What do the new grand mosque in Abu Dhabi, a snaking bridge in Kew Gardens and Beijing Capital International airport’s new terminal have in common? Each project has felt the lighting touch of Speirs and Major Associates, with bespoke lighting design forming an integral part.
Speirs and Major Associates started in 1993 as a working association between Jonathan Speirs and Mark Major – both architects by training – and has developed into a well-established concern with a huge range of architectural lighting projects under its belt, from retail to airports and public spaces to hotels, with budgets ranging from five figures into the millions.
The Major half of the business is based in London, with Speirs residing in Edinburgh. Major originally started out as a painter,followed by a degree in architecture, but sometimes found the latter ‘a little dry’. Lighting design presented the perfect solution. ‘It seemed a very natural coming together of the two areas for me,’ he explains. ‘Illuminating an environment seemed more creative – not to say that architecture is not creative, but it requires an enormous amount of patience, whereas lighting can be very immediate.’
When approaching a new project, collaboration with the architect is vital, says Major, and the lighting should be as integrated as possible. ‘Great lighting design is not about walking into a space and saying, “What great lighting”. What you should do is walk into a space and say, “What a great space”,’ he adds. ‘We tend to look at the big picture, with a lot of strategic thinking.’
Speirs and Major Associates is not just called on for new buildings; designing lighting for historic houses is also an important part of its portfolio, requiring a slightly different approach. ‘When approaching a historic building, we point out that whatever we do, we will place an interpretation on it,’ explains Major. ‘Early historic buildings would have been designed to be seen under candlelight; before the 1900s, lighting had to be incredibly pragmatic.’ Recent projects include a ‘lighting vision’ for the redevelopment of London’s King’s Cross, with elements such as illuminating the existing industrial heritage and lighting the towpath on Regent’s Canal. Last year, Foster & Partners’ Dolder Grand Hotel opened in Zurich, Switzerland, with lighting ranging from the exterior of the part-medieval former fortress to balancing the old and new architecture internally and integrating artificial light with wildly differing daylight conditions. Such projects highlight perfectly the flexibility of lighting design, says Major. ‘You can create a series of different atmospheres. We see light as very organic, something that can change if appropriate.’
Over the past 20 years, lighting design has come into its own, partly due to a change in attitude by the general public as well as public bodies, says Major. ‘A lot of our clients and the public have grown to understand that lighting is a fairly easy “win” – you can do an awful lot and change the perception of an area quite substantially with relatively limited funds,’ he explains.
Coupled with the public’s growing demand for spaces that are enjoyable in the hours of darkness too, this perception has made the lighting designer much more sought after. And even with the current economic climate, there is plenty of work. ‘In the last recession, clients tended to continue commissioning lighting projects,’ says Major. ‘In a downturn, there is a role for lighting; it’s something relatively easy to achieve when budgets are tight.’
As for the debate about sustainable energy, light pollution and the future of lighting design, Major stresses the importance of harnessing new technologies, such as organic LEDs. ‘The future is about using light in a very intelligent way,’ he says. Talk of ‘the death of the lighting designer’ is daft, he adds. ‘This is absolutely not the death of the lighting designer, because we need people who will handle light intelligently – safeguard it, guarantee that it produces the results that you want and make sure it isn’t creating an environmental impact – more than ever,’ he says.