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Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Issue 50 Aug / Sep 2009 : Architectural : Façade



Abu Dhabi’s royal family may have made Manchester City the richest football club in the world, but there has been another project they have just completed much closer to home. Paul James visited Abu Dhabi to take a look.


Nothing prepares you for your first sight of the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nayhan Mosque (let’s call it the Grand Mosque from now on) in Abu Dhabi. I was in a taxi travelling from the airport to the city centre when the huge structure came into view. I was rather embarrassed having asked the taxi driver if one of the rather more modest mosques we had aleady passed was that of the grand variety. “You will know when you see it,” the driver told me. How right he was. And this was during the day! A major national religious building, it was built for the people of Abu Dhabi as a monument to their beloved ruler and principal United Arab Emirates architect, Sheikh Zayed, who passed away before the building was completed.

The Grand Mosque is exceptional and imposing in every respect. Clad in marble and gold mosaic with each of four minarets rising to a height of 107 metres, with an 80 metre tall main dome, the more than 22,000 sqm building is the third largest mosque in the world and already one of the world’s landmark religious structures, accommodating over 30,000 worshippers.

Monumental in stature and awe-inspiring to behold, the client, Abu Dhabi’s Department of Municipalities and Agriculture, understandably sought an equally inspiring yet culturally appropriate illumination scheme. Consequently they approached award-winning architectural lighting firm Speirs and Major Associates (SaMA) in 2004 to create lighting designs for the interior and exterior – two related concepts.

But it is at night that the mosque really comes alive. The building’s evening presence was very important to the client and in keeping with the significance of the project more than a simple floodlighting solution was sought.

“The original approved concept was defined as the Paths of the Star. The idea was to track the orbits of stars in the night sky across the building. The result was a series of overlapped and interconnecting point source arcs that would appear to connect together from certain view points,” SaMA Director Keith Bradshaw explains. “The design reached detail stage and coordinates were plotted in 3d for the building. The client then became concerned that the building would not be properly defined and immediately recognisable from such cerebral lighting design. They then asked us to develop the design to a slightly adjusted brief.”

“The approach we took was to link the external lighting concept to the lunar cycle, the lunar cycle being what sets the Islamic calendar,” Bradshaw continues. “We used the moon cycle as an inspiration to connect the building to the sky so that the building reflected the activity of the moon. In a full moon the building has a grey, white light similar to the feeble light we perceive on earth from the moon. Each day as the moon waxes and wanes from the full moon the building becomes darker and bluer so that at the point of the new moon the building is in its deepest blue state. In addition we used the enigmatic vision of clouds moving across the moon to provide another layered effect onto the building, enforcing this idea of the building as a reflection of the moon.”

Interestingly, in mid-2005 SaMA brought in two companies much more versed in the art of entertainment lighting to create the effect - Martin Professional and ETC.

The installation comprises more than 400 Martin Exterior 1200 Image Projectors, nearly 500 Exterior 200 luminaires, 248 Inground 200 uplights and 56 Exterior 600 luminaires. The IP65 and IP67 rated fixtures operate in an environment where summer temperatures routinely reach 50°C. Supply of the Martin Exteriors was through Martin Professional’s local representative, Martin Middle East, who project managed the exterior lighting install in collaboration with Martin’s Danish-based headquarters office.

ETC, through their Middle East distributor Oasis Enterprises, supplied 21 Congo Light Servers and 15 Unison processors. 17 custom-built equipment racks and 52 customised dimming racks contain almost 2,300 circuits - Relays, SCR- and Martix Mk II Sinewave dimming - which, along with the Martin fixtures, are controlled via 276 ETC Net3 DMX/RDM Gateways. Status and error messages from the racks and fixtures are passed back to the database server where a custom-built fault reporting system provides feedback to the Grand Mosque maintenance operators.

“The building exhibits a high level of religious refinement yet is also of civic importance,” says Bradshaw. “It sits up on a plateau against the sky with nothing on the same scale around it which gives it something very extraordinary.”

