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Skylon, London, England

Issue 41 Feb / Mar 2008 : Retail : Restaurant


Andrew Howis of Speirs and Major Associates explains the design behind the lighting scheme at the new Skylon restaurant at London’s Royal Festival Hall

Over the past decade, London’s South Bank has been transformed from an urban desert into a thriving cultural and recreational centre.  Instrumental in this change have been some major architectural projects including the construction of the London Eye, the Hungerford Bridge and, most recently, the refurbishment of an icon of post-war architecture, the Royal Festival Hall.
With the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall has come the launch of a new restaurant, Skylon, by D&D London (formerly Conran & Partners), taking its name from the iconic Moya & Powell sculpture sited close by during the Festival of Britain in 1951.
The restaurant is situated in the space in the Royal Festival Hall formerly occupied by the People’s Palace. The room is impressive: 35m long, 15m wide and, at its highest, 8.5m and, with the entire river-facing façade being glazed, it affords views over the river possibly unrivalled by any other public space in the capital. 
D&D London assembled a design team consisting of Conran & Partners (interior design) and Speirs & Major Associates (lighting), to whom they delivered a simple brief: to create a sophisticated, relaxing and intimate restaurant and bar.
Whilst the architecture and views are undoubtedly the greatest assets of the space, they also posed the greatest challenges to the design team. 
For Speirs & Major Associates, these challenges were considerable:
The huge area of glazing meant that daylight would have a massive influence on their design, requiring the use of daylight control measures, careful consideration of the colour temperature of the artificial lighting and sophisticated control programming to balance the natural and artificial lighting.  It was also recognised that the windows would tend to become mirrors after dark and so the design would have to minimise veiling reflections to maintain the river views.
The voluminous space was the antithesis of intimate and so the lighting design in combination with the interior design would somehow need to create an illusion of intimacy.
As the restaurant was situated within a Grade I listed building, the lighting design had to be sensitive to the 1950s, modernist architecture.
The centrepieces of the lighting, and indeed the restaurant, are the five chandeliers. These were a collaborative design between Speirs & Major Associates and Conran & Partners, and were manufactured by Mike Stoane Lighting.  The chandeliers reference forms and materials found in the Royal Festival Hall architecture and use a combination of a polished central ring and an array brushed metal fins to achieve a sense of lightness and elegance that belies their immense size and weight.
The chandeliers are clearly visible from many vantage points around the South Bank area and essentially form the external identity of the restaurant.  However, in addition to their contribution to the look of the restaurant, the chandeliers also perform several key functions:
Hung at a mid height, they subdivide the space creating the feeling of a much lower ceiling for diners, but their hollow elliptical form ensures that they do not have an overbearing presence. The chandeliers have been installed on electric winches which allow the suspension height to be changed in different seasons – lower in the winter to create a cosier atmosphere and higher in summer to lend an airier feel.
The chandeliers also provide a significant proportion of the functional lighting. They uplight the soffit, that is particularly important in improving the appearance of the restaurant on gloomy days. They also provide significant levels of downlighting, which has allowed the amount of downlighting in the ceiling to be reduced.
In order to provide very warm lighting in the evening but also to balance natural light during the day, two different colours of light were used inside the chandeliers. Neutral white light creates a warm appearance under daylight that is then cross-faded to an amber colour over the early evening. Cold cathode (supplied by Direct Neon) was used for its ability to produce the colours, to accommodate the elliptical shape and for its energy efficiency.
The same two cold cathode colours have been replicated in several locations to create continuity across the restaurant. The soffit of the office overlooking the restaurant is visible to diners and so has been uplit to avoid detracting from the ambience. Below the office, an alcove above the wine display is also highlighted using cold cathode so that it contributes to the external image of the restaurant. An illuminated slot has been introduced into a downstand to the rear of the restaurant to uplight a raised section of soffit. In the backs of the banquettes, back-illuminated frosted glass panels have been used to emphasise the horizontal subdivision of the space.
Further subdivision of the space was provided by the back bar which was highlighted by uplighting using cool white LEDs (supplied by NJO Lighting) inset into shelves, which give the spirits a ghostly purple appearance when viewed against the amber general lighting. The restaurant lighting design was not just considered in isolation, its impact on the external appearance of the rest of the north west elevation of the Royal Festival Hall was also considered.  As a consequence the columns throughout the space have been gently downlight in common with all the columns visible through the river-facing façade. In the restaurant, lighting was omitted on the column edges and minimised or tightly controlled on any other surfaces facing the glazing in order to reduce veiling reflections.
The final component of the lighting design was a variety of different low level lighting elements intended to increase the sense of intimacy by focussing the attention of diners at a human level. These included candles and oil lamps on the tables, bar front lighting, table lamps and a line of custom-designed fixtures (also by Mike Stoane Lighting) along the window ledge that align with the window mullions to emphasis the rhythm of the façade without impeding views.
Considerable effort was expended on the design and programming of the control system (supplied by Dynalite). Whilst the concept of using neutral white light during the day gradually fading across to amber light in the evening is a simple one, getting the right colour balance and intensity levels for different weather conditions and to compensate for the large seasonal changes in light quality and sunset times required logic programming to be conceived and programmed specifically for the project. 
The overall effect of the lighting and interior designs combined allows Skylon to sit easily within the Royal Festival Hall, a position from which it seems set to become the South Bank’s premiere dining destination.

Due to the extensive influence of daylight, this lighting scheme required sophisticated lighting controls that would be responsive to the changing ambient light conditions. To suit this requirement Speirs and Major chose Dynalite to design and commission a sophisticated system that would be able to cater for the restaurant’s complex scene setting, as well as being able to control the Venetian blinds that had been specifically designed to replicate those that had originally adorned the windows. These were required to reduce the level of bright sunlight within the restaurant, whilst still retaining the benefit of natural light.
The Dynalite lighting control system was set up to produce different scenes which are linked to a time clock that gradually lowers the level of lighting to a preset level during the course of the day and then automatically takes over and changes the set scenes at the required times to suit the different moods for day-time or night-time dinning. This change is so gradual that it goes unnoticed by the restaurant customers.
To enable the system to change the light settings, without the need for human intervention, Dynalite utilised an astronomical clock. This ensures that the chosen scene for a particular time of day correctly corresponds with the daylight conditions relating to the season. This is set by longitude and latitude so that it knows its exact location and can therefore accurately identify when the sun comes up and when it goes down taking into account daylight savings. By programming the system using conditional logic commands, the engineers were able to automatically trigger events throughout the day that accurately correspond with the seasonal variations.
The system is also able to compensate for daylight by using light level sensors. When the bright light reaches a certain level it triggers the sensors that automatically turn off the column downlighting and the luminaries near the windows, thereby reducing any unnecessary energy consumption.
“We gave the customer complete control over the system by featuring a touch screen control panel which included a manual over-ride. This allows set programmes to be tweaked as and when required,” said Philip Hardy, Dynalite’s commissioning engineer. “It gives the customers a huge variety of functions, including the control for the Venetian blinds. The user interface was kept very simple, but the electronics behind it was extremely complex. The light sensors are designed to monitor the daylight and adjust the level of lighting according to whether the natural light level is bright or dull. This part of the system is disabled during night hours, allowing the time control to take over the set scenes. In doing so, it makes full use of this control to ensure that the correct scenes are selected to suit the time of year.”



Photographs: Tim Soar Photography

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