Tinker, Tailor, Gesamtkunstwerker | Especes d’Espaces…and Other places

“His work is not about light, or a record of light; it is light — the physical presence of light made manifest in sensory form.”

Calvin Tompkins on James Turrell, the New Yorker

“It’s Really F***ING Green“

Delighted Geriatric Cockney, as overheard Dan Flavin Retrospective, Hayward Gallery, LONDON 2006

Wilfully osbcurantist title aside, the Perecian pieces of these articles are somewhat frayed: not at all the invisible edges of Perec’s puzzle maker Gaspard Winckler. Nevertheless the species of these articles end however on one of the most technical, ephemeral and emotive fragments of the architetural profession: the Lighting Designer. There are decades of research to Colour Theory [9] both through scientific methodology and philology: white is the colour of death in the Gangnetic Plains, red the colour of marriage and joy: the reverse true for your average Anglo-Saxon.

Yves Klein had his Blue, Anish Kapoor his VantaBlack & Stuart Semple his Pinkest Pink.

Apart from the Ptolomeic Eygptians there was, perceptually at least, no blue in antiquity… a consequence of linguistic and environmental limitations [11]. The Lighting Designer – not an entirely distinct profession from that of lamp-maker are users, (abusers) and manipulators of light, where the defining tactic is that of an Architect working with light: the success of any scheme quite often an entirely subjective and experential measure.

Hong Kong’s Wan Chai District and the Chelsea riverside of London are two landscapes differentiated by their night time illumination: both are montages of colour and illumination broadly unplanned though with individually executed elements. The transformative nature of light as material couldn’t be clearer: the sooty signage of Wan Chai at night becoming a crow-like sensory overload of colour, diorama and delight (at least to the author). A Murder of Glyphs to push the analogy. The diesel choked dirty brick and stone clad manors of Chelsea riverside are rendered serene and sensuously inky, the bulk of the historic Battersea Power station a leering Magwitch against the Sodium skies of South London: Chelsea should fear for her purses. Shortly to be Foster and Vinoly-fied there’s little hope for a new, profound emotive experience. Not if the too-late, sham-Hipster aesthetic of the Battersea Grower’s Market is the design inclination. The effects of these accidental lightscapes is entirely serendipitous with little do with the artistic or rather lack of artistry in execution. In other nearby areas, Hong Kong from Victoria Harbour and downriver in London, where lighting design has an intentional execution from being seen to do something: poor design, lack of planning and competing visions detract substantially from the positive experience of the streetscape.

There are however both profound artistic experiments in light as material and some more prosaic: but reliant on skilled human hands for execution. James Turrell’s hallucinatory artwork Color Spaces fill spaces with a supersaturated play of colour and intensity. Dan Flavin played similar artistic games with standard off the shelf fluorescents and yes, VAT (GST) débâcle aside, his Retrospective at the Hayward really was that green. Turrell’s more restrained work at the Roden Crater, Skyspace,University of Texas at Austin & his almost completely unknown, unvisited Observatory at Kielder play with landscapes and spaces as frames for colour, void and shadow. The effects are emotive, not something that can be value-engineered or reproduced technologically. The spaces are entirely, unashamedly subjective and human.

There are however less profoundly artistic but not less profoundly affecting aspects to the use of light, occurring not just within high art but commonly throughout the performance world: theatrical design, stage sets: the odd U2 gig (see next post) would be incomplete minus the use of light. Historic buildings are entirely conceived around the maximising and modulation of natural light: through clerestory, oculi and glazing: of which Northern European stained glass and Soane’s Georgian Breakfast Room the greatest exponents.  Lamp design remains key to the detailed elaboration of any contemporary design: Artemide and Flos usually make an appearance in most architectural practices as a well thumbed & wistfully annotated catalogue. The somewhat hidden technical aspects of these more prosaic lighting designs in architectural practice appear as value based coefficients often plugged into complex specification spreadsheets. It reads like a litany of venereal disease:

Spectral flux, radiant intensity, hemispherical reflectance, directional attenuation coefficients,lumen count, absorption coefficients, emittance spectra, temperature variable, AΩ, Qe, Φe, Ie,Ω,λ, Ee, Me,λ and on and on and on.