Exterior lighting challenges were as large as the building itself. SaMA considered the type of equipment necessary to fulfill the ambitious lighting scheme and first looked into big projectors. “We were sure we were going to do something with a limited use of colour but not full colour mixing,” states Bradshaw. “While we were still working out what tones of colour and what type of projection we wanted, we thought we’d get some Martin theatre kit down there and eventually did a large scale mock up that was really well organised by Martin Middle East personnel using MAC 2000s.

“We learned a lot about the projection, the intensity, the texture we wanted to use and ultimately came back with an idea of the clouds moving across the moon, streaming in a west to east direction from Mecca.”

Essentially, the look SaMA wanted was a MAC 2000 effect in regards to both power and projection and talks began about putting a MAC 2000 in a weatherproof housing. But because of the environment and excessive heat, that wasn’t the optimal choice.

SaMA was looking for a robust exterior fixture capable of projection and animation and, not coincidentally, a large Exterior series fixture with a 1200W lamp was on top of Martin’s priority list.

Working with SaMA, Martin developed the required specification for the project, taking into account experiences gained from two initial Exterior 1200 projects.

“The Grand Mosque project became the reason to take the idea forward,” states Jesper Lauridsen, Design & Application Manager at Martin’s headquarter office in Aarhus, Denmark. “Working closely with SaMA to understand what they required, we translated their idea and vision into an actual lighting solution, ensuring that the product could do the job. I believe our leading position in merging technology into the requirements of the architectural market was an important factor for them.”

With a high level of technology integration as well as the maintenance requirements of a project of this magnitude, Martin’s experience, support and international presence was vital. Grand Mosque representatives, including the main engineer, electrical manager and head of electrical engineering, visited Martin’s headquarter office and main factory in Denmark and came away confident that Martin could handle such a large project.

Competent local representation was important as well with Martin Middle East handling a number of key roles – lighting system integration, commissioning, and installation supervision – as well as local expertise that included dialogue with the client and other local contacts.

Martin had to go through an extraordinary process of approval and testing, showing that every component of the Exterior 1200 could cope with an ambient temperature of plus 60 degrees Celsius. Bradshaw explains: “Most often when we do performance specifications for jobs in the desert we talk about operation for an hour at a temperature of plus 45 degrees. You have to show that there is no degradation on the components of the fixture at that temperature. Martin had layers of engineers on this and in the end it was a specification so good we knew it would never be beaten. Everything they threw at it the Martin guys proved it could cope with it. It was a very live process. Even the way the components work inside – they come in and out like a filing cabinet - it’s very maintenance friendly.”

With over 1200 Martin products on the project, SaMA was also looking for luminaires that had a feedback management system to facilitate maintenance across the building. “The importance of the fault reporting system for us was critical,” Speirs says. “The reporting process to help the maintenance team was important to make sure the building looks good every night without relying on considerable numbers of people crawling over the building every evening making sure that everything works properly. We wanted to have the confidence that this building would look as good as it does now for years in the future without having an army of people looking after it.”

The improved data communication of RDM systems give several benefits, most notably faster, more efficient service and a reduction in repairs and downtime resulting in substantial savings in time and costs.
Firstly, a week was spent testing on a model at the ETC headquarters in the USA where three Congo control desks were used to capture data.
David Gray, who headed the project for ETC (he enjoyed working on the project so much he has since joined Oasis Enterprises!), comments: “Realising design in a virtual world meant we discovered things we wouldn’t have known about until it was too late. The process saved a lot of time.”

Then, in 2007, a full scale mock up using the Exterior 1200 and the ETC Congo control system was conducted in which the fixtures ran for several days. “We learned a lot,” Bradshaw states. “It’s all very well to come up with a simple idea for a cloud animation across a building, but because it’s such a three dimensional building, to get the real effect of that to work close and far away was very tough.”

Focus sheets were used to ensure the fixtures were pointing in exactly the right place, with rifle sights giving the positioning even more precision. “Programming was the biggest challenge,” states Gray. “Proving that an entertainment control system could work in an architectural environment was what really excited me.”

