For Tapio Rosenius, who grew up in northern Finland near the Arctic Circle, light—or the lack of it—has always been a defining element of his life. The 38-year-old founder and director of Madrid-based Lighting Design Collective (LDC) may live in Spain now, but it was the experience of the Nordic region, with its feast and famine of light, that put him on the path to architectural lighting design.
“Growing up, it was extremely dark during the winter, and winter lasts eight months,” Rosenius says. “In summer, we had eight to nine weeks where the sun doesn’t go down at all.”
That intense seasonal cycle was something Rosenius loved, in part because the Finnish culture is extremely connected to nature, even during the winter when “you do a lot of fishing and skiing,” and in part because of the special qualities of that light. “Winter is dark, but it’s not a black darkness,” Rosenius says. “There’s reflection from snow and the way the daylight behaves, you have an extremely prolonged sunrise, a blue moment that lasts over an hour.”
Explorations in light and nature very much inform the work coming out of LDC, which Rosenius opened in 2009 and now includes seven staff members and a roster of international consultants. He left a plum position as the director for Maurice Brill Lighting Design in London, where he had been for many years. (Before that he was with Kevan Shaw Lighting Design in Edinburgh.) The decision to move and start his own business was a tough one. “Maurice was influential to me as a designer and I learned how a design office runs working there,” Rosenius says. Then he and his wife, who is from Madrid, had the first of their two children. “I was professionally set up, but we had a little baby, and I took one look at the baby and thought: I don’t want this kid to grow up in London. It’s an intense urban environment.”
From the get-go, he understood that his young firm needed to offer a unique perspective in order to survive. “I knew there was no point as a one-man band to start competing against Kevan or Maurice,” he says. “It had to be something new, it had to be different, and it had to resonate honestly with my background and my skills. Since then, and to this day, it has been a big topic: What is our design approach? Who are we? What do we do? What is new that we can bring in?”
For Rosenius, it meant building a practice that straddles the line between art and experience, and that offers more than simple design delivery or consulting. “We don’t design a piece here [in the studio] that gets shipped somewhere afar,” he says. “We always design for the context. We tackle projects with a very analytical approach combined with something that is borderline artistic.”
Rosenius and LDC earned international attention in 2011 for that approach when they won a competition to create a permanent urban light-art piece in Helsinki, called Silo 468. Here, an abandoned oil silo near the seaside was turned into a civic space where 1,250 white LEDs, controlled by software, flow across the surface as if they were birds in flight.
Rosenius and the LDC team have since developed increasingly complex projects that blend art, light, and technology to create interactive environments that evoke the place they exist. Take Aava Isle, a conceptual plan for a floating building that would house deep-sea diving events. (Imagine a structure put out to sea and designed to turn diving into a spectator sport.) For this theoretical project, LDC has developed both the underwater lighting for the diving shows as well as an interactive exterior façade. During the day, the entirely glass structure would use daylight to reflect the water and to “pick up every twinkling surface,” Rosenius says.
Rosenius frequently incorporates technology to create in-the-moment experiences for clients. For the Qatar Foundation Stadium in Doha, scheduled for construction in 2016 for the World Cup, Rosenius designed an interactive, 360-degree exterior façade controlled by the world’s first haptic computing lighting interface. Haptic technology creates tactile feedback, and for the Doha project it will allow activities happening inside the stadium to register on the outside of the building via a control table that Rosenius has designed incorporating the technology. During a soccer match, for example, the team colors can be used on the exterior façade. When someone scores a goal, the person monitoring the game inside the stadium can manipulate the control table and trigger the façade to register what’s just happened by changing the façade color.
“We are putting in an infrastructure that is high-tech, yet extremely simple,” Rosenius says. The LED lights that make up the façade, for example, are reliable and unchanging, but the interface allows the design to evolve. “The physical structure housing the light is static, but what you do with those lights is infinitely malleable,” he says. “If they [the client] get bored with it, it’s a flick of the switch from the Madrid office and you have this whole new palette in your hands.”
It wasn’t always clear that Rosenius would become an architectural lighting designer. Before cutting his teeth working for lighting designers in Scotland and England, Rosenius originally went to college to study photography. Later, he studied the art and science of lighting for theater and film. “I would say deep in my heart I’m more driven by the theater and film lighting approaches because I believe that’s where lighting is truly used as an expressive tool and [where] it’s extremely sophisticated,” he says.
On stage, light needs to convey atmosphere and intent, something Rosenius tries to bring to architecture. “With light always comes information, and when you do lighting in [the] theater, you are doing it for information,” he says. “You suggest the time of day, the location, the internal emotions of the actor. It can be quite abstract, but still understandable.”
Rosenius rejects architectural lighting as a fixed element. “Natural light is in constant movement; it’s diffuse and then direct, it changes with planetary alignment. There is no such thing as static natural light,” he says. “So why on Earth are we doing artificial lighting for our living environments that is completely static? Isn’t that the most unnatural thing that you can think of?”
For the atrium of UPM-Kymmene, a Finnish pulp, paper, and timber company, Rosenius beamed light through the five-story space to evoke the sensation of sunshine filtering through a forest. “A big part of what we’re doing is exploring ways of bringing some of that natural movement of light into the context of the built environment in an acceptable way so that it doesn’t look like some artificial installation,” he says.
Looking ahead, he hopes to inject even more novel approaches into lighting the built environment. “I see anything that emits or reflects light as lighting design,” he says. “We need to invent new roles for light. It is [a] fundamentally underutilized tool in every context.”