Some architecture stands stoic and inert, and it is in this stability we recognize its greatness. The Pantheon comes to mind. It is what it is, with or without the humans that have inhabited it for 1,900 years. While there are contemporary examples of such architecture, they seem fewer and farther between. Today's buildings are increasingly 'organic' in the way they consider and adapt to their occupancy. Rather than passively inhabited, buildings are designed to engage occupants and encourage a dialogue, to employ users in the act of keeping the architecture novel and alive.

Examples of this kind of interactivity can be as utilitarian as individual climate and dimming controls; as understated as a glazed curtain wall that, to the outside viewer, mutates depending on the activity behind it; or as entertaining and literal as a façade lighting system that depends on the public for the intensity and style of its presentation. Indeed, lighting is proving an ideal medium for enhancing the symbiotic relationship between building and occupant: it is easily noticed (potential users see the building beckoning); it is pretty (they are drawn to it); and given advances in technology, it is adaptable to a variety of creative approaches (users are entertained). Lighting design firm Speirs and Major Associates, which operates out of London and Edinburgh, is behind some of the most innovative, exciting work in this area. Shown here, two projects by the firm demonstrate not only the phenomenon of interactivity, but why architecture benefits from it.

Touch Harbourside

Creating an interactive building is in many ways about energizing an increasingly inactive public. 'When people see something, they sit there, look at it and say 'I like it' or 'I don't' and walk away,' says director Jonathan Speirs. He has an idea about how to help users participate in their environment. 'My strongest sense of event and memory is from places where I have been immersed in the visual experience.' When one can interact with something and make it change, this creates a visual interest that is 'non-predictable,' explains Speirs. 'You want to go see it because you get a payback.'

Touch Harbourside, which is currently in the planning and design stage with completion expected in about a year, is a mixed-use development intended to regenerate a rundown waterfront in Bristol, England. The client wanted to attract attention and simultaneously welcome visitors to the complex. 'Interactivity was the key for this project,' says Speirs, who is collaborating with architecture firm Faulkner Browns of New Castle, England.

Originally, the team discussed installing a television screen in the mesh skin that acts as a gateway to the complex, but a tight budget would not allow it. 'And to be honest,' notes Speirs, 'we wanted to do something less predictable.' The TV idea gave way to a system of RGB LEDs. Spanning the mesh screen, the LED points become concentrated near the entrance, subtly directing visitors inside. The scheme is more than a wayfinding device, however. Six obelisks stand in the plaza adjacent to the wall. Indents in the shapes of handprints, and a few footprints, decorate the pillars, tempting visitors young and old to touch the impressions. When they do, capacitors sensing a presence trigger the façade lighting display, which responds with different sequences depending on the number of handprint and footprint signals. The more people touching, the more dynamic the display.

It is an entertaining, cheerful approach appropriate to this venue and to the process of urban renewal; the lighting scheme attracts visitors, who then participate in 'constructing' the space.

Weather Towers

In Coventry, Speirs and Major has designed the exterior lighting for several buildings in an effort to improve the aesthetic of a city severely damaged by fire bombing during World War II and subsequently victimized by bad 1950s and 60s architecture. Completed in 2002, one installation-gracing the tops of three buildings-suggests that interactivity can be a complex exchange, involving the surrounding environment, as well as occupants and the public.

Using a combination of LEDs and RGB neon, each building displays a portion of the weather forecast for the following day, including temperature, wind and air quality. The direction of the lights' movement and the frequency of their pulsing signify expectations for wind direction and speed, falling or rising temperatures, or the air quality. The color of the lights indicates the general prediction (yellow for sunshine, 'pea' green for fog, and so on). The display is controlled by a central computer, into which an operator feeds the weather predictions several times a day. A radio signal sent out from the computer resets the systems in the three towers.

Located in the vicinity of the country's primary meteorological facility, the Weather Towers respond not only to their climatic environment but also to the locale in which they reside. The exchange initiated by the lighting treatment extends beyond this, however. While not directly influencing the structure's appearance as the visitors at Touch Harbourside do, the Coventry public receives something from these buildings. 'The towers become information givers,' says Speirs. 'I believe that is part of an interaction.'

In both projects, the lighting installations make a quality contribution to the process of urban renewal; the medium's ability to attract the public and impart a sense of security and joy make it particularly appropriate to such situations. There are, however, many other projects without an agenda of regeneration that establish a similar relationship between users and architecture through dynamic lighting. In fact, Speirs argues, too many. 'People are using these tools with abandon, without thinking about the results. If you ask a lighting designer why they do such and such, the answer should not be because it looks pretty; there has to be a philosophy.' He points out that the Weather Towers are attractive and colorful, but this is not all there is to them. 'If you go beyond the superficial look, there is a rock-solid philosophy of why it does what it does.'
Emilie W. Sommerhoff


Project:Touch Harbourside, Bristol, England

Owner: Chrest Development

Architect: Faulkner Browns, New Castle, England

Lighting designer: Speirs and Major Associates, London and Edinburgh

Project: Weather Towers, Coventry, England

Owner: Coventry City Council

Lighting designer: Speirs and Major Associates

City liaison: Andy Telford