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National Theatre, London, England

Issue 41 Feb / Mar 2008 : Architectural : Façade

Lighting Design : PHILIPS LIGHTING

As a result of a five year partnership between Philips and the National Theatre, the first external lighting phase began in autumn 2007. Fundamental to the project was the vision to combine architectural sensitivity and audience enhancement with energy efficiency

Sitting proudly on the South Bank of the River Thames, the National Theatre is an iconic symbol of artistic life in London. Over 30 years since first finding its permanent site just east of Waterloo Bridge in 1976, the National Theatre is central to the creative life of the capital and the country, aspiring to be the most public, the most visible and the most welcoming face of subsidised theatre in the UK.
Its productions and performances have reflected this ethos over the years but now this is also clearly demonstrated by the striking appearance of the theatre’s physical structure itself. An endless colour palette of light provided by Philips LED lighting solutions has achieved a dramatic enhancement of the exterior leaving London city dwellers and tourists excited and inspired as they view this unprecedented addition to the night time scene. This, however, is only one chapter in the five year lighting programme that will extend to replacing the venue’s internal and external lighting scheme with a state of the art, dynamic and energy efficient solution.
As Rowena Preiss, Creative Director for Philips Lighting, states, “Our vision from the outset was to listen to the client, understand the rationale of the space and then to establish a toolbox of relevant technologies focused on fusing our capabilities and expertise with the creative vision of the team at the National Theatre. Their ideas and aspirations are without a doubt driven by their desire to create fun, excitement and a sense of anticipation in the city for everyone to enjoy, whilst also reducing their current energy consumption.”

The ultimate design of the National Theatre as we know it today went through various changes back in the sixties before being agreed upon. This was largely dependent on its final permanent location which determined modifications to the design to allow integration between the area’s natural characteristics and the final building model. As the architect, Denys Lasdun, described it at the time, “It’s a magical position... probably the most beautiful in London”. The natural relationship of the site to St Paul’s to the east across the river and to Somerset House and West End theatre-land across from Waterloo Bridge suggested to Lasdun a triangular geometry that he would incorporate into every angle of the National Theatre. This holds true today but now whilst the grand vistas across the Thames can be enjoyed by those visiting the theatre, it is the theatre itself that has also become an integral spectacle on the capital’s skyline.
The LEDline2 solution maximises the façade’s vantage point overlooking the river by illuminating key architectural details attracting the attention of passers by from both north and south of the Thames.

Creating harmony between space, walls and light were essential for Lasdun. The two main theatre auditoriums were interconnected with vast foyers and anchored by imposing flytowers and lift cores across the building’s span, enabling visitors to flow freely and absorb the atmosphere of their environment. Today, technological advances in lighting innovation can be brought into play to enhance this still further for modern day audiences to enjoy. Thus, Philips proposed that the flytowers be lit using the ever versatile LEDline2 modules. In all some 47 RGB LEDline2 1200mm modules were used positioned in three rows to ensure uniform coverage of the vertical plane. LEDline2 lends itself ideally here since its slim profile offers a balance between creating dimension and shape whilst avoiding nuisance spill light. Wireless DMX controls provide the client with full control, enabling the colour to flow and change in line with the vision of the Theatre, to create a dramatic and dynamic impression. Emphasis was also given to the imposing lift cores. Upward shafts of coloured light were created using a mix of RGB LEDline2 modules and LED Beamer fittings. The smaller LED Beamer helps retain the architectural integrity of the Grade 2-star listed building. Small but powerful it incorporates a single LUXEON highpower K2 LED and is designed for projection over distances up to 30m. The LED Beamer used here also incorporates the latest Solgel filter technology giving a rich saturated blue tone against the stone façade. Important throughout the scheme was that all fittings were concealed from view to give optimum impact to the lighting effect.

The National Theatre stages over 1000 performances each year, attracting over 1 million visitors for whom it wants to create a welcoming, inclusive and congenial atmosphere.
To enhance the sense of arrival, the pillars displaying posters of the latest plays are illuminated upwards by positioning LEDline 2 modules at each base. However, in today’s dynamic and sophisticated environment it is no longer enough to allow the structure to welcome guests in its basic form. Thus, light and colour were also integrated via a controls system to allow them to perform together to stunning effect. Now, the anticipation and excitement of the production that awaits is already palpable in the air as visitors approach down the Theatre Avenue accompanied by the dancing colour of changing light displays.
In addition, angled columns along the side of the theatre have been lit using a combination of LED Beamers and Mini Decoflood luminaires to allow for directional lighting to complement and flow along the building line. Flagpoles set at intervals along this pedestrian avenue were also lit using LEDline2 modules cleverly concealed within the poles themselves. Not only that, but the lighting levels have been reduced from an overlit 40 lux to 12 lux at no detriment to pedestrian safety or light quality such has been the advance in lighting technology in comparison with traditional alternatives. Indeed, Philips technology has inspired the creative vision of the team at the National Theatre opening up new possibilities which were unachievable in Lasdun’s heyday.
Innovations in lighting have allowed new avenues to be explored on multiple levels and the National Theatre has benefited clearly in this. From helping people orient and direct themselves around the site, to creating a distinctive landmark for the site and indeed the city, the new lighting has allowed the opportunity to tell an ever changing story adapting to its audiences and the environment in which it resides.

A future legacy

One fundamental principle that of course cannot be understated is the sustainability of the scheme that underlines both the need for architectural sensitivity and enhancement of visitors’ enjoyment. This criterion was paramount from the outset. Philips Lighting technology will deliver a 70% reduction in the energy needed to illuminate the building providing an estimated £100,000 per annum saving for the National Theatre at the conclusion of the project. Londoners will also experience a new ‘video wall’ installation on the roof of the building in Spring 2008, replacing the old dot ‘Seefact’ bulb system with a full color LED panel that will display crystal clear messages.
After this initial phase, the focus will switch to the interior and backstage areas of the theatre. Front of house foyers and more functional areas such as the vast corridors, workshops and rehearsal rooms will be fitted with improved energy efficient, longer life lamps and control gear. To ensure the anticipated energy savings are achieved, monitoring throughout the space will be carried out guaranteeing that the vision of the partnership between Philips and the National Theatre is indeed a reality.
One must also remember that this partnership is not a ‘fit and forget’ operation. As Philips introduces new lighting technology, improvements will be installed to deliver ever greater energy savings and further enhance the environment for everyone in the years ahead who come into contact with one of London’s most recognisable and iconic buildings.


National Theatre, London National Theatre, London National Theatre, London
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