“less or else” is becoming a bore

Editors Note:  I originally wrote this article in the Lam Partners’ blog way back in 2009, but even four years later, I still feel the content is dead-on.  I’m re-posting on my own blog for posterity.

Architectural lighting is poised for a dramatic transition into innovative new applications and approaches to sustainability. To summarize this transition, let’s look at architectural history through the lens of Mies van der Rohe’s famous quip “less is more”:

More is more: classical architecture in an age with limited technical and material capability.

Less is more: modern architecture responding to the abundance of the industrial age.

Less is a bore: post-modern architecture seeking to reconcile minimalism with a consumerist society.

Less or else: the struggle to develop “sustainable” strategies using pre-existing paradigms and technologies.

Let’s propose a new strategy:

More for less: finding a guilt-free, sustainable lifestyle as culturally rich and pleasurable as any previous trend.

It is quite apparent that the lighting design community is tiring of stuffing decades-old technologies and lighting paradigms into the limited metric of ever-decreasing watts per square foot. Lighting designers are hungry for new technologies, new fixture applications and new opportunities to work with architects to develop creative new design approaches.

If we want to find the pleasure inherently possible in living sustainably, then we need to change broader attitudes in the design profession. This requires an approach far more complex then simply forcing down allowed watts per square foot.

Accepting Random Variability and Darkness as Wonderful Things

Encouraged by various sustainable design initiatives, architectural technology is moving from the tectonics-based “isolated shelter: humans versus nature” approach, toward an approach that considers buildings as living, dynamic organisms, constantly exchanging energy and resources with their surrounding ecosystems.

Therefore, designers of buildings need to move beyond their constant drive to create interior environmental stasis and pervasive homogeneity of light and air; they need to explore and exploit natural patterns of variability. In lighting, this means ignoring decades-old “best practices” routed in fixed equipment that was either on or off, with fixed outputs, without any functionality for accommodating change, and instead exploring more naturally derived patterns of light and shadow, variable color palettes, visual patterns, and other forms of dynamic change.

Darkness is wonderful: it helps people see the light. Designers must learn to not be so scared of it. And variability keeps a space alive, long after the design and construction process has ended.


Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi

Jean Nouvel has designed a perforated dome structure to provide shade from the piercing sun of the Persian Gulf. The organic pattern of the perforations softens the light and casts visually rich patterns across the structures below.


The Banality of Average Footcandles

Why must every corner of a building be lit to predetermined, fixed levels? Why have architects come to imagine their designs as compositions set in perfectly uniform environmental conditions with predetermined levels of light? Why have codes reinforced this simplistic thinking?

For example, modern office spaces have become terrible places to work because nothing ever changes. The lighting, the air flow, the ergonomics of the furniture, the sound, and, via constant computer usage, even the focal point of a worker’s gaze has become so fixed that the worker is completely deprived of any natural stimulus. Many commercial and institutional projects have suffered similar fates.

It is ironic that “stimulus deprivation” such as described above is recognized as one of the most effective forms of interrogation. We’re literally torturing the inhabitants of our buildings.

Down with Downlights!

Modernist architects of the 1960s, along with pioneering lighting designers and fixture manufacturers, developed concealed light sources to keep the visual focus on their bold geometric forms and rich materials. They artfully used their exquisite architecture to create pleasurable contrast, sparkle, and perceived brightness.


Four Seasons Restaurant, New York

With lighting design by Richard Kelly and fixtures from Edison Price, this fine example of 1960s International Style uses concealed fixtures to highlight exquisite materials and bold geometric compositions.


That’s fine if you’re Philip Johnson and Mies van der Rohe designing the famous Four Seasons Restaurant in the classic Seagram Building. The problem is that for the rest of us working on budget-driven commercial and institutional projects, the only materials we often have at our disposal is plain sheetrock and acoustic ceiling tiles. This combination of lost materiality and the lingering desire of many architects for “invisible” light sources (such as recessed downlights) has virtually wiped out tools such as contrast, sparkle, and perceived brightness from many designers’ kit of techniques.