Sarah Clausen, ETC’s controls product manager, comments: “We brought four Congo control desks to the site, and had sheds built on each corner of the building, so each position could see at least two sides of the building at once. A second programmer and I could connect any of those desks as a client to any of the three Congo Light Servers controlling the various portions of the rig.

“We took the control desks with us when we left the site - the system is designed to run fully automatically, so there was no need for the mosque to be left with unnecessarily complicated control interfaces. The Light Servers run the different lighting scenes, taking cues from a purpose-built lunar clock program to determine which colour show should run and an ETC Unison architectural control system which uses an astronomical time clock to keep track of the sunset and sunrise times.”

One of the many challenges was to create well balanced architectural lighting with good emphasis, good reveal of the texture, and integrated details on such a large scale. All facades, domes and minarets are lit in layers of projection with Martin Exterior 600s and 200s doing the close in work while the Exterior 1200s colour from further back.

The illumination consists of two layers of lighting, the first layer building mounted to light the lower dome areas and surfaces. The bases of all the domes are lit by a ring of Martin Exterior 200s with Martin Inground 200s at the base of some of the facades to wash light on the lower portions. Exterior 200s and a variant of the Exterior 600 light many of the vertical surfaces – the external face of the main prayer hall for example.

The second layer involves Exterior 1200s set back from the building and mounted on 22 ‘totems’ - glass reinforced concrete and steel towers - all around the building. Each totem is 17 metres tall with up to 13 Exterior 1200s. The first two metres consists of an ETC air conditioned control rack. On top of that are the Exterior 1200s vertically stacked. There are fans inside the totems to help dissipate heat.

“We were involved in the design of the totems as far as how to make them look appropriate,” Bradshaw explains. “They are quite large but when you put them against the building not only do they fit in with the design but the scale is appropriate.” SaMA strove to hide all the luminaires used on the building but the scale of the project did not always make that possible.

The 360 degree lighting scheme is designed to connect visitors to the lunar cycle, the building becoming as varied, life like and animated as the moon itself. Projected shadows of clouds and variations of light intensity add to a strong sense of the moon, connecting the building to the moon, the earth to the sky.

“We wanted the building to breath with the moon,” SaMA Director Jonathan Speirs explains. “In the same way that the moon impacts the tide, we wanted the moon to have an impact on the building.”

The Exterior 1200s project images of clouds at variable speeds in an animation that clears across the building from west to east from the direction of Mecca. Cloud shadows animate subtly across the main prayer hall, over and down the domes, and along the inner face of the building.

“A cloud is a non-linear thing and when you come up with this simple idea of a cloud it sounds great,” Bradshaw says, “but to actually make it look like a cloud and get the scale correct, it was a real tough one. We’re basically lighting every surface with multiple projections into the big domed areas, and the layering of the cloud texture is fantastic. It’s a standard gobo effect, but when we use it layered up it looks exactly as we wanted. One thing we noticed, when you’re close to the building the sense of animation is quicker than when you’re a few kilometres away. The scale of the animation speed changes.

“The concept is apparently simple, but as with most things to achieve a simple effect it is very complicated. Matching the animation across 3d planes which could be viewed from all angles was particularly difficult.  We were keen to remove as much glare as possible by focusing light at least 10° upwards, but this is difficult in some of the very long throws.”

Although it is very much an animated project, the cloud animation runs very slowly. “The whole point of the lighting isn’t to say ‘look how clever we can be with the lighting’ – it’s meant to be fairly magical. It’s the same with the interior, it’s a magical experience and because the scale is so vast it’s quite an affecting experience. It’s been quite incredible to be part of it,” Bradshaw states.

So, seeing as specification for the project began four years ago, would they have done anything differently? The use of LEDs perhaps?

“Interestingly, although we specified the project in 2005 there are very few technologies that we would change,” states Bradshaw. “We considered several LED solutions at the time of specification but either performance or cost kept it out of the project. In many ways we have used a lot of very simple lighting solutions but the composition and balance of effects is very carefully considered to get the best impact.  I can’t say that I have seen a new technology solution that I feel we missed out on or would have helped.”


Pics: Allan Toft, Martin Professional

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