Architecture & design

Light Show

Ever more architects are incorporating cutting-edge lighting technologies into the very core of their projects. We talk to partners from IBA, Arup Lighting and Cinimod Design Studio to find out how architects and lighting designers are balancing new technical possibilities against a taste for restraint.

At 600 metres high, the Canton Tower in Guangzhou, China, was always going to dominate the skyline. One of the tallest buildings in the world, the shape is unmistakable – a hyperboloid structure far removed from most towers’ boxy linearity. With its curved, slender frame, cinched in the middle, it is locally known as the ‘supermodel’.

Visit by day, however, and you’ll only feel half the impact. Once the sun sets, the exterior gleams with light, a vivid kaleidoscope of colour that streams from the whole surface. Sometimes pink, sometimes blue, often striped, the precise shades change frequently, as candy-bright as a fairground ride and visible for miles around.

“We designed the Tower as a beacon for the city,  something that would give the people of Guangzhou something to be proud of, to aspire to,” says Mark Hemel, partner at Dutch architectural firm IBA. “And the lighting of course has an important role to play.”

The building, technically aided by Arup Lighting, is one of the most striking recent examples of architectural lighting in action. More than just an add-on, the lighting is incorporated into the very fabric of the building, with 7,000 light emitting diodes (LEDs) illuminating the structure from within.

“Since these LED models have been on the market, we have enormously benefitted from a new freedom in lighting design,” says Simone Collon, Europe lighting leader at Arup. “An LED can be seen as a single pixel module, so you can create matrixes and assemble these pixels in any shape you want. Light has become an architectural material.”

For most of their history, LEDs were confined to laboratory equipment and household devices, their utility severely constrained by their price. In recent years, however, as the medium has grown cheaper and more efficient, architects have begun to tap a rich seam of potential applications.

Fresh ideas

Just 10 years ago, when Collon started work at Arup, media façades were still something of a novelty. An early project of hers, the Galleria Fashion Store in Seoul, was commonly cited as breaking new ground.

“The building previously had a bare concrete façade, which we retrofitted,” she explains. “All of a sudden, there was a luminous surface glowing, radiating the character of the building to the people. Now it’s the talk of the town, popping up in tourist guides.”

An architect by training, Collon went on to work on projects such as GreenPix (a zero-energy media façade in Beijing); the Sheikh Zayek Bridge in Abu Dhabi (colour-coded to convey the spirit of local festivities); and the Star Place mall in Kaohsiung (frittered glass illuminated with the themes of the passing seasons).

At present, she has two projects underway in the Yongsan development in Seoul. The first, a residential tower with a media feature, will move away from abstract light washes and towards pictorial content – carpets of cherry blossoms, and Korean contemporary poetry in white script.

Another tower, taller still than its Guangzhou forebear, will visualise nature through light. Powered by photovoltaic cells, it will not only reflect natural fluctuations, but use them for energy; its night-time luminosity depending on levels of sun that day.

“Lighting is a very powerful tool,” enthuses Collon. “More and more clients and architects have become aware that if you hire an independent lighting designer, it can hugely increase the quality of space.”

Viable options

It’s a trend from which multidisciplinary practice Cinimod has benefited. Combining art with architecture with product design, the firm has been able to gain a lateral view of the possibilities at every scale.

“I’m a big believer that, in general, the architecture profession and the lighting profession don’t talk together soon enough on big projects,” says Cinimod founder Dominic Harris. “It’s something we actively try to change. My preferred point of involvement is quite early on so we have a chance to achieve the most seamless and beautiful results.”

His practice is perhaps best known for its work on the Peru national football stadium, in which the entire façade became an interactive media surface. Aiming to reify the excitement of the crowd, the firm installed sensors to map noise levels inside the stadium. This information is fed into a computer programme, which renders the prevailing mood in the form of a lighting display.

In projects such as this, artistic and technical considerations are inextricable, with today’s crop of lighting designers breaking bounds on either count. “I think we quite routinely push the technology far and hard,” says Harris. “When we’re conceiving a project, we don’t just use what is already on the market. Instead we will challenge the big suppliers to make bespoke products, and sometimes make our own. I do not believe that on the concept or artistic side we should be limited by technical constraints.”

One new technology in the pipeline is organic LEDs (OLEDs), a flat, wafer-thin layer which can be used to coat any material. Based not on pixels but on a single, flexible surface, these look set to attain commercial viability within the next five years. Applications as leftfield as glowing wallpaper would seem to be close at hand.

Future proof

The big question for the future, in fact, may not be so much what can be achieved, as what ought to be achieved. As lighting applications grow ever more multifarious, designers will need to pay heed to their impact on the built environment. After all, the downside of omnipresent lighting façades is surely the potential for overkill: the tipping point between boldness and a clamour of visual noise.

Take Hong Kong, in which building after brightly-coloured building projects a Babel of light. Media façades blazon advertising messages, each surface competing with the next to grab the spectator’s attention. For many visitors, the effect is sheer aesthetic cacophony.

Elsewhere in the world, not least Europe, there is a clear trend towards sustainability and restraint. “I think that for modern lighting designers, working with colour-changing LEDs, we have a social responsibility to prevent our urban environment becoming awash with non-stop colour-changing rainbow façades,” says Harris. “I spend a lot of time working with our clients to explore what else can be done with this wonderful technology.”

Collon concurs. “There’s a tendency visible these days that less is more. Nowadays, we’re reducing colours, not having buildings change from pink to green to blue within one minute. That’s not something people want to see.”

Of course, statements about visual preference fall under the banner of cultural contingency, and Collon concedes that the Canton Tower was geared towards specifically Chinese tastes. Built to open in time for the 2010 Asian Games, the tower constituted a key component of the host city’s regeneration, with the final say over its colour scheme falling to the authorities.

“The city had a direct interest in interfering in what you see,” says Mark Hemel. “I see its current appearance more as a temporary statement, influenced by the local authorities directly, than it is a statement of our design intentions.”

IBA and Arup between them had intended to create something white and simple, luminous and contrastive. “We wanted to make the building resemble an afterimage,” expands Collon. “During daytime, if you look at the tower and then close your eyes, you see a beautiful glowing structure. This gave us the idea to integrate lighting fixtures into the design.”

While their plan for the infrastructure did survive, the versatility of their chosen medium turned out to be their undoing. Crucially, because each of the LEDs is individually controllable, the diodes function as a blank canvas – you can project pearlescent subtlety or rainbow pageantry according to whim. Needless to say, once local designers had been drafted in, local preferences won out.

Freedom of choice

Hemel, surveying his somewhat compromised handiwork, sounds a note of caution. “LEDs have an enormous advantage in that you can do anything with them, but to me that connects with the difficulties at the same time,” he says. “It’s great that there are more possibilities, but you have to find the artistic freedom to decide what not to use.”

As further technological obstacles are overcome, these words supply an important guiding principle. If the last decade in lighting has demonstrated anything, it is surely that LEDs have an extraordinary effect on their environment. Monument to frustrated potential or otherwise, the Canton Tower’s visual sway over Guangzhou is clear.

“Light has an enormous impact on people,” says Collon, who envisages an almost limitless scope for future innovation. “It’s often underestimated how much it can change the atmosphere of a space.”

This feature appears in the June 2012 edition of LEAF Review

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