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Alternative illumination; Conceptual Lighting

Issue 65 Feb / Mar 2012

Neil Musson of MacKay Design Studio investigates the benefits of involving an artist in the development of lighting schemes.

We know that lighting has the power to change public perception of a building or a place but how do we ensure that the light provides maximum impact on increasingly stretched budgets? As lighting technology advances apace, especially where solid state is concerned, more building projects are taking advantage of the opportunity to brand with light. A gap has opened which will soon be filled with new and original lighting installations; at present this gap is open for artists and designers to explore and as public expectation grows, this is an exciting time for those focused on using light in a new and creative way.

My experience is that quality lighting solutions start with a vision; not resources, not technical capability, not budget, not even environmental concerns, but with aesthetic vision.

This article examines core ingredients of original and appropriate illumination from the perspective of the artist using light as a medium... where art meets design. Classifications that label individuals as ‘artist’ or ‘designer’ are often less than helpful in progressing dialogue within a building project. In reality the two constantly cross over and some may argue that applying labels such as art and design is a dated and restrictive mode of thought. However, there is a distinct difference in approach between these two labels which needs to be understood to get the most out of any collaboration.

One premise that forms a solid starting point is that successful lighting works in harmony with its environment. This does not necessarily mean that it should blend with its location but that it should have an intrinsic relationship with it. Common sense, perhaps, but often main stream solutions appear as disparate elements existing purely for the sake of light. Public artwork should not be a ‘bolt-on extra’ but an integral part of architectural planning. The sooner the artist is employed in a project, the greater the impact and significance of their contribution.

Collaboration between architects and artists has the potential to herald results that are greater than the sum of the two parts; surely a very good reason to encourage dialogue early enough to explore the range of benefits.

Based on years of experience lighting buildings, bridges and public spaces, artist Nayan Kulkarni suggests: “Mix it up. Get as many people (designers, clients, users, stakeholders) thinking about light right from the beginning.” This conversational approach has the positive effect of challenging not just the clients but the artist as well and blurring boundaries between different stake holders.

So if boundaries between art and design are blurred what is the difference and does it matter anyway? One answer is that the artist uses his chosen materials to communicate a concept or meaning while the designer finds a solution to a defined problem or brief. The focus, or reason, for creating is therefore different.

If art is about meaning, then we have to ask whether meaning is important in an architectural context. After all, how much does meaning matter to people walking though an illuminated high street or into a beautifully lit foyer? Surely the fact that the space looks good and functions well is enough? This maybe so, but what if the ‘meaning’ – the artistic concept – was the catalyst that brought about that beauty and originality through a process of investigation and communication.

Here is the point at which the artist may be seen to have a different approach and here is where we find the hazy line between art and design; to use light rather than to design it and to make technology fit a vision rather than the converse. The artist’s mode of thought is to create an artwork beyond the restrictions of a brief and expand creative project vision through dialogue between architects, designers and users.

Kulkarni goes on to say: “Often, ‘artwork’ is used loosely to describe aesthetic lighting elements that fulfil non functional, façade, spatial animation and enhancement. This is not to say that the work I see is not beautiful, spectacular or engaging. Rather, it does not occupy the critical space of contemporary art. I guess that over the last fifteen years or so a hybrid space of art/design production has emerged.

Artist’s and designer’s practices have extended out from core disciplinary boundaries. Unfortunately the general critical and discursive languages and methods have not kept up pace. Conferences, articles and papers have often examined the interdisciplinarity and collaboration with much less said about the nature of hybridity in practice. So we seem to still have the binary of the visual arts discourse and the design discourse as a kind of platform. I am surprised by how often I have been challenged to situate projects in a camp (architecture, lighting design, contemporary art). This means that the reality of practice which is a more fluid journey between ideas, contexts and places is more difficult to articulate.”

Acknowledging ‘hybridity’ of practice is important as it allows us to view artwork in its more immediate context of illuminated form rather than examining it as a separate element of a bigger project. If the context of art is a gallery space then the artwork exists for its own sake but if the context is a public space then that space shapes the manner of viewing, or experiencing, the artwork. It is the combination of all surrounding elements from surface materials to weather conditions to sound and movement that form the momentary atmosphere of the light effect.

