among a small legion of american lighting designers, I attended Light+Building 2004 in Frankfurt, Germany, from April 18 to 22. While some attend every other year (it is a biennial event), I admit to rarely attending shows outside the United States. Maybe it is the time commitment or the multiple time zones, or maybe I'm just not as comfortable in the international arena. After this last experience, however, I think I will attend more often.
Light+Building is held at Frankfurt Messe, a 10-building exhibition complex thoughtfully integrated into Frankfurt's sophisticated urban fabric. Commuter trains and electric trolleys stop inside or immediately adjacent to the complex, and there are several quality hotels within walking distance. Facilities are fastidiously clean, and everything seems to work with expected German precision. Extensive signage and numerous information kiosks make wayfinding easy. Even the ticket takers seem to speak both German and English. Indeed, it is relatively simple for an American to attend this event.
This is a huge show: Each building typically includes two floors or halls. Three floors, or a total area about the size of one of America's larger convention centers, are devoted to 'technical' lighting. Another floor is just outdoor lighting. Yet another floor showcases lighting components and systems. Then there are two floors full of contemporary 'contract decorative' lighting, and about five floors of residential and hospitality lighting, not to mention a whole floor of Chinese manufacturers. There is also an entire building devoted to electrical engineering and another to building automation and communication system technology. In other words, Light+Building is a fair that involves lighting and several related topics. It is a lot like combining Lightfair, the Dallas decorative lighting show, ASHRAE, and the Electric show into one event.
A major point of note, in addition to the square footage, is the number of attendees. Apparently well over 100,000 people visit. (The ticketing system, however, is different than U.S. trade shows, and I used three separate day tickets, making me, at least, count for three attendees.) The popular booths-Zumtobel and Erco, for example-seemed packed with 100 or more visitors every time I walked by. There must have been over 200 people visiting each of the huge lamp companies.
The booths themselves are another noteworthy aspect. At Light+Building, the 'booths' are actually huge sales platforms larger than most homes, complete with ceilings, upper stories, perimeter walls and high superstructures. Each booth is a design feat and an entertainment space, with lighting displays on par with those in high-end homes or galleries. Many offer food, with a bar serving coffee and nibbles by day, and beer and more nibbles by night.
Americans and Europeans have various cultural differences that influence their trade shows, rendering an accurate comparison of Lightfair and Light+Building difficult; nevertheless, there is a tendency to measure one against the other. In 2004, the two shows, which usually do not occur in the same month, were a mere three weeks apart. This offers a unique opportunity to set the record straight:
a larger percentage of practicing architects and engineers attends Light+Building than Lightfair. I think this has a lot to do with the differentiation in U.S. trade shows: we have many shows, segregating the profession and making each event smaller. For instance, this year I will speak at Lightfair (15,000 attendees), InfoComm (25,000), AIA (10,000), and Electric (10,000). Shows I have missed include specialized events for retail, hotel, and office furnishings. If we combined our U.S. shows, we would have something similar to Light+Building.
the european commitment to providing an accessible and important trade show and venue is vastly superior to that of the United States. Frankfurt Messe is more than just an exhibition hall; it is a complex of buildings with architectural appeal, and more importantly, easy access to light rail, taxi and bus, as well as cars. No comparison to Las Vegas or to New York City's Javits, two of North America's worst convention centers. And of course, Frankfurt is picturesque and clean-unlike the west side of Manhattan.
light+building is not much of a conference. The program does not even compare with the first Lightfair held in 1990. ELDA+, the European lighting design organization, uses other venues as its professional development and educational medium, having quasi-academic symposia throughout the region.
people who joke about the many small Chinese booths at Lightfair should see Hall Six at Light+Building. Same thing only much larger. And it is not a joking matter. We should look carefully at the genesis of the world's dominant lighting industry.
after a while, most of the booths looked the same. Lighting design innovation in Europe is different, and the artful combination of industrial design and lighting technology is the best in the world, but many manufacturers showed great industrial designs that looked just like Zumtobel or Erco products from two years ago. And clearly, there is a design and cultural difference with respect to glare. (So many bare lamps.) Moreover, lighting efficiency is not as well addressed, and lighting controls are lagging well behind American systems.
Should we aspire to producing Light+Building-quality shows in North America? Of course, but it likely will not happen, owing to cultural differences. Europeans design, build and treasure their buildings better than we do. Out of necessity, this will change, and maybe we can change with it. In the meantime, it is more relevant for the average U.S.-based designer to attend Lightfair and occasionally make a trip to Germany. But be prepared for one awful thing about Frankfurt: there is enough indoor smoking to make anyone appreciate the dramatic air quality improvements we have made in the United States. I had to leave the hall periodically to get some fresh air. But at Light+Building, even that is easy to do.
James Benya is a professional lighting designer and principal of Benya Lighting Design, West Linn, Oregon. He serves on the editorial advisory board of A|L.