“There Is An Old Cliche That Lighting Design Is The Balance Between Art And Science. And It Absolutely Is.”
Interviews, Opinions June 11, 2019 TiL Editors
Mark Ridler is an award winning international lighting designer who leads the lighting profession across BDP, a multi award-winning global architecture, engineering and design practice.
Mark believes that collaboration is essential for great design. He has recruited a vibrant team from varied backgrounds, including product designers, engineers, theatre designers and architects, effectively forging them into a winning force in international lighting design.
Human interaction with architecture through the medium of light is central to his philosophy and practice. His projects are varied, covering commercial, public realm, leisure, retail, art and art galleries, exterior architecture, transport and daylight design.
We caught up with Mark to discuss light art, education, the technology revolution in lighting design and what his hopes are for the future.
Trends in Lighting: You have a team of artists you collaborate with at BDP, how did this partnering manifest itself?
Mark Ridler: In the last 15 or so years light art has become more common, much more of a thing that people are interested in creating or commissioning and we have responded to this. We have a few ways in which we work with artists and create art.
In some cases you get very literate artists who know all about lighting technology as well as its impact, and in others you get those who wish to incorporate lighting but that do not have the technical expertise that is required, so we’d step in.
One of the things we found quite often in our concepts was that we’d identify a space suitable to a light art work and we’d make the suggestion of an artist to our clients. That has developed into a two way conversation with clients today as they make their own suggestions.
Members of our in-house team are also now creating and installing their own work. Pop-up installations with groups like Guerrilla Lighting and DARC have been incredibly well received.
Within the last year we have been commissioned to produce our own artwork, which is very gratifying and great fun.
TiL: Will you continue to partner with other artists for your clients’ projects?
MR: The journey is ongoing. We are very open to collaboration.
One central point is that at BDP, what drives us is the concept of an ultimate client.
Of course we have those who commission us and pay us and their requests are paramount and central to what we do. But, conceptually, the way in which we analyse space is also a process of understanding the human needs and wants of the user group who use, inhabit and encounter the space.
This gives us a much wider position beyond the exacting needs of a client. It allows us to formulate a brief and produce a concept that, as work progresses, you can protect, based on the terms and parameters you define by approaching the work from understanding the human perspective. This feeds lessons learnt back into the work.
In terms of ‘Art’, this means we have to evaluate what is most suitable for those people. Is it best we do it, should another artist do it or should art even be a factor in that space?
TiL: What is the trigger that brings a client to choose light art in their architecture?
MR: There are many reasons. There used to be 1% initiative in the UK where 1% of a development’s budget had to be spent on art.
It could be a client that wants to create a relationship with the community. In Exeter, in the South West of the UK, we developed a project called The Alms Houses with a client that wanted to engage with the local community, developing trust wanting to create a bond through the use of art.
In another case, the Westgate shopping centre in Oxford, central England, there was a desire to promote the development’s brand as a public space, not a commercial centre, using light to enhance the feeling of a civic space.
We are working on several large, on-going projects for corporate clients that have increased their focus on wanting to humanise headquarters and offices. They have been open to analysing and appraising spaces, and they want to bring new warmth and usability to their existing and new developments going forward.
Some clients are also very literate in art, collecting it or viewing it, and that sensibility transfers itself into commissioning art.
Image:The Almshouses Princesshay Exeter. David Barbour
TiL: How do you balance the humanising of a space through art and the recent findings in Human Centric lighting in a concept?
MR: That concern is really a focus of the architectural work we do. I don’t think the ‘art work’ that we do or assist with is not fully immersive. The functional requirements in regards to Human Centric lighting, in fact all levels of functionality, be it psychological or physiological, don’t really apply to the art pieces, which is part of the joy.
There is a debate in the office, and in the wider industry about when something either stops or starts being art. What is art? This question has been rolling on for millennia, so I have no intention of trying to answer it here.
But I think of one of the very important criteria in defining art is when a brief for a light installation does not have any functional requirements attached. It does not need the light to do anything other than exist for its own sake. It might have an emotional requirement, but it does not need to facilitate a human task.
TiL: Is this discussion around art and light happening more or less often in lighting design?
MR: Occasionally, yes. It evolves around the question “Am I an artist, or a designer who does artistic things with light?” Are you claiming too much for yourself as a lighting designer? Interestingly, it happened a lot in theatre. Was lighting design in theatre, art? Arguably yes, but then arguably no, because you do not have sole control over what you create. You illuminate other’s work so can you make that claim for yourself – you don’t have authorial control. I am interested in it, but I don’t get exercised by the title. I care more about the work that is done.
TiL: Your work seems to be more grounded in creativity – do you feel you have struck a good balance?
MR: There is an old cliche that lighting design is the balance between art and science. And it absolutely is. And it is down to how you maintain that balance. If a fantastic concept is not realisable then it is not worth the paper it’s written on because no one will see it. On the other hand a design that has no soul is just that, it’s soulless. You need both.
I’m a qualified engineer that ran away to join the theatre, so I have that dichotomy within me.
I also recruited a team here in the London office that carry multiple skills. Artists who have studied a craft, who also have MSc qualifications; people with a duality of understanding. We make sure we have a balance in the team of artists and scientists and as a totality we have the skills to always bring balance to our projects.
Image: Westgate Shopping Center, Oxford
TiL: Are the next generation of lighting designers coming out of university with the balance of skills you need?
MR: Sort of. It’s something we debate often, especially in the context of Brexit. In the 90’s and the early 2000’s we used to recruit people from a professional level and then we‘d train them in any gaps they had, usually the physics of light and the rudiments of designing. Back then, we deliberately did not recruit from MSc, because these people came out of studying thinking they were master of lighting, and they weren’t. Their expectations could not be met and they were sorely disappointed with the reality.
