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Rogier van der Heide

Issue 50 Aug / Sep 2009

“I don’t do lighting for buildings, I do lighting for people.”
Robert Such speaks to the Global Leader of Arup Lighting.

... so says Rogier van der Heide, Global Leader of Arup Lighting. Well known for his glowing iconic works for starchitects and big fashion labels, the Dutch lighting designer takes a people-centric view towards lighting interiors and exteriors around the world.

The thirty-something lighting designer’s current projects vary greatly in scale, budget and prestige. They include lighting the Louis Vuitton Flagship Store in London and the National Museum of Modern Art in Amsterdam, but van der Heide is also working on more modest, but no less rewarding, lighting schemes.

For a hospital in the north of The Netherlands, he’s looking into how lighting can help patients to sleep better, and thus speed up recovery times—he recently had four operations, so brings some personal insight to this particular project—and how better to illuminate train platforms. Drawing on research that claims people’s perception of time moves more slowly while waiting on a platform, compared to when travellers are on the train, Arup is also studying how weather, perceived risks, safety, furniture design, and lighting could affect human perception in train stations.

And whether it’s eliminating ambient lighting in favour of accent lighting in a luxury bag store, or punctuating a railway platform with pools of light and dark, van der Heide eschews uniformity in lighting. Coming from a musical background, he says it’s “like music that is the same tone for five minutes or an hour.”

Born into a musical home—his parents were musicians—near Amsterdam, van der Heide went on to study the audiovisual arts in Brussels. Before moving into architectural lighting design, he lit the stage in the theatre, but there he found it “hard to establish a close chemistry between the professionals,” he says. Working closely with architects from A to Z on a project, however, he had “more fun,” he says. In the mid-Nineties, he started his own company, Hollands Licht Advanced Lighting Design. The company later merged with Arup and he took up the lead role at Arup Lighting.

Van der Heide says his work boils down to respecting people. “Making 500 lux uniform wall to wall light is not very respectful,” he says. “It’s the same with temperature, humidity and sound. Why do we put people in buildings that are 20 degrees centigrade all the time, 70% humidity and 300 lux of light?” It’s a holistic design view, taking into account all environmental aspects of the building interior, and aims at making people feel comfortable and at ease.

What characterises van der Heide’s work is his collaborative approach in the design process, and putting forward ideas for lighting “embedded in architecture,” he says. It’s not an add-on layer, rather there is a seamless integration of building and lighting. “The boundary between light and architecture is a diffuse one,” he says.

Under the skin of an architectural work, the technology managing the lighting may be complicated and taking a bigger slice of the budget compared to a decade ago, but van der Heide still looks for visual simplicity. He wants people to take away memorable images, and for him, one such memory is the lighting of the old postal sorting centre in Amsterdam. It was “a really good example of good lighting,” he says. It had a frosted glass facade of white light and “intriguing shadows” reflected in the canal.

To create bonds between people, places and products, he forgoes the use of complicated designs with lots of colours and different lighting effects. “I try to come up with meaningful concepts,” he says, “and then I try to find the most simple way to tell them.” Lighting can “improve the well-being of people,” he says. “It can create something memorable. You go to a place. It could be a piazza that is beautifully lit. And you take home the memory of it. It becomes unforgettable. That is priceless.”

As for the business side of things, van der Heide believes lighting design is a “strategic aspect for the client in their business”. Lighting does more than just enhance the architecture, it can have “a huge impact on the commercial success of the building,” he says, citing the Galleria West shopping centre designed by UNStudio and Arup in Seoul as an example.

On the matter of sustainability, the number one issue today, his opinion is clear: maintenance considerations, energy consumption and ways of minimizing light pollution should be fully integrated into a project. “They should not even be any more in briefings,” he says. “That just speaks for itself.” In terms of sustainability, lighting can affect a building’s longevity. If you make it charismatic and irreplaceable, it’s less likely to be torn down in ten years.

Green-minded to the point that his house runs on wind power, van der Heide also donates to a rainforest carbon offset programme to make up for gas bought through the traditional supply network.

With so much more yet to discover about the way lighting affects people’s health and well-being, van der Heide the humanist is busy working at the forefront of lighting to understand how we can benefit from it now and in the future. And in the process, he’ll make a memory of it, too.





Any projects you would like to change? I would love to change the yellow lighting in European cityscapes for the white urban lighting that is common in Japan.

Projects you dislike? I dislike any lighting that does not take people seriously.

Projects you admire? I admire simple, poetic and playful lighting. I think Charles Stone’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City is awesome. I like our own Star Place for which I did the facade lighting with Ben van Berkel. It’s like he says: “made in heaven”. I still admire the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum. There, I worked closely with Sir Richard MacCormac, who has a wonderful vision on light and space and insists on pursuing that. Tim Molloy of the museum was a very cool client, too.

Lighting hero? I am more and more inspired by things outside lighting such as materials, space, and behaviour of people. What also inspires is the notion that you can contribute to the world beyond your own. And my muse... is the woman I love!

Notable projects? • Of course, Galleria West in Seoul, with UNStudio, a milestone project in the world of dynamic architectural lighting • And the Wellcome Wing at the Science Museum, that I like to call The Big Blue Space • Also, Zaha Hadid’s Mind Zone at the Millennium Dome, where I fused light and materials, and spatial perception • And the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco • Many of my colleagues worked on it too, but I am particularly proud of the fundamental research I did together with Simone Collon and Tom Hennes of THinc Design on the lighting for live coral reefs.

Current projects? • The Sheikh Zayed Bridge in Abu Dhabi, with Zaha Hadid • The library and the Headquarter Building of Education City in Qatar, with OMA / Rem Koolhaas • The Louis Vuitton Flagship Store in London’s New Bond Street, with Peter Marino of New York City • The Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum (National Museum of Modern Art), that is going to be gorgeous, with architect Mels Crouwel.


Pic: Michael van Oosten

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