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MONDO ARC

Mark Ridler

Issue 82 December / January 2015


After a distinguished career in the theatre Mark Ridler overcame adversity to become lighting director at BDP. Today he works on some of the most high profile architectural projects in the UK as well as taking an active role in promoting excellence and education within his own profession.
Words by Robert Leeming.

In comparison with many trades the lighting design profession is still in its early infancy and the number of generations that have termed it their vocation can be counted on one hand. Mark Ridler belongs firmly to the second generation, an heir to the likes of Mark Major, Jonathan Spiers and Maurice Brill.

Despite charting a highly successful career in architectural lighting design, this was not the calling that first prompted Ridler to become involved with light. At school he was a rare breed, good at both arts and sciences two areas of expertise that rarely mix in practice. Having to choose between the two he opted to study engineering at Cambridge due to the influence it can have on society, however he soon missed the arts and became involved with the Cambridge Footlights. Creating lighting for the theatre he discovered could satisfy both his artistic and scientific impulses and after a season with the Footlights he found himself working full time in the London theatre.

Ridler worked on plays, dance and opera, with prestigious directors like Peter Hall and at leading venues such as the English National Opera. Looking back he cannot overstate enough the effect good lighting can have on a theatrical production. “It is so fundamental to creating atmosphere,” Ridler says, “and for focusing attention. The role of the lighting designer in the theatre is much like that of an editor in a film you are deciding if you are going to do a wide shot or a close shot and the way a scene is lit completely changes the atmosphere and can really support the meaning that the choreographer or playwright or composer is trying to convey.”

Of all his work in the theatre Ridler highlights a production of The Tempest at the Nottingham Playhouse as one of his highlights. “It was just exquisite,” Ridler says. “It involved really simple sets with a black screen behind and the modulation of the lighting relative to how many people were on stage was perfectly balanced and we created this watery effect all the way through it. I’ve got tingles just thinking about it now.”
Lighting does have its limitations as to what it can achieve in the theatre though. “Lighting cannot save a struggling play, no,” he says. “You’ll never come out of a theatre whistling the lights.”

The jump from theatrical to architectural lighting would, you might expect, be quite a tricky leap, but this is not necessarily the case. “In some ways it is different,” Ridler says of the comparison between the two, “and in some ways it’s exactly the same. Essentially the task of a lighting designer is revealing the human form within either a scenographic or an architectural context. This is then presented to the viewer in a way that supports the conceptual aims of those that created it. So the job in both environments is entirely the same. What is slightly different is that in the theatre the lighting changes rapidly, whereas in an architectural setting the lighting is much more static. A theatre is a black box devoid of natural daylight so the whole lighting atmosphere is entirely within the lighting designer’s control, whereas in architecture you start in a white box with lots of natural light and it is a question of what do you do when you have daylight available and what you do when you don’t.”

“In terms of personnel,” Ridler continues, “there are striking similarities. The developer is the producer, the director is the lead architect, the designer is the interior designer or landscape architect and the production manager is the QS or PM, so the personalities and management structures are every similar, much more similar than I expected when I started out.”

Ridler also found change to be much more viable in the theatre than in architectural lighting design. “In theatre you can change anything within the last five minutes before curtain-up and change is considered to be desirable, where as in architecture change is bad, plans are set in concrete sometimes literally. In theatre you explore your ideas in real time, in architecture you have to communicate your vision sometimes years in advance, there is a whole process of visual communication which doesn’t happen in the theatre and of course in architecture there is a lot more money involved. In the theatre you have a right to fail, with architecture you do not.”

But despite the creative freedom offered by the theatre, one thing it does not offer is longevity, artistic expression on the stage is fleeting, it cannot be preserved, where as architecture can, in theory, outlast its creators. “It’s still fairly ephemeral,” Ridler says. “An architectural lighting scheme will last ten to twenty years, not fifty or a hundred, but still that’s longer than the three week run of a play.”

