newsletter link
mondo arc

Grand Canal, Hangzhou, China

Issue 48 Apr / May 2009 : Architectural : Exterior

Lighting Design: CONCEPTO

Hangzhou's Grand Canal has benefited from Roger Narboni's Chinese lantern treatment.

The history of the city of Hangzhou is closely linked to its geography and hydrology. The first settlement was established beside the Qian Tang River but the town grew when the construction of the Grand Canal started in 610 A.D. to connect Hangzhou to Suzhou. This completed the incredible man-made construction undertaken between 481 B.C. to link Beijing in the North of China with Hangzhou 1,794 kilometres away.
After major initial development in the 10th century, the city became in the 12th century the Song dynasty’s diplomatic and cultural capital of Southern China.

The Grand Canal then became part of a large waterway network that created the current layout of the city of Hangzhou and helped the city to gradually increase its prosperity. And the natural beauty of the famous West Lake gave strong added interest to the water city.
The city of Hangzhou is currently undergoing major development around the Qian Tang River, the West Lake, the Grand Canal and the Xixi wetland to enhance its potential and its attraction for tourists.

The government of Hangzhou decided in 2007 to transform the image of the Grand Canal and develop tourism by renewing the canal bank promenades and launching the construction of a fleet of fifty boats for daytime and nighttime trips. It was decided as well to create beautiful lighting that would enhance the Grand Canal along a length of 10 kilometers in the inner centre of the city, attracting both Chinese visitors and foreign tourists at night.

At the end of 2007, Zhongtai Lighting Group, a lighting total solution provider based in Hangzhou, was asked by the local government to study the lighting master plan for the 10 kilometre long site of the Grand Canal and to realise the final effect. With its wide range of international resources, Zhongtai invited Roger Narboni, from Concepto lighting design studio, famous worldwide for its ability to work with monumental water landscapes and recognised for its extensive experience in lighting master plans.

The merging of Chinese and European lighting cultures started at the beginning of January 2008 and ended with the successful presentation of the Ying Yue nightscape to the Governor and the people of Hangzhou in September 2008.

The aim of the joint lighting proposal was to reveal the existing beauty of the site, its monumentality, its identity, its layout and the richness of its architecture and landscape. The lighting designers did not want to decorate the site with lights; on the contrary they wanted light to express the inner qualities and great potential of the Grand Canal nightscape. The lighting was also required to reveal, respect and express the South Chinese culture.
And of course, the use of the last technologies of LEDs, mainly produced and made in China, was obvious.


The Lighting Master Plan for the Grand Canal could become the start of a wider lighting strategy for Hangzhou, revealing the special atmosphere of its unique and large water network at night. The little canals play an important role for the population. They are a place for a walk and they create a nice, peaceful impression set against the background of large avenues. The lighting will gradually add beauty, firstly to the Grand Canal then to the canal network. It will help to highlight its unique layout and indicate the promenades at the rear of the avenues, which are almost invisible.

The expectation of the client was a colourful, dynamic lighting effect with strong rhythms. After exploring the historical and cultural context of Hangzhou and examining the site numerous times, Roger Narboni and Zhongtai team proposed a completely different concept to him.
The bank’s landscape is unified and enhanced by a blue green light coming from LED projectors (18x3W blue and 18x3W green) that can vary from ice blue in wintertime to a warm green colour in summertime, and 400W metal halide floodlight projectors equipped with coloured filters. The blue green lighting creates a mysterious and tranquil environment that matches the personality of the Grand Canal.
This lighting creates a wonderful misty impression on both sides, emphasising the beautiful curved trajectory of the Grand Canal in the nocturnal scenery. The coloured light also reveals the different depths and forms of the banks, showing all the monumentality of the site.
The natural humidity present on the site and the real fog that very often rises from the Grand Canal at nightfall amplifies the manmade lighting effect and produces strong emotions for visitors and tourists. The blue green mist enhances the elegant profile of the Grand Canal in a romantic, sensible and mysterious atmosphere that looks like a Chinese wash painting.

At dusk, this mist of light is conveyed like luminous waves from South to North following the flow of the Grand Canal. During the night, the mist of light becomes static and then slowly fades out around midnight.
In addition, some major trees on the banks, mainly located near the water, are enhanced with a static warm white light (ceramic metal halide lamps, 3000K) and in a natural manner to increase the contrast with the coloured surroundings.

The paths and promenades are lit continuously by luminous Chinese columns set out at regular intervals on the banks and near the river in order to create luminous reflections on the water. These translucent light fittings equipped with white light fluorescent lamps (3000K) look golden white in comparison with the blue-green coloured mist in the background.

A large section of the railing is already lit on both riversides using small recessed ground fittings. This delicate lighting gives a good visual scale to the bank. These fittings have been kept but modified to take long-life LEDs (3x1W, 3000K).

There are many parallelepiped modern buildings near and around the Grand Canal site. They are strongly present in the day-to-day urban landscape. Coloured luminous vertical frames are installed on the higher sections of these buildings (visible from very far away) especially on the facades overlooking and parallel to the canal. These vertical frames stand in the Hangzhou skyline as virtual paintings and give structure to the nighttime views. They create a poetic and geometric landscape that seems to float above the water and, from far away, indicate the invisible presence of the Grand Canal.

