To call the lighting master plan for Hangzhou, China's Grand Canal ambitious is to understate the project's accomplishments. The narrow site stretches for six miles, north to south, through the heart of the city. The municipal government wanted nothing less than to transform this South Eastern city known for its surrounding natural landscape into a world-class tourist destination on par with Paris or Las Vegas. What's more, the government laid down an abbreviated time schedule of only 12 months.

The process began in early 2008, when lighting designer Roger Narboni, founder of the Bagneux, France–based Concepto Studio, traveled to Hangzhou to meet with city officials and the local design team. Two months later his firm and the Zhongtai Lighting Group revealed a comprehensive master plan, followed by a mock-up of a 1,000-foot-long canal section running through the city center. Constructed at a pace unheard of by European or American counterparts, Zhongtai employed round-the-clock teams of engineers, contractors, designers, and technicians so the project could open in January 2009, only a year from design start to construction finish.

The Hangzhou government first imagined the canal's civic transformation in 2007. It wanted Chinese as well as foreign tourists to walk on the canal banks or to boat on the water, day or night. When Narboni first surveyed the site, however, he found crumbling banks and piecemeal lighting solutions for the bridges. Despite these infrastructural problems, his biggest challenge was cultural. “When I arrived there and I met Guoping Wang, governor [akin to the mayor] of the city, the first thing he said to me was that he was in love with everything in Las Vegas and Dubai,” Narboni recalls. “I was shocked. This was so far away from my work. I routinely fight against dynamic effects and too many colors. But then I thought that maybe I could convince him that this was the wrong solution. Shanghai was already like Las Vegas and Dubai. Why should we do something that everyone else was doing?”

The Concepto Studio scheme calls attention to Hangzhou's identity as a water-oriented city—in addition to the canal, the metropolis boasts two large bodies of water, the Tang Qian River and the West Lake. To make Hangzhou an international destination, Narboni swapped spectacle for subtlety. The design illuminates the existing built environment: the canal landscape of promenades, historic buildings and pavilions, and bridges. Aqua-hued LEDs run along both banks of the entire channel. At night, green and blue LED projectors illuminate the fog that tends to rise from the water's surface. It's a color palette not common to Chinese custom, which trends to celebratory reds and yellows, but the effect is dynamic. Early in the evening the light moves like waves through the mist, then becomes still before shutting off for the night at midnight.

Although Narboni chose to use only blue and green LEDs, the coloration can change according to the seasons: ice blue in the winter and jade green in the summer. With references to Venice, luminous translucent poles called “Venetian masts” were installed directly in the water. Each cylindrical mast is equipped with 12 1W LEDs (six blue and six amber). As with much of the LED lighting on the Grand Canal, the poles are custom designed by Narboni, who worked with the local Zhongtai office so that they could coordinate directly with Chinese manufacturers.

Before the new installation, the Grand Canal was almost invisible within the dense urban fabric of Hangzhou. Towering housing blocks encroached on the crumbling historic center. “The canal is 50 meters (164 feet) wide, but unless you were on the bank or a bridge, it was hard to see it,” Narboni says. “Spatially, lighting on both sides gives the canal a sense of being a water line, a water street.” Pedestrian and tree lighting along the promenade emphasize the canal route and create low-key public spaces. New custom-designed columns—also a collaboration between Narboni and the Zhongtai office, each made up of one 18W 3000K fluorescent lamp—create a staccato rhythm along the pathways. Here, previously multicolored recessed ground lights have been retrofitted with uniform warm-white 70W 3000K ceramic metal halide lamps. Along the balustrade railing, the existing in-ground fixtures were modified to support low-wattage LED lamps.

Historically, this water artery is intricately linked to Hangzhou's development and prosperity as a city, trafficking goods in and out of the region. The canal dates to 610 A.D., when it was constructed to connect Hangzhou to nearby Suzhou—the Song dynasty's 12th century diplomatic and cultural capital of Southern China. Over the centuries, the Grand Canal became linked with other Chinese waterways, and today the canal system runs as far north as Beijing, more than 1,000 miles away. To call attention to this legacy, Narboni installed “milestones” along the north bank. Equipped with LED lamps, these 36-foot-tall stainless steel poles mark out the distance to the Tang Qian River and to Beijing. Green LEDs display kilometers, while red LEDs read in Shi, an ancient Chinese measuring system that is in everyday use, even though the metric system has been widely adopted in China.

Taking a cue from his relighting of the bridges along the Seine in Paris, in Hangzhou each crossing is illuminated with white light. Red-lensed custom fixtures hung from the eaves of temples, pavilions, and waterfront edifices are similarly unified; each lantern contains a 20W compact fluorescent lamp. To emphasize the cyan color palette of light on the canal, and let the disparate modern buildings fade to the background, Narboni installed 1W LEDs on their façades. These rectangular frames, several stories tall, act as abstract billboards, indicating the canal district without any neon bedazzlement.

Given that the master plan incorporates some 20 bridges built during different historic periods, 60 historic structures, and more than a 100 modern buildings, it's remarkable how well Narboni's design weaves old and new into a unified nightscape. Ultimately, the project's success lies in how well it has fostered a nocturnal rhythm in the city. “Spring and summer is very warm in Hangzhou,” says Narboni. “People wait until it is night and then they come out and gather on the banks—they dance, practice tai chi, and sing.” It's a destination for travelers, but preserves the city's unique character. Unlike the brazen flash of the Las Vegas Strip, the Grand Canal elegantly illuminates civic life with a soft touch.

Project Lighting Master Plan for the Grand Canal Hangzhou, China

Client City of Hangzhou, China

Lighting Design and Master Plan Concepto Studio, Agence de Conception Lumiere, Bagneux, France

Lighting Design and Technical Design Office in China Zhongtai Lighting Group, Hangzhou

Photographer Images courtesy Concepto Studio and Zhongtai Lighting Group

Project Size Grand Canal—10 kilometers (6.2 miles); Ying Yue nightscape area—300 meters (984 feet)

Manufacturers / Applications There is no specific manufacturer. All luminaires are custom-designed by Concepto Studio with the Zhongtai Lighting Group, who in turn coordinated with local suppliers to produce all the fittings and luminaires.

Floodlight projectors on the canal with 18 1W green and 18 1W blue LEDs

Luminous translucent poles (“Venetian masts”) installed directly in the water. Each cylindrical mast is equipped with 12 1W LEDs, six blue and six amber

Custom designed columns made up of one 18W, 3000K fluorescent lamps for pedestrian and tree lighting along the promenade

Recessed ground lights retrofitted in uniform warm white 70W 3000K ceramic metal halide lamps along the promenade Existing recessed ground fitting (with dichroic lamp) modified on 3W 3000K LED lamps for lighting the balustrade railing along the promenade

“Milestones”—36-foot-tall stainless steel poles—along the north bank equipped with LED lamps. Green LEDs display kilometers and red LEDs read in Shi, an ancient Chinese measuring system

Bridge crossings illuminated in white light with linear, dimmable LED fixtures (12 by 1W 3000K LEDs per meter) Red-lensed custom fixtures hung from eaves of temples, pavilions, and waterfront edifices are similarly unified; each lantern contains a 20W compact fluorescent lamp

“Abstract billboards”—rectangular frames on surrounding building façades, the largest of which measure approximately 98 feet tall by 65 feet wide—are linear dimmable LED fixtures with 12 by 1W cyan LEDs per meter