Naturally, a strong connection between architecture and illumination is important but how far can this be pushed during those initial conversations about lighting? Some of the most exciting lighting installations have been where both structure and illumination share equal importance in the final aesthetic. In such a case, the artistic concept exists for the sake of both the lighting and the building. Here again we find the hybrid of art and design; depth of concept and functional delivery meeting a brief. The ultimate success may be regarded as light becoming architecture. The gradual transition from daylight to dark is fully utilised when creative lighting transforms the very structure of a building rather than just illuminating it; the building is not illuminated – illumination becomes the building.

Conceptual and lateral thinking also play an important role in questioning the way we apply lighting in more every-day scenarios. We are exploring new technologies and we should use them differently. Too often the full potential of new lighting products is limited by consumer resistance to change. Communication of meaning through light helps us to reinvent the way we think about lighting. So many light fittings are developed to look, feel and behave like those of previous technologies; there is an onus on artists and designers to challenge the way in which we think about our lit environments and to present lifestyle alternatives.

The sublime installations of artist James Turrell remind us that this is equally true of natural light. There is a strength in simplicity and directness of approach which is all too often overlooked in contemporary architectural lighting. Just because the potential exists to run colour changing sequences which bombard the viewer with a rainbow spectrum, it is not necessarily the route to beauty.

Jo Fairfax, who refers to himself as a ‘creative practitioner’ to encompass the breadth of his work, conjectures that it is equally important to edit and reduce elements of lighting: “In my experience often project teams do not have the courage to back an artist to the hilt, they play safe and ask for a diluted version of a proposal – by having too much or asking for modifications which can tick boxes rather than respond to a site. I think that if one is quiet enough then it is possible to hear what each site requests. The voice of a site always asks for something – even if it is saying, “please don’t place anything more here, there is enough going on, try inside the foyer, or the car park, sit down, have a cup of tea and listen....”

Kulkarni expresses a similar sentiment: “I enjoy works that give more over-successive viewings. This is about the artist intending to communicate and that those contents are worth engaging with. In the light works that I have enjoyed the most this is often about a radical approach and an unflinching simplicity in delivery.”

The true power of pure light and colour is often more clearly evident in the work of artists who do not concern themselves with function. Artist Dan Flavin pioneered a mechanism by which light can change perception of space. His fluorescent installations not only re-define their environment but also use colour to stimulate emotion and to play with the brain’s ability to define one illuminated colour next to another. Such principles and purity of ambition should be highly regarded aspects of contemporary architectural lighting. We don’t have to take a minimalist Flavin approach, but we can learn a lot from his refined use of simplicity.

MacKay Design Studio work with the philosophy that peoples’ response to the final installation must be a determining factor in concept development before restrictions such as budget and logistics are brought into play. Having defined the desired response, designs can be drawn up to create that experience with whatever resources are available.

Having recently completed a commission to produce a lighting artwork for the new City of Coventry Health Centre in the UK, I have been impressed by the openness of Sonnemann Toon Architects and Coventry Care Partnership who embraced the idea that an artist and a colour consultant should be involved in design discussions long before the groundwork begins. In this example the work holds conceptual value on several levels; being a continuation of proportional themes in the artists own work, being an expression of Coventry’s industrial heritage and being a visual response to the architecture which surrounds it.

The softly coloured artwork, ‘Now You See Me’, is sequenced to scroll gradually down the building with occasional bursts of highlight colour using a different palette every day of the week. Inspiration is taken from the famous production lines which were first developed in Coventry, hence the movement of ‘components’ of colour down the wall (along the production line). Colours for each day of the week allude to the security of the familiar (an important aspect in healthcare). Irregular shapes created by surface treatment to the wall draw attention to the linear grid like façade while interacting with projected colour to add another dimension of changeability.

