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The Imperial Palace, Beijing, China

Issue 44 Aug / Sep 2008 : Architectural : Museum

Lighting Design: ERCO

Lighting from ERCO is a long-term investment in the Forbidden City.

When Wang Yirong talks about the Imperial Palace in Beijing, about the centuries-old throne rooms, the former royal bedchambers and hidden gardens, he may as well be reminiscing about his own home. In some ways he is. “I grew up here as a child,” says Wang. His father had once worked as a bookkeeper in the administration of the ‘Forbidden City’, as the Chinese call the Palace. So as a child, Wang used to play among imperial halls and chambers. “For me, the Forbidden City is like a home,” he says.

The secret paths of his childhood still come in useful to Wang, who today is Vice Director of the Palace administration. True to the legend, the Forbidden City has 9999 rooms in which the Emperors of China resided until 1924, and thus is ten times bigger than Buckingham Palace in London. A tangle of temple halls, residential buildings and accommodation for concubines and eunuchs, it’s hard not to lose yourself in here. A city within a city. “So far, only a part of the complex is open to visitors,” explains Wang.

With the paint in the centuries-old halls coming off, termites eating away at the old wooden pillars, the roofs being leaky and the ornate wall paintings fading, Beijing’s Imperial Palace is currently undergoing the biggest renovation in its history. The task of the century: since 2002, up to 2000 craftsmen and restoration specialists have worked on returning the Palace to its former glory. The cost: 100 million Yuan per year – around ten million Euros. The work is scheduled to be finished by 2020 – in time for the 600th anniversary celebrations.

“The renovation is very costly and complex,” says Wang. He is sitting in his office inside the Forbidden City, grey walls with a curved roof and wooden pillars, adjacent to a landscaped courtyard. “In former times, this is where the sons of the Emperor would live,” recounts Wang, pointing toward the green tiles. In contrast, all other buildings in the Forbidden City have yellow roofs – once the symbol and privilege of the Emperor.

“Our aim is to restore the buildings as close to their original state as possible,” explains Wang. Hence the Palace administration sought out Beijing’s master craftsmen, 70- and 80-year-old men, some of whose families had worked in the Imperial Palace for several generations – many a forgotten technique was rediscovered. In terms of lighting for the buildings and exhibitions, however, the Imperial Palace administration opted for contemporary technology and thus has been working with ERCO since 1999. “ERCO sets the highest standards in museum lighting,” says Wang. After all, the conditions for the preservation of historical monuments are strict, even with regard to lighting. “Hammering nails into the wood to fix the spotlights in the old Palace halls was, of course, not an option,” explains Ricky Zhang from the ERCO Representative Office in Beijing. Instead, the lighting installations were mounted on special fixtures that did not require structural interference or changes. “Protecting the historical structures is a top priority for us,” says Zhang. ERCO’s expertise in museum lighting also paid off in the illumination of photosensitive exhibits and paintings.

One of the results of this cooperation is Qianqinggong – the Palace of Heavenly Purity. Once the private chambers of the imperial family, the hall later served regents as an audience room in which they also received foreign envoys. It was last officially used in 1922 when Emperor Pu Yi, who had already been deposed by that time, was married. Visitors and tourists, who can only peer into the lavishly furnished interior from outside, mostly do not realise that the hall is fitted with almost two dozen concealed ERCO floodlights. “Our aim was to boost natural daylight as inconspicuously as possible,” explains Zhang. Visitors are thus given an authentic taste of the imperial era.

Another highlight of the Palace complex, the ‘Hall of Supreme Harmony’ (Taihedian), is currently veiled in green cloth while the hammering and renovating is still ongoing. At 29 metres, this hall is the tallest building in the Forbidden City. Here, China’s Emperors were once crowned, hence the lavish interior of this building. Mythical creatures decorate the eaves. When it rains, 1142 marble dragonheads spew out the water. The terrace is adorned with bronze tortoises and cranes, symbols of luck and eternal reign. The renovated hall will reopen to visitors in time for the start of the Olympic Games. Around 100 ERCO spotlights will then present it in the right light.

For Wang and his colleagues the work, however, continues. 30,000 visitors flock to the former Imperial City on any given day. On record days, this figure could even be as high as 100,000. “The visit should be a special experience for each individual,” says Wang. “The Forbidden City becomes a huge museum. This is our job.”


Forbidden City, Beijing
Forbidden City, Beijing
Forbidden City, Beijing Forbidden City, Beijing
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