When lighting strikes

Whether it's Golden Boy Albert or a Glasgow water tower, it seems the urge to illuminate has never been so rampant. Nonie Niesewand takes a look at this year's National Lighting Design Awards
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The Independent Online

What has the Albert Memorial got in common with a graffiti desecrated water tower in Glasgow? Answer? They have both won major awards for lighting excellence at the National Lighting Design Awards presented tomorrow.

What has the Albert Memorial got in common with a graffiti desecrated water tower in Glasgow? Answer? They have both won major awards for lighting excellence at the National Lighting Design Awards presented tomorrow.

Construction on Prince Albert's statue in Kensington Gardens began in 1864 when the world's first light bulb was still just a twinkle in Thomas Edison's eye. Now Prince Albert glisters in gold leaf bathed in a golden light. Hit by anti-aircraft fire in 1940 which brought down the cross, an orb and damaged the rusty roofing, the Albert Memorial was about to be demolished in 1987 when English Heritage rescued it. Illuminated with spots fitted to the adjacent Royal Albert Hall and bathed in light from within the George Gilbert Scott tabernacle, Prince Albert is now once again the golden boy.

To dramatise all that gold leaf on the statue, and give it an element of surprise like the Phantom of the Opera emerging from all that swirl of dry ice, Lighting Design Partnership lit the marble frieze on which he sits in a icy white light.

Albert shares the honours with another public monument of a very different sort, the Cranhill Water Tower in Glasgow. Glaswegans living at Cranhill had formerly spray-gunned grievances about their deprived and dreary housing estate with its high crime record all over this gigantic water tower that dominates the landscape.

This is Brutalism flexing its muscles, "a bit like War of the Worlds," says the architect Adrian Stewart who transformed with light - and a lick of white paint - this unlovely and unloved blot on the landscape.

Nine water towers around Glasgow have been twinned with planets in the solar systems on some city masterplan and Cranhill Water Tower was designated as Neptune. So the architects washed watery blue light up the central stair core and added narrow blue beams on Thunderbird fins all around the main tank to give it lift off. Now the concrete tank appears to hover on a bed of light, with green-beamed concrete columns, and red and orange spots at the base of the stairs. A glowing orange lantern on top of the tank is visible from miles around.

The residents who voted to have something spectacular done with it are pleased. Not one word of graffiti has gone up in the year since it was completed. A "cheerful focus for regeneration," the judges called it.

Playing upon emotions like this and popularising monuments in the public domain shows that designers have come a long way since the 1939 New York World Fair when the Lagoon of Nations mixed music with 3 million watts of light, fireworks, water jets, and gas flames. Today, there is less rock 'n roll, and more theatricality as lighting designers work with architecture to illuminate it, not upstage it. Lighting designers have close encounters with their architects who handpick them with as much care as they do their structural engineers.

"Any engineer can quantify and produce enough light with which to brighten up a passage or by which to read a book," architect Norman Foster says. "But what about the poetic dimensions of natural light, the changing nature of an overcast sky, the discovery of shade, the lightness of a patch of sunlight?"

Under a lofty canopy of light-emitting panels cut on the diagonal as seamlessly as with the haute couture of John Galliano, Foster and Partners' bus station at North Greenwich, lit by Claude Engels, will however take only an Award of Distinction in the National Lighting Design Awards ceremony. It's been pipped for the top award by a more conventional offering - a blandly-lit office scheme at BA Waterside, in West Drayton by Cundall Johnston and Partners.

Award winners have demonstrated energy efficiency for some years but in the 21st century, they need to show a wider environmental sensitivity as light pollution pushes the night sky further away. Much of the problem starts with electric light that goes straight up into the sky, illuminating nothing, Some of the wasted light even bounces off the atmosphere to reflect back on us.

Louvred baffles that cut the beam from floodlights trained on Worcester Cathedral by Terry Fletcher with Chris Romain Architecture won them an Award of Excellence. Their equipment can't be seen but the cathedral can - and there is no light spillage.

Speirs and Major meanwhile won an Award for Excellence at the Bluewater shopping mall. "Stimulating and witty," the judges called the biggest lit environment for shoppers in Europe, where 1625 million square feet light up an hour before dusk. Eccentric roof forms, more Hindu ghat than Kent coast houses in profile, are floodlit - their pinnacles and spires bathed with golden light that doesn't seep into the night sky. Little blue lights, no more than the pinpricks of fibre optics, accent the uninhabited masses of the building at night to give it a subliminal sparkle.

Bluewater architect Eric Kohne says that lighting can simply work magic. Since customers spent £1.2 billion in its first year of trading, clearly it does. Seventy per cent of shopping is done under electric light when you consider that it opens until ten o'clock at night and Christmas shopping and January sales are conducted in the shortest daylight hours. His brief to Speirs and Major was succinct. Flatter the customer, bathing them in a radiant glow, learn more from the lighting of museums and galleries than from the bright light of retailing, accentuate the sculptural character of the malls, change the lighting in each of the differently-themed halls, and keep changing it with computers so that light varies and doesn't tire the eye.

Giving customers power at their fingertips to change the colour and intensity of light in their all-white bedrooms at Philippe Starck's St Martin's hotel in London won Isometrix a special award for lighting architecture. Built into every bedstead, switches change the colour to saturate rooms in a rainbow of light. From the street at night, the hotel window grid lit up like this turns it into a Mondrian. To capture that intense colourful grid for Vanity Fair, photographer James Mortimer had to agree the colours, get operators into every room with synchronised watches, and switch on.

On a grey evening when the residents are dining or at the theatre, the hotel is just as grey and lifeless from the pavements outside, but the potential for change is there even if residents don't use it.

And no one could fail to admire the Light Bar, a long rectangular room with three big light wells high overhead in the ceiling coloured red, then green and yellow, beaming down light onto the long white reflective surface of the bar. Drenched in colour, stepping in there is like going inside a lava lamp.

There's an entirely different mood in another hotel. Work at One Aldwych Hotel, London, won Sally Storey of Lighting Design International an Award of Excellence for the low key relaxed lighting without fussy fittings.

The indoor pool has a narrow shaft of light grazing down the walls which helps simulate daylight coming through the pavement light above. Submerged fibre optics give it sparkle. It shares the award of Excellence with the Bodleian Library in Oxford where DPA Lighting used fibre optics to spotlight upper bookshelves and spots to illuminate huge paintings. Specially designed reading lights achieve close control on the page with little spill onto banks of shelved books.

Le Corbusier's oft quoted definition of architecture as "the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light" is getting a whole new spin as lighting designers, like Dracula, come out to play at dusk. By night they have the power to transform our built environment with computerised colour changes, flashes of fibre optics and laser beams - just bathing a building in diffused light, or else blocking it out by leaving it in shadow.

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