Lauren Nassef

In celebrating this special anniversary issue of architectural lighting and reflecting on the past 25 years, it seems that there has been a considerable degree of change in the world of lighting design. And yet, at the same time, very little has changed at all.

Seen through the lens of history, the development of lighting design over the past quarter-century can be firmly put in the context of a much larger relationship between light and architecture. Our collective passion for light as a total medium is certainly nothing new. It would be easily recognized in everyone from the master masons of the great Gothic cathedrals to the noted architects of the 20th century that Henry Plummer describes in Masters of Light. The role of light in the built environment to reveal, inform, and communicate remains constant.

Our firm, Speirs + Major, has always used light both in respect to vision and perception—to help us feel as well as see. The very same qualities of light that have informed the work of every architect from Palladio to Ando and every artist from Rembrandt to Turrell continue to inspire us today. History also teaches us that while the gradual evolution of technology has allowed us to increasingly integrate light into the created environment, today's ideas are neither more nor less radical than the visions were 100 years ago: The same unbridled enthusiasm and commercial drive for new light exists today as much as they did in the age of Edison.

Seen through the relatively narrow perspective of the recent past, however, much has changed. There appears to be greater interest in and awareness of the importance of light and lighting; this has resulted in many more people working within the field. And with the advent of social networking and worldwide information exchange, the level of research and debate has been raised. Exhibitions, conferences, and magazines multiply; forums and blogs abound; and globally based associations and institutions continue to strive for excellence. That the lighting designer now has a place at the head table on a much wider range of projects than ever before is certainly evidence of lighting design being more widely accepted by everyone, but especially by those who commission the work. Lighting education has also progressed at all levels as courses spring up the world over, though perhaps not as fast as many in the lighting design community would like. Without a doubt, the profound technological changes that have taken place now offer a much wider range of opportunity for creative lighting design than ever before.

At the same time, the lighting community might reasonably decide that while in some cases change in the lighting profession and industry has been for the better, in others it has worked against what we are striving for. We want imaginative and high-quality lighting solutions that go beyond simply holding up a mirror to our current society, that help push our society forward. For example, the gradual replacement of the incandescent lamp by alternative low-energy technologies—which, thus far, fail to match it in terms of quality, reliability, and value—is seen by the lighting community as a retrograde step.

In considering the past 25 years, it is reasonable to ask: What is the role of the lighting designer and how has it changed? There are certainly many more people worldwide calling themselves lighting designers than when the first issue of architectural lighting magazine was published in November 1986, but is the lighting design community any better off? The answer to that is probably yes, insofar as the degree of understanding of those entering the field is more progressive and more focused than back in 1986; and the knowledge base is much wider as a result. The message that good lighting is important is now coming across to everyone—from those who commission the work to public bodies who are responsible for regulation.

But some underlying concerns exist about how the standards of professional practice might be reasonably self-regulated. Fees have dropped while project schedules have compressed. Liabilities have increased while bureaucracy—codes, procurement methodology, risk management, and such—has expanded, as has the number of lighting designers competing for work. Also, lighting design continues to mature within the context of a self-perpetuating, free, and relatively unregulated market. As a result, the level of qualification of anyone practicing in the field is open to abuse. This creates a number of inexperienced and uninsured designers who are selling themselves, and thereby their colleagues and future generations, short. If that trend continues, there is no doubt that the reputation of the lighting design community as a whole will be damaged.

So what do the next 25 years hold? Speculating about future trends is always a dangerous game. In only a decade, it will be possible to reflect on the foolishness of some such prophesies. For example, could we have imagined the speed at which the solid-state lighting revolution would progress five years ago, let alone 10 years ago?

Despite such limitations, there are a number of core trends on which it is worth reflecting. These trends are significant, not only to the way we now work but also to the manner in which we will continue to move Speirs + Major forward. By sharing what we believe to be these key trends, we will hopefully inform and raise the level of debate both within the lighting community and with the broader public.