So many professions are prone to clichéd phrases, like the Football Managers “we’re building a team for the future” or in business, “Blue sky / outside the box thinking, this is just a heads-up” etc. With all that modern life throws at us it’s easy to become lost in repetition and mistake it for understanding, as it can be easier to trot out a well used phrase than to truly make ourselves understood. In our field of architectural lighting, two common phrases would include: “Architectural lighting is the marriage of art and science” and “Lighting is for people”. Both sentiments are so ubiquitous that it is easy to dismiss them as cliché without really trying to understand the deeper sentiments behind them. Are there lessons that we fail to learn by dismissing these sentiments out of hand? Perhaps by combining these twin concepts “Lighting is a marriage of Art and Science AND is for people”, we can breathe new life into a platitude.
A marriage works best when the partners are in balance, if one partner feels neglected then the resulting friction and disatisfaction can force the couple apart. Likewise on a lighting design project if the twin ideals of science and art become unbalanced then the project could suffer.
If the artistic endeavor becomes more valued, the concept becomes bigger than the project and perspective can get lost as the stakeholders suffer. The user experience gets forgotten, as the ‘concept’ becomes all important even if it makes the space uncomfortable, unfit for it purpose, or illegible to the people that use the space. In this scenario the user is not the only one who suffers, the interests of the client are also at risk. There is the potential for lighting budgets to become unaffordable as more and more fittings are used or fittings that are unnecessarily expensive for their purpose. Disproportionately large numbers of fittings or inappropriately specified fittings create maintenance issues, both in terms of the human cost in hours to do the work and object cost of replacement parts or lamps.
It can also be tempting to neglect the artistic element of lighting design and place more emphasis on the scientific. Perhaps this is through a fear to offer up creative ideas, or as a side effect of focusing too much on the output of work, for instance, by concentrating on glare indices, uniformity, and energy density. Rather than trying to enhance the space and create mood and atmosphere we are neglecting the experience of the everyday users of the project. In this case, the client buys a project that whilst being technically competent, doesn’t add to the value of a space, it just provides light as means of visual function. The lighting does not reflect the clients brand or their aspiration for the project, high end projects require certain aesthetics that lighting is important in reinforcing. Cool white LED lamps might be the most efficient, but they would look out of place in a great many hospitality or residential projects.
So how do we make sure that we maintain the balance that we and continue in a happy fulfilling relationship? Whilst preparing material for a talk on Richard Kelly, one of the founding fathers of the architectural lighting profession, we started to look at his three principles of lighting through a different lens. The Kellyan principles of Ambient Luminescence Focal Glow, and Play of Brilliance looked to us like a strategy for balancing art and science within a design. Ambient Luminescence was considered by Kelly to be the foundation form of light, it was is described by Kelly as “the element of light that provides general illumination of the surroundings; it ensures that the surrounding space, its objects and the people there are visible”. This to us seemed to be a way to address ’scientific’ requirements. Carrying on this line of thought in his description of Focal Glow Kelly said “This is where light is first given the express task of actively helping to convey information”. Using light to abstractly describe information is the first step to creating art through lighting. Finally, Play of Brilliance “can add life and ambiance” again sounded like Kelly adding artistic elements to his work. What changed our thinking was that perhaps these were not three equal rules to be applied evenly, but a pyramid with a broad foundation and narrow peak. So that these three principles could act like tools that when applied to a project provide a cohesive design strategy.
This made us look more closely at the role of strategy in our design practice. We have always set as a priority to design spaces so that they can bring joy to the people who use them. But how do we achieve this? Had this user-centric style just happened by accident on projects in the past, or was it a side effect of something else that we do? On reflection, we realised that we had developed a strategy that helped us to continually maintain our focus on users of our projects and thereby balancing Art and Science and People. The core component of this strategy could be condensed to a question. Rather than asking the question “do we like this concept?”, we ask “how does this concept impact the user?”. We think that this allows for a more powerful design process because we are removing our ego from the design making. This significantly reduces the temptation to over-design and places a strategic emphasis on the project stakeholders.
At Light Bureau, we believe that the answer to balance is Art approached scientifically or to put it in another way Strategy. Our strategy always has two very clear focuses on the user and on the stakeholders. For the user that means our design creates a space that is clear and legible and which has a very strong sense of purpose, and is in harmony with the architecture. For the client that means a design which adds value to their project, is affordable, buildable and efficient. Not just in the sense that it is energy efficient, but efficient in terms of initial investment and through the life of the project by being easy to maintain and upgrade. For us, a strategy refines and enhances our creativity it doesn’t stifle or limit it. So whilst architectural lighting design may be the marriage of Art and Science, great architectural lighting design is the polygamous marriage of Art, Science, and strategy.