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Mark Major on the inaugural Jonathan Speirs Memorial Lecture

23 September 2014 16.45 BST

A Q&A with Mark Major, fellow founder of Speirs + Major who will give the first Jonathan Speirs Memorial Lecture, organised by Society of Light & Lighting (SLL).

How did the Jonathan Speirs Memorial Lecture come about?
I was approached by CIBSE and the Society of Light and Lighting and asked my opinion about the plans to set up a Memorial Lecture in Jonathan's name and I thought it was a great idea. And when I heard that the plan was for it to be based in Scotland I thought it was an even better idea. And it's great that the lighting community has recognised his work in the same way that the architectural profession has; he was honoured by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS) with its Lifetime Achievement Award - the highest accolade within Scottish architecture.

What topics will you address in the lecture?
The theme is ‘Light + Dark = Architecture’. I like that title because I think it clearly and accurately suggests that the creation and revelation of architecture is not just about light, but it's also about darkness and somewhere in between - it's those sorts of conversation that Jonathan and I had over many, many years. Quite often less can be more, and simpler can be better, when it comes to the world of lighting design. When you look at the most beautifully-lit projects, and the most awe-inspiring buildings, often the idea behind the lighting is quite simple.

I'll highlight Jonathan's early years in lighting design, both at LDP where we both worked in Edinburgh in the mid-1980s, and the early years of Speirs + Major. I'll use projects as well as other images - his, mine and others from the practice - to illustrate our philosophy and approach. One of the biggest challenges with the lecture has been trying to distill everything down to make that philosophy as clear and simple as possible. It's about light, darkness, change, the passage of time, the movement of light, the connection between natural and artificial light, how that changes over time, often working in harmony.

In the second part of the lecture I want to come up to date and show some of the projects the practice has completed since Jonathan's retirement in 2010. Things change of course; markets change, technology changes, people change and clients change, but I think Jonathan would be proud of what's been achieved - for example, the ‘In lumine tuo' project in Utrecht has won a Radiance Award from the IALD. I think the philosophy that we established all those years ago is still guiding us today.

How inspirational was Jonathan?
Jonathan was an enormously inspirational figure. He was a very extrovert character, with immense charisma and the most unbelievably enthusiastic person you could ever meet. When you talk about people being a glass half-full or half-empty person, his glass was constantly overflowing. He had an enthusiasm for light, architecture, for life as a whole; he was one of those guys that makes people smile, laugh, enthused.

When he died, I received so many emails from all over the world, not just from his friends and contemporaries, but from young lighting designers as well, and all could remember when they met him and the conversation they had. Many remarked on how what he said had given them drive or changed their direction. It was amazing reading those emails.

And what was it like working with him?
We did have different temperaments and we complemented each other incredibly well. We were almost inter-reliant. Although he was based in Edinburgh and I was in London, we would exchange views daily; particularly after a big meeting, we would have a chat. And later that would manifest itself when one of us would say: “I've been thinking about what you said last week and...” We kept each other sane.

How are things going with the Jonathan Speirs Scholarship Fund?
It's doing really well. Myself and my fellow trustees talked to Jonathan about the Fund before he died and didn't give him a choice really. Both he and I came into lighting design from architecture. It was quite a daunting move and one or two people thought that lighting design had no future - how wrong they were! Architecture is a highly vocational discipline and it's a long course with huge costs and a lot of hard work and graft, so it's a big step to give all that up to take up lighting design.

You have to be kind of brave or mad. I think we were a bit mad, but our enthusiasm drove us along. There's a danger now, with student fees, that people are increasingly reluctant to take that step without some kind of support, so that was the purpose of the Fund - to offer support and encourage architects to make the transition to lighting design.

We've had huge support from the lighting industry, as well as individuals. Alex Stewart [a Masters student from the School of Architecture at Parsons, The New School for Design, New York] was the first recipient of the £10,000 Fund and we are just at the stage now where we are raising awareness among this year's students.

What are the long-term aims of the Fund?
Simply to keep it going, keep it funded. A lot of people have signed up for ten years, so the security of the Fund is assured for the next decade, which is fantastic.

And how would you like to see the Memorial Lecture develop?
That would be up to CIBSE and the SLL, but I'd like to see it as a platform for two things. First and foremost, as a platform for lighting designers to talk about their passion for light, but also I hope that it's a platform for Scottish lighting design. Jonathan was proud to be a Scot and Scotland has an interesting history in modern lighting design, with a strong lighting community. It's great to see an annual lecture programme in Scotland because they deserve recognition for what they've achieved.


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