Lighten up

Outdoor illumination is an increasing presence in urban spaces, but designers are working hard to complement structures rather than obstruct or overwhelm them with inappropriate schemes. Anna Richardson checks out the latest developments

Lighting design cast off its ‘niche’ tag long ago, stepping resolutely into the mainstream. Outdoor lighting, especially, has become a growth area: urban spaces are increasingly popular, and, with the growth of public expectations, the role of the lighting designer is becoming ever more important.

There will always be practical considerations, such as vandalism, light spill, emergency lighting and safety, but the creative possibilities of the outdoor stage are equally important. According to designer Bruce Munro, artists such as James Turrell, Dan Flavin and Ingo Maurer have had a great influence on the perception and understanding of light. Mark Major of Speirs and Major Associates, meanwhile, says, ‘The scope for outdoor lighting projects has grown enormously, alongside an increasing trend in architecture and environmental design to recapture the spaces between buildings. There’s a much greater interest in civic space.’

Councils are moving away from mere practical illumination of an area, agrees Admir Jukanovic, senior lighting designer at Mindseye, and projects are now more about transforming a space, a trend inspired by the private sector.

‘Councils want to recreate the space, to add an additional layer to it by applying a special lighting scheme,’ says Jukanovic.

Some schemes also offer opportunities for humour and experimentation, he adds, with outdoor spaces capturing a wide variety of people in transition, whereas visitors are inherently restricted in buildings. Last year, Jukanovic worked with Wok Media on an annual winter lighting installation, Night Watch, in Canary Wharf’s Jubilee Park in London, with 95 pairs of ‘animal eyes’ hidden among the landscape, and Mindseye is currently designing a lighting concept for Canary Wharf’s Median Strip, with sculptural lighting features to bring purpose to the otherwise redundant strip of land.

‘It’s all about the visitor and the observer,’ says Jukanovic. ‘You want people to come and use that space – and to smile when they go from A to B. Either you have a pleasant light, which pleases the surroundings and doesn’t obstruct, or you can have a light which makes you smile.’

Max von Barnholt of VBK Lighting Consultants, however, rings a note of caution, pointing to a ‘Disney-fication’ of the urban built environment, where ‘every crap piece of architecture draws attention to itself by kinetic or coloured lighting schemes’. ‘The more accessible the technology, the more people can screw it up,’ adds von Barnholt.

Most lighting designers agree that good lighting means integrated lighting, and that a successful project complements rather than dominates a space. For the Grade I-listed Heveringham Hall in Suffolk, von Barnholt created a series of pits to conceal the lighting, which are automatically raised at sunset, and, in a concept for a new super-yacht marina in Montenegro to be completed in 2012, VBK worked closely with the landscape architect to integrate all luminaires within the designed street furniture and jetty.

In the recent Bermondsey Square project in London, which aimed to convey an Italian piazza vibe, Mindseye removed luminaires from the vertical layer, putting them on the horizontal, strung up between the surrounding buildings. ‘We had to withdraw our ambitions to create a feature light,’ explains Jukanovic. ‘We didn’t want a lot of light to obstruct the space.’

But it’s not just in bespoke designs and custom luminaries where lighting designers have moved on. They are increasingly involved in bringing new products to market. Speirs and Major collaborated with product designer Priestman Goode on the new Sorento street lamp for DW Windsor (News, DW 19 February), and lighting designer Office for Visual Interaction is currently prototyping its winning design for a new New York City LED street lamp. The new design will be the first addition to the city’s street lighting catalogue in almost 50 years.

As Major says, ‘Lighting designers are beginning to realise the value they bring to the industry.’

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