Another benefit to architecture key to the development of Ridler’s career is its democratic nature. Nobody has to pay to see a lighting scheme in the public realm as they would in the theatre. “While the emotional connection to work experienced in the theatre is arguably more intense,” Ridler says, “the ability of architectural lighting to make people healthier and happier, to work better, to learn, to enjoy their leisure time is very profound.”

Despite the similarities between the two, the learning curve he experienced after making the jump from theatrical lighting to architectural was steep. The first project he worked on never got built, a hotel in Serbia, a project that was disrupted by the conflict that scarred the area during the 1990s, but, he admits, looking back, that his unrealised design was marred by inexperience.

The first project that he got built was Finsbury Avenue Square at Broadgate in London, a five year commitment that spanned Ridler’s entire time working for Maurice Brill Lighting Design. “What was interesting about that project was that it started with temporary mock-ups created in order to win the support of the owner and other stakeholders,” a task, because of his theatrical experience, that he was very comfortable with. “Looking back my graphics and my conceptual communication skills were awful, they make me cringe, but we learn every day, that’s what makes things fun.”

While at Maurice Brill, Ridler also worked on Sketch on Conduit Street in London, a club, Michelin starred restaurant and art gallery. He also created a temporary installation on the Wellington Arch for the millennium, which was later converted into a permanent installation.
As Ridler’s work in lighting design went from strength to strength, he suffered a life changing spinal injury in a terrible car accident that left him paralysed from the waist down. “Straight after it happened my top priority was to get back to work,” Ridler says, “I was not sure if I was going to be able to and in what capacity, but as a lighting designer you just need your brain, your hands and your mouth and that will do.”

Having left Maurice Brill and after leaving hospital his thoughts immediately turned to finding a job. “I said I would give myself until Christmas of that year (2003) to get the position I really wanted and then if that didn’t happen I’d start casting my net further afield. There were three companies I really wanted to work for, one was BDP, the other was ARUP and the third one was Mind’s Eye. It just so happened that that summer Finsbury Park Square was being commissioned, so I asked Martin Lupton who was in charge at BDP to come to the opening and that led to some temporary work and later to a permanent position.”

The project that Ridler names as one of his highlights from his early days at BDP was Princesshay, a shopping precinct development in Exeter focused around a former arms house ruin. The project had a social element, one of Ridler’s principle inspirations. “The ruin was used by criminals,” says Ridler. “One of the earlier proposals was to blanket it with CCTV cameras and banks of floodlights, but Land Securities, the developer, came up with a much better plan and developed some housing and a restaurant for the site, while covering it in pieces of art. The opportunity to create something beautiful with client and artist, with a social benefit, ticked all the right boxes.”

The massive effect that lighting can have on society is why Ridler does the job he does. “If, as a lighting designer, you can create environments where people feel happy to congregate it can add a real sense of social cohesion, safety and well being to an area. If you can make a nighttime environment a social space then the benefits are considerable. I want to make lighting that people can very intuitively, tune to their own desires, encouraging them to work productively.”

Ridler analyses projects from what he calls the ‘ultimate client base’, anyone that uses, encounters or inhabits a project. He then plays back to the client the benefits of his proposals, which, because they have been based on social impact, are never arbitrary. “If you do something simply because it will look pretty,” Ridler says, “that is much less persuasive and defendable than saying that a project is going to have an impact on the way people navigate or perceive a space and will modify their behaviour in a positive way.”

A social democratic agenda does lie at the heart of BDP’s brand and this can be seen in their recent work on the Trinity shopping centre in Leeds, the largest covered shopping space in the UK. “The project has transformed what was really a quite dire part of the city centre into a really vibrant space with a cinema and a restaurant and the main reason the area works at night is the lighting and that has brought a lot of economic benefit to the area. Social benefit does not always have to be about schools and hospitals,” Ridler says, “it should have a role in every project and every project sector.”

