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The Dom Tower, Utrecht, The Netherlands

Issue 73 June / July 2013 : Architectural : Church

CLIENT: The City of Utrecht LIGHTING DESIGN: Speirs + Major

The Dom Tower has been Utrecht’s tallest structure for centuries, protected by an unwritten rule that no building should surpass it. In the year that marks the tri-centenary of the Treaty of Utrecht, a critical moment in European history, Speirs + Major has produced a lighting scheme that highlights the tower’s status as a national icon.

The Dom Tower of the St. Martin’s Cathedral has dominated the skyline of the City of Utrecht for centuries. Built between 1321 and 1382, the structure is still the tallest church tower in the Netherlands. It has played watchtower in times of conflict and its impressive peal of fourteen bells have rung out to celebrate peace and liberation.

On the 11th of April this year, a unique light installation was unveiled in central Utrecht linking the tower with the equally impressive Dom Church and Dom Square. The project was created in celebration of the tri-centenary of the Treaty of Utrecht, the document that brought a wide-ranging peace to Europe in the wake of the bloodthirsty War of the Spanish Succession.

Switched on by Queen Beatrix in the months before her abdication, the light instillation turns the iconic structures into living breathing entities that can communicate their memories, recalling the layers of history that have defined the city.

In Spring 2010 the City of Utrecht launched the final portion of “Trajectum Lumen”, a project to promote the city and generate tourism through a trail of permanent light installations in the historic centre. The name refers to the earliest history of the city, with the trail culminating at the spot where the Romans made camp some 2000 years ago, now the site of the Dom Tower.

In selecting light artists for the project, the city government created a commission to oversee the project and engaged art curator Marijke Jansen to review the work of light artists and designers from around the globe.  A shortlist of three favourite designs was drawn up, all of whom were approached to submit their ideas for the project. Having been selected as one of the three finalists, Speirs + Major set about the process of fully understanding the context and significance, both physical and historical of the landmarks, before developing a concept.

The brief was deliberately open, but the city made clear that the final idea needed to be wider than simply lighting the buildings themselves. The piece needed to reference the celebration that would launch it, and make meaningful connections to the city’s history, while articulating Utrecht’s place in the modern world.

Beginning with a master plan of the district, an idea began to evolve that viewed the city, the district and the buildings as a living organism. The site forms the body with the buildings making up its structure.

Being at the centre of the city, a city that is itself positioned at the centre of The Netherlands, the ancient church, square and tower can also be viewed as the hub of a huge central nervous system, the beating heart of a nation and a true centre of communication.

The tower itself, having been a part of and a witness to all the many complex layers of Dutch history, is the ‘brain”, akin to a wise figure that holds on to all the memories and stories it has witnessed. Each of the three elements in themselves can be viewed as important members of society, living entities that have been both observers and participants in the development and history of Utrecht.

The idea of treating these treasured buildings as living entities was immediately attractive to the city authorities, as was the idea that light could enable the structures to come to life, breathe, connect with each other, and communicate with the people in the city about the past and the present.

After winning the commission, Speirs + Major proceeded to refine their ‘living light’ idea, addressing each individual element and looking at how the connections would work across the site.

Originally the Dom Tower was connected to the west wing of the Dom Church by a small bridge, but in 1674 a tornado caused the unfinished west wing to collapse, and it was never reconstructed. The area that was created, separating the church and the tower is what is now known as the Dom Square.

Keith Bradshaw and Mark Major, co-creators of the concept, explained: “A beautiful tension exists between the tower, which is viewed more as a secular being, belonging to everyone; while the church is the serene ecclesiastical being. We looked at the nature of each of these buildings, we reviewed their history and considered how light could make meaningful connections across the site and the wider city.”

“The church is addressed with a passive, respectful design. Their own philosophy, ‘light comes from within’, is translated into a scheme where the outside faces are kept relatively dark, and the light glows through the stained glass windows and the internal faces of the buttresses, creating a lantern like effect. In fact, the name of the project alludes to the Latin saying ‘In lumine tuo videbimus lumen’ – ‘In your light we shall see the light’. The last thing we (and they) wanted was to create a lit ‘monument’. Conversely, the tower is the showpiece, the dynamic element, and the communicator. The lighting is dramatic, playing off the Gothic architecture, and is visible from many parts of the city.

“The Dom Square is where the memories of the past are recalled. The gable wall where the west end of the Dom Church once stood is picked out, and a visual connection to the arch at the base of the tower is made with light.

The light sequence begins in time with the Dom Tower’s clock. The three elements, the tower, the church and the square begin slowly to ‘breathe’ in unity, establishing a connection and creating a conversation between the three structures.

The play of light accelerates, and memories, represented as bursts of light, appear to ascend the Dom Tower. The sequence culminates just before the striking of the hour with a dramatic finale in the lantern, where the memories cluster and multiple bursts of light and patterns are unleashed to the sound of the pealing of the bells.

With a restricted palette of almost entirely LED based components and a well-finessed control program, the scheme is energy efficient and maintenance friendly. This face value simplicity of the make-up of the project belies the complexity of its execution.

“With the constraints of no drilling into the stonework and no sources allowed to be in view from below, mounting devices had to be custom made for each location,” said Benz Roos, the designer who led the project.

“These details largely comprise of compression clamping arrangements, or concrete slabs not connected to the buildings, concealed where possible, and located strategically so as not to cause safety issues or impede views, but still be accessible for maintenance.  All the details and drawings showing how the concept would be executed had to be passed by both the city commission and the city’s heritage inspectors prior to constructing and installing and then were inspected again on site for approval.”

The end result is entrancing. The sensitive use of light brings these historic elements of Utrecht to life, celebrating their forms and recordings their significance in the psycho-geography of the city.


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