Building with Light

Speirs and Major’s architectural approach to lighting goes beyond fixtures and foot candles.

“Great lighting,” Mark Major says, “is not about walking into a place and saying, ‘What great lighting!’ It’s about walking in and saying, ‘What a great space!’” Major is a director of Speirs and Major Associates, a multidisciplinary lighting firm that in the past 16 years seems to have lit virtually every important new building and pretty much every building type: mosques, bridges, airports, stores, office buildings, even shopping malls.

The firm, based in Edinburgh and London, is a prodigiously prolific design outfit. A by no means comprehensive list of architectural and engineering collaborations includes projects with Foster + Partners; Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners; Grimshaw; Kohn Pedersen Fox; Arup; Buro Happold, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; David Chipperfield; John Pawson; Terence Conran; and numerous others. And yet Speirs and Major have also worked with the Church of England. The secret of their all-embracing success is the firm’s ability to craft powerful narratives, and the diverse talents of their 35-member in-house staff.

Jonathan Speirs and Mark Major have assembled a team drawn not just from the worlds of architecture and interior design but also from theater, lighting technology, 3-D design, and graphic design. Producers and directors as well as designers of architectural light shows, they’re adept at illuminating the profession’s glittering icons as well as transforming its plucked turkeys into graceful swans.

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What is often most noticeable in the lesser buildings is the light itself rather than the lit spaces. Photographs of the firm’s work are usually (and understably) taken at night, and what they reveal in the most dramatic schemes are effects with the power to make us gasp with childlike delight, as if we’re gazing at light-formed poetry. Yet in the bland face of a gray morning, some of these buildings and spaces seem perfectly ordinary, even boring.

The new Sheikh Zayed Mosque, in Abu Dhabi, is a case in point. This colossal $545 million complex, built in honor of the first president of the United Arab Emirates, who is buried there, has been a long and ambitious undertaking. The Syrian architect Yousef Abdelky began design work in the mid-1980s. Since then, any number of contractors from around the world have been involved in its construction. Completed earlier this year, the mosque—loosely based on the 17th-century Badshahi Mosque, in Lahore, Pakistan, and the Hassan II Mosque, built in the 1990s in Casablanca, Morocco—boasts 82 domes, the world’s largest carpet (handwoven in Iran), four minarets soaring 350 feet from the desert sand, and space for 40,000 people.

In terms of sheer size, Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a notable achievement, but as architecture it has little of the power and sanctity of the world’s truly great mosques, such as the 16th-century Selimiye Mosque, in Edirne, Turkey, or the Badshahi. To be blunt, it’s a kind of Ali Baba cartoon, a great mosque blown up to an improbable scale on a gigantic urban screen. What makes it mesmerizing, though, is Speirs and Major’s lighting. They have highlighted and accented the features of the building that best bring it to life: the reveals of its myriad arches, the undersides of its domes, and key religious features, such as the qibla wall, which points to Mecca in veils of golden light through the 99 names of Allah. They’ve created a narrative, a lighting story as good, in its own way, as any told in One Thousand and One Nights.

When Speirs first went to see the building, it was a concrete shell. He asked the client whether “they wanted the building floodlit at night, or whether they wanted some other story, a philosophy, an idea.” In an interview with Building Design magazine, he said that “if they had asked us to simply floodlight it, we would have politely run screaming from the building.”

Speirs thought the huge building, clad in white marble, would look best lit in as few colors as possible. Because the Islamic calendar is entwined with the lunar cycle, the firm decided on the moon as the unifying element and devised a way to light the mosque by following the course of its 28-day orbit. “Our idea was to have a building that, by full moon, is lit pristinely with white light but with a textural quality evocative of clouds slowly drifting in front of a full white moon,” he says. “As the moon wanes, the lighting grows gradually bluer to signify darkness. On the fourteenth evening, the mosque is lit in darkest blue.”

Earlier this year the Infinity Bridge, a rapier compared to the broadsword of the mosque, opened in northeast England. The $25 million project might be the structural and aesthetic opposite of the mosque, but it uses many of the same lighting principles. This lithe, bowstring pedestrian bridge, designed by Expedition Engineering and Spence Associates, swoops across the River Tees as a pair of asymmetrical steel arches supporting a precast-concrete walkway. By day, the arches have the look of a pair of raised eyebrows; at night, lit by Speirs and Major and transformed into the universal symbol for infinity, they create the identity for this handsome 590-foot-long bridge.