Budget cuts following the initial proposal forced the challenge of realising the original concept without the resources and materials originally planned. Such changes to well laid plans are commonplace to any designer and can be turned to advantage in changing the direction of thought. Perhaps this sounds a little over optimistic but lack of control ensures that, through an element of surprise, one will gain by learning something new. To put this into extreme terms; if the outcome is fully understood before the project is complete then the making becomes a merely logistical exercise, whereas, if the outcome is uncertain, it may be very good or it may fail but it probably won’t be mediocre. Allowing and embracing risk and uncertainty in the making process establishes a dialogue between the creator and the work created and is an artistic skill inherent in most innovative designers.

In Fairfax’s lighting installation ‘180° of Light’ for Northamptonshire County Council and Anglian Water in the UK, the final aesthetic evolved as bold decisions were taken to reduce the original proposal to a single laser connecting three water towers in a giant triangle (the alchemical symbol for water). The ability to review and reduce concept content following the agreement of an initial proposal has resulted in a dramatic and powerful artwork. Fairfax reflects on the benefits of this refreshing attitude: “What I found unusual about this project was that the team of ‘non artists’ were sensitive to the voice of the site and strong in their support of a project which was now approximately one fifth of its original size. In this value for money world, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had wanted more for their buck and asked for the other architectural lighting elements to be retained or developed. In my opinion they were getting their value for money by cutting the extraneous elements because the artwork was stronger with just the lasers.”

Kulkarni’s recent lighting artwork ‘Hryre’ (the word for ‘ruin’ in Old English) is another good example of meaning driving the aesthetic. The artwork explores the medieval heritage of Chester, UK and is funded by the AHRC and Chester Renaissance. The current artwork is temporary and will be replaced by a permanent work in early 2012. Projections across the ruins at St John’s Church are formed from fragments of medieval texts which describe the city of Chester, in English, Latin and Welsh. Medieval Chester was a multi-cultural city with a rich multi-lingual culture, and these texts reflect that. As the words are projected across the uneven, fractured stonework, they take on new shapes and abstract visual forms. Some letters and words remain legible, and are designed to open up ideas and themes for reflection.

The artwork asks viewers to contemplate subjects such as ruin and memory, decay and survival, the passing of time and the idea of a spiritual, peaceful place. A remote computer controls which lights are on at any moment which means that the artwork will gently change from hour to hour and night to night revealing the different qualities of the ruins and highlighting the texts. Sometimes the work will be a bold illumination and at others a more subtle play of light, shadow and text.

These project examples demonstrate the ways in which lighting can be driven towards an unexpected visual conclusion as a result of a conceptual focus. The narrative of meaning makes communication with the public more fulfilling and presents a greater level of ownership to those that experience the lighting on a day-to-day basis. The public do not necessarily need to ‘understand’ an artist’s concept but its existence makes the process of viewing an illuminated space more significant. In discussing ‘180° of Light’ Fairfax points out that “we kept publicity to a minimum and people wanted to explore the event for themselves – it worked well that they weren’t told what it was, it gave room for them to discover and relate to the piece on their terms. Their imaginations had room to roam.”

Whatever label is applied to an individual or a company, the difference in priority and project approach can be very positive if rules and preconceptions are broken as a result of adherence to the meaning behind a concept; to focus on quality of light and not quantity of light; simplicity in communication rather than interactivity for its own sake.

Original design emerges out of lateral thinking and this, in turn, is enhanced by exploring diverse opinions. So much is possible with advanced control systems and, consequently, the need to monitor what is truly appropriate and sensitive to each situation is greater than ever.

Too many mainstream installations are lighting for the sake of light and we need to be careful that we do not replace current light pollution with equally inappropriate effects. Kulkarni suggests that we “use all of the means we have to control artificial light. There is no reason why the nocturnal experience of space and place cannot be as rhythmic and complex as the daylight expression.”


‘180° of Light’, 2011 by Jo Fairfax (Image: Andrew Hilton)

  • ‘Hryre’, 2011 by Nayan Kulkarni (Image: David Heke)

  • ‘Now You See Me’, Coventry, UK, 2011 by MacKay Design Studio

  • James Turrell, Caisse des Depots et Consignation, Paris (Image: George Fessy, Oeuvre Lumineuse)

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