The traditional architecture is part of the Grand Canal landscape and history and is very obvious in various vistas. It is all illuminated with a gold white light that enhances and highlights in particular the beautiful pagoda-shaped roofs in nighttime views. The pillars or walls are also illuminated to give the structures a sense of material being in the nighttime landscape. Each corner of the roof has a traditional red lantern equipped with a fluorescent lamp.


The Grand Canal is crossed and linked to numerous smaller canals that have little water cascades, lapping water and old footbridges at the intersections. The lighting project emphasises and signals the presence of these beautiful views with lighting. The footbridges and cascades are systematically illuminated.

Luminous poles equipped with LEDs (6x3W blue and 6x3W amber) are installed in the water to draw attention to the complex canal system. They shed light down onto the turgid water, creating beautiful reflections on the black surface. The translucent cylinder, encased in a metal frame, floats and moves with the wash created by the boats, depending on the level of water. The luminous cylinder changes colour according to the seasons.


The Grand Canal section in Hangzhou is crossed by more than 20 bridges of different periods, sizes, heights, materials and colours. They are a varied part of sightseeing especially during a boat trip and they cut the canal perspectives into very different sequences. All the various existing lightings are changed to white lighting to harmonise the canal landscape on a large scale. This white illumination beautifies the shapes and the structures of the bridges in a way that is totally natural and devoid of artifice. The lighting is focused on the two sides of the bridges, leaving the under parts and vaulting completely in the dark. This darkness will preserve the nocturnal views over some distance.

On first seeing the Grand Canal, it is impossible to imagine the incredible history and size of this man-made construction. The lighting will help to draw the attention of the tourists to this amazing story.
Eleven-metre metal poles, consisting of profiled stainless steel and coloured LEDs, are installed on the North bank. At night, they indicate alternately the distance to the Tang Qian River in Hangzhou and the distance to Beijing. These distances are shown in kilometres in green then in red in the ancient Chinese “Shi” measure system (1 Li = 0.500 km) developed by the Qin dynasty.

These milestones provide tourist information and a sense of rhythm for evening cruises. They act like notes and measures in a musical composition. All the other illuminations and water features on the banks complete the overall composition and appear like musical sequences and recurrent themes.

The coloured lighting system installed on the banks can be dimmed and controlled by a computer in order to modify the intensity of light or change the colors of the mist of light. At the beginning of the night, the level of light is higher and waves of light run along the banks, simulating the flow of the river. Around 10pm, the level of light is dimmed and the lighting effects become static. After midnight, the mist of light can be shut off to preserve the tranquility of the neighbourhood.
The coloured nightscape can change in accordance with the seasons, offering tourists different coloured night scenes.

The pedestrian and tree lighting is static as a security measure for the promenades on the banks after dark. The trees are naturally changing all year long so their illuminated images will also change, without any additional artifice.

Boat trips on the Grand Canal from the two farthest wharfs are 10 kilometres long. Along the way, tourists and visitors will be able to discover and admire a nighttime view of illuminated features of different sizes e.g. pavilions, pagodas, traditional teahouse, old factories, modern wharf, bridges, piles, canal intersections, trees, statues etc. In addition, the Grand Canal nightscape will be highlighted and animated in particular places where all these features come together to create complete beautiful night scenes and where the banks are linked to the nearby urban environment in terms of tourist attractions, commercial premises and places to visit. The special use of these highlights gives density and balance to the long boat trip.
One of these highlights, a 300-metre long site called Ying Yue (“reflections of the moon” in Chinese), located on the North Bank of the Grand Canal in the inner centre of the city, has been chosen as the first concrete example of the Grand Canal Lighting Master Plan.
Located on one of the intersections with a smaller canal, crossed by a beautiful old bridge surmounted by a stunning pagoda, the site hosts a delightful park and some traditional Chinese pavilions that were recently renewed by the authorities and that are very much appreciated by the local people at nighttime.

To examine the feasibility of the 10km lighting master plan, to ensure the details in the design and the right selection of the lighting fixtures, lighting up a mock-up area is generally the most effective way. This mock up method is rare in China, but with the help of Zhongtai team, the client accepted the idea.

From the first design of the mock up to its realisation, it took only two months (it would have been at least one year in any European countries to do so). During this period, the Zhongtai team (designers, logistician, technicians, and engineers) came to the site hundreds of times, in order to confirm the lighting position, to design the right products, to find manufacturers, to make and test samples, to adjust and set up fixtures on site.

The new lighting of Ying Yue has totally transformed the night view of the site for the benefit of the visitors but it has also brought an original and playful ambiance at night, to the delight of the local people.

Photos and renderings:
copyright Concepto & Zhongtaï


Grand Canal Grand Canal Grand Canal
  • Grand Canal
Related Articles


Follow us on…

Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Twitter Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Facebook Follow Mondo Arc Magazine on Linked In

mondo arc india

darc awards DWLF IALD PLDC LRO