In typical Speirs and Major fashion, the actual lights are all but invisible. Discreetly fitted to the steel cable ties are white metal-halide uplights and blue LED downlights; the former illuminate the arches, and the latter the water below. The handrails are lit at night by blue and white LEDs. When people cross the bridge, handrail sensors trigger a change from blue to white, leaving a fairy-tale trail of light in the pedestrians’ wake.

The firm’s broad approach is rooted in the architectural background of the three partners: Speirs, Major, and Keith Bradshaw. “Sometimes our best projects are for the worst buildings,” Bradshaw says. “None of us have ever stopped being architects. If we’re working on a less successful building, we’ll get involved in trying to reshape it, to give it a lift with light. We get involved, where possible, with moving internal walls and changing the specification of glazing, surfaces, and textures so that we can make the best of the way daylight and artificial light falls and plays inside a building. We’re not in the business of specifying and hanging up light fittings. We’re lighting architects, and I think this makes us a bit different from conventional consultants.”

Indeed, the process is largely informed by their training. “We make models of the buildings or interiors we’re working on, from cardboard to computer models—and sometimes on a big scale to understand how different types of light, angles of light, will affect a design,” Bradshaw says. “With the mosque, we made a number of 1:1 scale mock-ups in a theater in Edinburgh. We’re as interested in daylight as artificial light, so we’re keen to simulate different daytime lighting conditions, from the dazzling blue skies of Abu Dhabi to the smoggy skies of Beijing.”

Speirs and Major also pose intriguing, almost elemental, questions: How do you define shadow? What does darkness look like? How much artificial light does any building or interior need? “What did Le Corbusier say? ‘Architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of form in light,’” Bradshaw says. “That’s how we feel too. We all practiced as full-time architects—Jonathan and Mark for several years—but we’ve been drawn to lighting. And it’s not the technology that’s attracted us, although we do need to keep on top of that, it’s the idea of accenting, highlighting, or shaping and reshaping architecture and space that really gets us excited.”

They’re not overawed by or promiscuous with new technology. If they have a trademark, it is their use of concealed lighting. They will in some cases suggest using little or no artificial lighting. A new urban scheme in Durham, England, for example, is ultimately about darkness, shadows, and tranquility. Here, electric light is painted with the finest brush. But in a celebratory project for the exterior of the Burj Dubai—the world’s tallest structure, designed by SOM and due to open this month—Speirs and Major have laid on the electric fireworks. The facade will cascade with showers of light, much like the way the Eiffel Tower is lit on special occasions. Bradshaw begins to liken the effect to the opening of a champagne bottle but stops short when he realizes that this might not be the ideal metaphor for a project in Abu Dhabi, a nominally teetotalist emirate.

“Architects tend to be purists in their approach, while clients might want some-thing more elaborate,” Bradshaw says. “Because we’re interested in the way an entire building looks, works, and feels, and what its client wants it to do, we find ourselves acting as advocates for both sides. In the case of the Burj Dubai, we feel the party lighting suits the nature of the project, while with, for example, the new Armani store in New York, we encouraged the client to go for the idea the architect was aiming at, one that went for considerable use of processional space and subtle lighting, when the client wanted more sales space and a bit more volume with the lighting.”

Designed by the Roman architect Massimiliano Fuksas, the new Fifth Avenue store has a bold, cinematic LED facade and an interior space that feels more like a hallowed shrine than a couture boutique. The floors are lustrous black and the walls an impeccable white, as if monks had specified the color scheme; the lighting picks out each and every item of clothing as if it were a sacred statue. Meanwhile, the swooping twisting stair is highlighted in white light, creating a processional drama at the core of the building while making shoppers ascending and descending look beautiful.

In a sense, Speirs and Major are beauticians. Whether they’re lighting shops, places of worship, or even an entire quarter of a city (Birm-ingham, England, with Make Architects), they are charged with enhancing the presence of buildings, spaces, and places. “We’ve all come to Manhattan and watched the city light up at night,” Bradshaw says. “Even the most undistinguished part of the city looks wonderful under light.” But he is adamant that beautifying buildings with light is an integral part of the architectural process. “Architecture is as much about light as it is about space, but this light can come as happily from the sun or available daylight.” For better or worse, the majority of the world’s new buildings are artificially lit steel- or concrete-framed boxes. Even if we don’t always get sublime spaces, we can certainly have, as Speirs and Major prove, great light and beautifully lit places.

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