During Ridler’s career there have been great technological leaps in the lighting industry, not least the rise of LED to the prominence it retains today. “I’ve always been quite conscious to make sure that we advise our clients as to the best time to start using that kind of technology,” he notes cautiously. “But yes, they have completely changed our industry and will continue to do so. It has changed the way we specify product for major projects too. We used to write a specification and then defend it through the tendering process, but now we write performance specifications based on kit that we know fits and will deliver the required quality affordable to the client, but in the knowledge that in three years time everything is going to be cheaper, smaller and more energy efficient, so we now recommend that we review the specification three months before purchase so we can capture any technological advance.”

Ridler notes that BIM (Building Information Modeling) is also a controversial technological advance that presents a steep learning curve to the industry. “Like many new technologies it promises much,” says Ridler, “but it will probably only deliver some of that promise. It is something that we do need to engage with as an industry because it disrupts the lighting process, brief making, concept and design development. It is not inevitable that it will go wrong, but we as a profession need to be mindful of it and engage with it to make sure it does not disrupt the design process. There is a danger early on that you’ll be asked how many rivets a light fitting has, when you’re still deciding which fixtures you are going to use and what surface you are going to illuminate. BIM’s promise though is that you will be able to calculate, render, draft all in the same environment, which is much better than working in five different software programmes.”

In the wake of the huge effect that LED has had on the lighting industry, Ridler believes that the IT revolution has been some what forgotten. “When I joined Maurice Brill,” Ridler comments, “we had a fax machine, one computer that could receive emails, no mobile phones and this was only 1998, not that long ago.”

The term ‘architectural lighting designer’ is almost as youthful as the technology that now defines it. “The term certainly didn’t exist when I started in theatre,” Ridler says of his current job title. “In fact all those trailblazers, LDP, DPA, Maurice Brill, the pioneers, had the job of educating clients that there was even a job to be done. That mission has now been accomplished, something that was not the case twenty years ago.”

There is still educational work to be completed though Ridler notes. “We need to teach much more about what light can do and what lighting designers need to be able to produce their best work. You just have to hope that clients are willing to listen when there is an opportunity to engage.”

Lighting design education is an area that Ridler is directly engaged with as vice-president of the Institution of Lighting Professionals (ILP), which aims to promote excellence in all forms of lighting, while representing the growing lighting design community.

“Lighting design is a very healthy profession right now,” says Ridler. “It didn’t shrink that much during the 2009 recession and its aftermath, but one of the greatest threats to this progress is the lack of education about the profession and the number of courses available at universities around the world. There are more courses being taught such as the one that recently commenced at Brunel University and the LET (Lighting Education Trust) have just re-launched their diploma which is good, so it is beginning to happen in terms of lighting education, things are beginning to fall into place, but more is needed. I think one of the elements that is good about the ILP is that there is a career structure that allows designers to progress from the most junior level onwards and to demonstrate their increasing competence to the wider world.”

With upcoming high profile BDP projects at the Houses of Parliament and Manchester Cathedral, it looks like Mark Ridler is set to continue on the busy and creative course he has so far charted.
www.bdp.com

 

HIGHLIGHTS

Projects that you would like to change:
We are working hard at the moment in changing the way in which typical office environments are delivered. That in part is through a more task based approach with intuitive local lighting control. There is a lot of inertia in this sector but the potential rewards in improved lighting environment and lower energy are enormous.

Projects you admire:
Projects where people are put in the centre of the design and where artificial/daylight design is in harmony with the architecture.

Projects you dislike:

Arbitrary, ostentatious design with little regard or concern for the social, envrironmental, architectural context.

Lighting Hero:
Josef Svoboda. A Czech scenographer who was an early pioneer of using light to create theatrical volume. I encountered his work when in the theatre, and he still is an influence, particularly in his atmospheric, and structural use of light and space.

Notable projects:
Finsbury Avenue Square (for MBLD); Princesshay, Exeter; FirstSite; St Davids, Cardiff; Edinburgh International Conference Centre;  7 More London; Trinity, Leeds; V&A Fashion Gallery.

Current projects:
Manchester Cathedral; Aberdeen Music Hall; National Army Museum; Astra Zeneca New Cambridge Site; Buchanan Quarter, Glasgow; Bracknell regeneration; Mall of Egypt.

 

 

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