Today, façade lighting design strategies seem to follow two diverging paths: One emulates the work of nature—the moon and the sun—while the other embraces the possibilities of latter-day technology. For any given project, a lighting designer tends to operate with either a “naturalist” or a “technologist” mindset, though the approaches can overlap considerably. In the best cases, each hopes to imbue the building with not merely skilled illumination, but a higher level of meaning.
Witness the proliferation of media façades—the often pixilated, animated billboards glowing brightly in many cities around the world. They range from the exuberant, as at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's supergraphic Jianianhua Center in Chongqing, China, to the ethereal, such as Herzog & de Meuron's soft rhomboid checkerboard on Allianz Arena. These examples, and more like them, use façade lighting not merely to illuminate or to advertise, but to convey information of interest to the entire community—and to describe goings-on within the buildings.
For Herzog and de Meuron, the stadium's puffy exterior required “a certain differentiation” that would reflect the interior of the stadium on the outside.” That's why the fabric enclosure glows blue for one soccer team and red for another. At Jianianhua Center, the billboards promote not a product, but state holidays.
Many lighting designers have become wary of using dynamic light just for aesthetics, like a sort of electronic wallpaper. “You have to have a reason for it. It needs to convey a message,” argues Mark Hensman, the British lighting designer whose London-based firm Equation Lighting Design created the scheme for Spinnaker Tower in Portsmouth, England, on which color-changing projectors tell the port town's residents the level of the tide or, on foul-weather days, wind speed.
The permanent art installation Weather Patterns at the York Art Gallery in England takes the notion a step further, examining “the effects humans have on the environment”—namely, global climate change. Ornate, spiral-shaped low-resolution displays are framed within the windows of the museum's 1879 Italian Renaissance-style building. Otherwise, the façade lighting is unremarkable; surface-mounted floodlights cast long shadows upward from the capitals and arches, exaggerating the building's proportions.
Master lighting designer Howard Brandston set the standard with his highly regarded naturalistic approach to façade lighting, which first recreates the cool glow of a full moon on important civic structures. Then architectural features are carefully highlighted to coax warm interior illumination out of windows and archways. Such treatments for the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s and the Statue of Liberty in 1986 influenced a generation of lighting designers.
One such acolyte, New York-based lighting designer Randy Sabedra, invoked Brandston's mantra at the May 2007 relighting ceremony for New York City's Custom House, which Sabedra conceived. Just as with the “technologist” approach, current design standards and cutting-edge fixtures and lamps are critical for successful “naturalist” lighting, Sabedra notes—as is depth of meaning for every design decision made. But the overriding message is far simpler and subtler than what most electronic billboards aim to say. “Incorporate the play of light as seen in nature,” says Sabedra. “Buildings have activity inside. The façade lighting should let that come outward.”
C.C. Sullivan is an author and communications consultant specializing in architectural technology.