulated depending on classroom use.
• The White House, West Wing, Washington, D.C.
The General Services Administration (GSA) in 1989 undertook the relighting of the Oval Office and retained Grenald to create the lighting. He utilised the highest color CRI-rated lamps then-available, with equipment and control technology to provide flexibility needed for events occurring in the President’s formal office. An adjacent space is used for informal morning prep meetings and features reduced lighting with concealed optically directed fixtures.

Projects he likes:

• Grand environmental spaces such as St Peter’s Square in Venice, in which architectural scale and perspective are intertwined to enhance the visual experience, and Venice itself where the character of the architectural space and the people within it engages the eye.
• Buildings by architects who understood light, visual scale and form, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto, and Frank Furness.
• Carlsbad Caverns, because of the ability to create a naturalistic environment in which the human visual and psychological experience is expressed and enhanced completely through the use of light.

Projects he dislikes:
The relighting of Boat House Row in Philadelphia. The original lighting design intent which was to visually express the presence of the architecture in keeping with a manner that was evocative of the historic time and place of the fin-de-siecle buildings and to create a sense of magic. The engineers who were appointed to undertake the relighting became so infatuated with LED technology that they literally ‘missed the boat’.
Most any project that has engineered lighting solutions in which the quantitative aspects of light are the only part of the design process.

Current projects
A 40,000-student women’s university in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; a destination shopping mall in Istanbul, Turkey; and an Art-Deco-theme residential complex in Dalian, China.


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