This past July, Dimitri Saddi, creative director of lighting design firm Projects and Supplies (PSLab), extolled the virtues of living and working in Beirut. ("Drawing Light," Architecture, August 2006.) "There is really a great energy here," he says, citing the cultural diversity and cosmopolitan vibe. "We bring that to our work through the hunger to succeed and to go more international." That was two days before the city, which had endured civil war for years and was finally ready to reclaim its mantle as 'Paris of the Middle East,' was targeted in air strikes, a result of the complex reality that is the politics and everyday life of the region.
PSLab, whose office and workshops are located at Beirut's port area, evacuated to the mountains, but even under dire circumstances, they continued to maintain a tenacious, if decentralized practice until their safe return to company headquarters. "We were not really affected in terms of physical damage. The ports were hardly hit. It was more psychological--a month of hell, but then things got much better," Saddi explains. Since much of the bombing was concentrated to the south, the firm's built projects in Beirut weathered the conflict with little damage.
The 40-person firm, made up of engineers, craftsmen, architects, and designers, is divided into three departments: Works.PSLab, which focuses on research and collaboration; Offworks.PSLab, which addresses technical requirements; and Products.PSLab, which shepherds designs through production. With all aspects of the lighting design process--from concept to manufacture--concentrated in one place, the firm can craft a project from start to finish. "We are an artisan shop," says Saddi. "This gives us the ability to work with light--to make it with our hands."
This process is illustrated in PSLab's design for Waterlemon, a Beirut restaurant designed in collaboration with Lebanese architect George Chidiac. "Every project has its own parameters; it is about working within the architecture," Saddi notes. "It is the space that dictates how it is going to end up." The firm's concept for this project had to be inventive due to site constraints--a narrow, curving space located inside a shopping mall with no natural illumination. Saddi and his team hand-bent linear half-inch-diameter cold-cathode tubes to match the ceiling's curvature. The 2800K tri-phosphor tubes fit into 1 3/4-inch-wide and 3-inch-deep slits, wrapping the all-white space in staccato stripes, while their dimmable ballasts are concealed under banquet seating lining the walls. White directional projector fixtures outfitted with MR11 halogen lamps extend from the slits on 12V tracks, the fixture heads turned to accent the tables.
The lighting scheme grew out of PSLab's working method--designers willing to sketch and tinker with every detail. "We had done a prior art installation with cold-cathode tubes," explains Saddi. "When we designed Waterlemon, we were in the middle of using these lamps and experimenting with them. Things happen because you are working with a type of material--you push it more."
This same attitude drove the firm's concept of milia m, a clothing boutique in a bohemian area of Beirut. Working with Lebanese architect Raed Abillama, the lighting designers needed to negotiate a narrow space enclosed by three glass façades, while accenting the texture and style of the merchandise. To accomplish this, PSLab combined two types of lighting--T5 fluorescent strips and halogen projector "tentacles" equipped with small and larger-sized spotlights. The fixtures create patterns of light varying in intensity to complement the fashions.
In order to draw attention away from the broad expanse of glass and onto the shirts and dresses hanging in the window, the designers recessed dimmable fluorescent fixtures in the floor to wash the fabrics with an ambient uplight. In addition, T5 lamps are integrated into a custom steel armature designed and manufactured by the architect, which doubles as a curtain track.
PSLab's sensitivity to the nuances and materiality of light is best expressed with its design for VTR, a post-production facility located in the basement of a Beirut office building. The designers teamed with Lebanese architect Assouman Tourbah to transform the facility into a luminous space. To simulate natural light in the lobby and staff lounge, PSLab installed a translucent scrim wall. The scrim's glowing effect is achieved with a series of color-changing LED projectors programmed to cycle and change hues according to the hour. "The light is dynamic. It changes tonally with the day's rhythm," says Saddi. "In the morning it is really aggressive; it wakes you up. But these guys work really late. They sit at monitors all day, so at night it dims, and they can chill out in the lounge." In the corridor, offices, and studios, color temperature becomes a design feature: 3000K cold-cathode and 4000K tri-phosphor tubes are set on dimmers and combined with halogen accent lights.
While all three projects are located in Beirut, Saddi sees PSLab's practice continuing to grow globally. With many projects in Lebanon on hold due to investors' fear of political instability and unrest, the challenge for the firm will be to stay true to its hands-on approach as it expands its reach.
Brooklyn-based Mimi Zeiger is former Senior Editor of Architecture magazine. An accomplished freelance writer, her work is published widely and she is author of the book, New Museums: Contemporary Museum Architecture Around the World.
lighting designer: PSLab, Beirut
photographers: Sana Asseh and Tamara Haddad, Beirut
project: Waterlemon, Beirut
architect: George Chidiac, Beirut
project size: 1,076 square feet
lighting costs: $15,000
project: VTR Post-Production Facility, Beirut
architect: Assouman Tourbah, Beirut
project size: 11,513 square feet
lighting costs: $150,000
project: milia m, Beirut
architect: Raed Abillama, Beirut
project size: 883 square feet
lighting costs: $12,000
Products.PSLAB: Custom-designed fixtures for all the above-mentioned projects