Post-modernism only worsened the problem, treating visible light fixtures as kitschy historical references while using “invisible” sources to do the “real lighting”. Hence we are left with a legacy of recessed, concealed fixtures that waste nearly half of the light from the lamp in a desperate attempt to look “invisible”, along with decorative pendants and sconces, a duo ultimately derived from gaslight fixtures circa 1900.

The most positive benefit of LED lighting is the plethora of new formats LEDs are spawning, such as grids of tiny direct-view point sources, super-compact linear fixtures, or glowing panel systems. LEDs are encouraging designers to treat light as a material, which helps them to explore new forms of self-illuminated architectural elements.


Jason Bruges Studio, Hotel Puerta America, Madrid

This excellent example of a light source integrated into an architectural wall system also demonstrates cutting-edge control: cameras integrated into the wall track a person’s movement and create animated “digital shadow” effects.


Experience Designers (Formerly Known as Lighting Designers)

Digitally controlled, intelligent lighting systems are becoming inexpensive and widespread. Savvy, creative use of daylight is being included far more extensively in architectural design. Hence, designers must reincorporate the dynamic and experiential element of time into their thinking.

Once an architectural composition is considered as a dynamic scene, a range of questions spring up: When can an area be dark? When must it be bright? Should the lighting respond to the external environment? Will a fade between two colors achieve the same visual effect with lower wattage? Will an animated surface make a space feel more natural?

Because of the wide crossover between the theatrical lighting and architectural lighting professions, most lighting designers are already well equipped to handle such dynamic design strategies. The challenge is to incorporate novel ideas for energy conservation into the client’s preconceived notions and within the restrictions of outmoded code requirements. Another challenge is far more pragmatic: How do you document the element of time in an architectural drawing set?

The core question becomes: How can we, as lighting designers, enrich an occupant’s temporal experience of a place while using fewer resources?

With Love, Bill Gates: Lighting Design Becomes Interface Design

Architecture, by its very nature, interfaces with the natural environment. But there is another highly variable environment that architecture must also address: the digital realm.

Buildings must now be considered not only as shelters but as portals to digital content. How will new lighting technologies and media displays enable richer, more variable portals between the human world and the digital world? How will buildings exchange data with their inhabitants?


Interactive wall and table concept, Microsoft Office Labs

Microsoft’s stunning view of the future shows non-luminous, multi-touch interactive wall and table displays set in natural daylight.


Lighting designers will soon have to adopt a wide range of new technologies – including thin-film light sources, low- and high-resolution video displays, digital content servers, and interactive proximity-based control systems – into their range of commonly used tools. Lighting designers are also well positioned to help clients integrate photovoltaic solar cells into a building’s façade systems.

With the lack of high-level innovation in the lighting industry, lighting designers increasingly have to depend on technology coming from outside of the industry in order to stay relevant to their client’s needs. All of this technology, however, will have to be integrated into architecture with the highest levels of sustainable design. What will digital media systems, integrated into architectural building systems and developed in a true, cradle-to-cradle sustainable fashion, ultimately look like?



Simone Giostra & Partners Architects, GreenPix Zero Energy Media Wall, Beijing

The GreenPix project includes photovoltaic solar cells artfully integrated into a glass rain screen system, with each panel backlit with an LED pixel. During the day, it collects all the energy it needs; at night, it dazzles with textural “low-resolution” video effects.



The intersection of digital media design and green building systems poses an area of development rich with innovative opportunities for designers and manufacturers alike. The next generation of buildings will be living, breathing organisms, respirating and conserving energy and light through naturally derived exchanges, full of dynamic variability, and rich with digital content. The future for lighting systems has never been brighter.

Photo Credits: Ateliers Jean Nouvel (1), Four Seasons Restaurant (2), Jason Bruges Studio (3), Microsoft Corporation (4), Simone Giostra & Partners Architects (5-6)