Subtle lighting specifications can and do profoundly affect and vary patterns of human behaviour. Ignition frequency and colour temperature of sodium fluorescents directly affect buying behaviour [17] in big-box supermarkets: an exploit used in tandem with circulation planning to maximise buying and increase profit margins. Unlike Perec’s lost e I’ll make an appearance at th(e) end…retail lighting tactics are a suite of  techniques personally used at to date, my only commercial fit-out my preferring Conservation and Social per infra-dig. The project, undisclosed due to NDA & as hell hath no fury like a gem-dealing Haaredi, involved the refurbishment of a luxury Mayfair penthouse office for a producer of coloured Gemstones. The (mostly) open plan office specifically called for retail tactics to encourage sales to the retail and secondary gemstone market. Circulation involved a convoluted series of concentric loops, passing some of London’s most attractive Admins, then through a light-catching chamber (referred to as sparkle alley) to finally a swooning gallery: where the view of London’s historic roofscape, Wren’s St James’ Piccadilly & Royal Academy would complement the stones. The entire scheme was dependant on the specification of materials to precise degrees of reflectivity and colour temperature (amongst many, many other coefficients) which lead to: Bolon custom double black matt flooring, Raw Titanium Oxide – Doped OSMO flat finish wood oil to custom furniture, Farrow & Ball ultra matt white powder touch paint to all surfaces, custom matt white Barrisol polyurethane ceilings and within a small1200SQM (on two floors) office: 250 x 15 LED downlighters for a total of 3750 light emitters operating at 7000K.

The electricity bills are immense. The gems are flying out the door. Skilled architecture can and does profoundly affect places, spaces and is critical to the functioning of any human culture and by society’s most important contemporary measure: profit. Lastly I’ll probably never have another design outcome like this: the admins wear sunglasses with black suede kitten heels when the ceiling is on.


[1] BBC. 2006. “In Pictures: Dan Flavin Retrospective.” World News. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/ picture_gallery/06/entertainment_dan_flavin_retrospective/html/2.stm.

[2] Cobb, Henry, Michael Graves, Philip Johnson, Richard Meier, Robert Stern, Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi, et al., eds. 2014. “Sir John Soane : An English Architect, an American Legacy.” San Francisco, California, USA].

[3] CooLemon. 2007. “Wan Chai, Johnston Road at Night.” Wikipaedia. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/ commons/f/f9/HK_Wan_Chai_Johnston_Road_Night_Club.JPG.

[4] Cragboom. 2007. “Albert Bridge.” https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f2/Albert_bridge.jpg.

[5] Craven, Owen. 2017. “James Turrell: A Retrospective.” Art Almanac. Accessed September 14. http://www. art-almanac.com.au/james-turrell-a-retrospective/.

[6] Furján, Helene. 2002. “Sir John Soane’s Spectacular Theatre.” AA Files, no. 47. The Architectural Association: 12–22.

[7] Harris, Dr. Beth, and Steven Zucker. 2009. “James Turrell, Skyscape, The Way of Color.” KHAN Academy. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/minimalism-earthworks/v/turrell-skyscape.

[8] Herbert, Lynn. 2013. “THE COLOR INSIDE.” The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts. http:// landmarks.utexas.edu/artwork/color-inside.

[9] Holding, Eric. 2000. Mark Fisher : Staged Architecture. Edited by Mark Fisher. Architectural Monographs ; No. 52. Chichester, West Sussex.

[10] Holzherr, Florian, and Paul Bardagjy. 2013. “The Colour Inside / Overland Partners + James Turrell Skyspace.” Arch Daily 01:00-28. http://www.archdaily.com/560974/the-color-inside-overland-partners-james- turrell-skyspace.

[11] Komarova, Natalia L., and Kimberly A. Jameson. 2013. “A Quantitative Theory of Human Color Choices.” PLoS ONE 8 (2): 1–8. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0055986.

[12] Martínez, Ángel Riesgo. 2004. “Hong Kong de Noche.” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hong_Kong_ de_noche.jpg.

[14] Semple, Stuart. 2012. “Pinkest Pink.” Culture Hustle. https://www.culturehustle.com/collections/powders/ products/pink-50g-powdered-paint-by-stuart-semple.

[15] John Soane. 1983. Architectural Monographs. London.

[16] Schielke, T., & Leudesdorff, M. (2015). Impact of lighting design on brand image for fashion retail stores. Lighting Research & Technology, 47(6). doi:10.1177/1477153514541831

Leave a Reply