Then the MSc courses changed. We are recruiting extremely well qualified people from a few institutes, – however they are European schools or they are predominantly European graduates. It is extremely likely over the coming months and years that this will become a problem for us, especially as we have won government based contracts and for security reasons the people working on them must be resident in the UK for 3 years out of 5. Now we have to think about how to recruit designers from the UK. It’s likely we will have to recruit from a grad level then train them up as we used to.
I don’t see it as insurmountable; it is just a hurdle we will have to work at overcoming. Lighting design won’t be alone in facing this problem.
TiL: We keep hearing that the skills required to keep up with the tech-revolution means that lighting designers often feel they have to be so much more than designers. They are now software developers, engineers in control, data scientists, researchers …and more. Do you find your team also have to work to keep up or do you have dedicated technologist in-house to support your designers?
MR: No – No we don’t, not yet.
It’s going to be a tough balance to know when to recruit these people because frankly right now there wouldn’t be enough work to keep them going. However, in 5 years if we don’t have people like that we will miss out on opportunities. I don’t know when the tipping point will be reached.
On the other hand I think products will come to market that will make it easier. As an example, iterative and generative design has been something we have been thinking about for years. This would have required coding skills and developers in house if we were going to go ahead and do it, but there was no sufficient commercial imperative to make that jump. However, now with the Rhino/Grasshopper eco-systems freeware that is easy to learn, very intuitive and sufficiently developed, with a wide, open source community, it is being pushed forward. That means a few of my designers can hop on board and enjoy learning and using it and we are beginning to see a transformation in our work.
I manage most of the R&D and it will be up to me to say when we jump – it’s getting close.
Image: Paddington Lawn. Nick Caville
TiL: Over recent years do you feel lighting designers and the wider market, have been promised the tools to deliver the IOT, but have not yet seen this realised?
MK: The IOT will absolutely come – it’s coming like a train.
We are not there yet. You scratch the surface you can see we are just not there yet. The technology is not ready; the issues surrounding security, data handling, and privacy are not resolved. Software stacks need much more attention and are not fit for purpose yet.
There is a lot of commercial imperative to get this whole IoT up and running. People are steaming ahead, which is understandable. It’s easy for me to be accused of being a naysayer and a Luddite by saying “hold on, I think it’s not ready yet”. However, if you look deeper into the supposed projects and examples that demonstrate the new IoT technology, they are just multiple pilots and the technology is not quite market ready. We will get there as I said – just not quite yet – but it’s going to be soon.
When I first started to research heavily into the IOT it was because I perceived it as a threat to lighting. Subsequently I have changed my mind; it could be a huge opportunity if executed correctly and this all pivots on the industry making the right technology choices in the products and services they develop and how we can then adopt and utilise them.
It is also a massive opportunity for our clients, our ultimate client objective, and our business, but it is down to timing now –when to take that leap.
An open wireless network will, I believe, open this all up to everyone in lighting. We are looking into these ourselves at BDP, we are reviewing the players who are out there and what they are bringing to the network space. There are not many at present, maybe just one, but more will come!
TiL: What made you change your mind about the IoT not being a threat?
MK: It was all about the controls. Having come from theatre when you have the option to easily control thousands of channels effectively and easily to then be in architecture when sometimes just turning the light on is difficult, I have been staggered by how poor lighting control has been.
For me this is now where the opportunity lies. Having the ability to change the lights, and for it to be an intuitive process, will improve the lighting environments we want to create.
TiL: How are you managing the expectations of clients who want these controls today?
Mk: The conundrum now is that clients are ready for it, in fact gagging for it and this puts us in the uncomfortable positon of having to give them the bad news. The other consideration is that it will transform building engineering but there are only a small number of engineers who are currently on board and investing in it. There will be a skills gap.
The danger is that the technology will finally be ready, the client will say yes I want it, then the consulting industry will not be ready to specify, implement or maintain it. If the engineers are behind the loop, then contractors are even further behind.
The good news is that the product, in theory, should be cheaper and easier to install and work with and commission, so contractors should recognise the commercial advantages and embrace it fast!
TiL: How do you and your team discuss factoring in technology with your clients?
MK: It comes back to the ultimate client objective we have. It’s our touchstone that resolves all potential conflicts. We create open dialogue with our clients. We talk about what we want to achieve without discussing the technological details – if you open up those detailed conversations people ultimately get lost because none of us are 100% informed about it.
So in our open dialogue we are able to instead address the most important issue: how a space should make you feel and what it should do. Then we find solutions to match these issues. Aside from just talking about technology as a standalone thing, we talk about it in the context of solutions.
Design has always been about balance and resolving conflicting demands. These demands should be framed in the context of who you are designing for. This will establish a hierarchy of needs.
TiL: Are clients pushing you harder for more ‘tech’ in their concepts?
MK: In terms of concept, the mature clients that understand lighting design will engage in the debate, but when it comes to schematics then yes, the conversation can change because that’s when budgets are set. As an example, we were designing a fit out for a large developer headquarters and our direct contact was head of engineering.
He wanted us to make sure that the interior designers were happy, but he was particularly interested in the technology used. We had to have a difficult conversation where we strongly advised not to invest in a fixed POE plan and we agreed to collectively set up three meeting rooms with different technology in them to trial options. That client was technically driven; some not so much.
TiL: Out of all of the points we have discussed, what one thing would you like to see happening inside lighting in the future?
MK: Lighting is diversifying. It’s no longer what it used to be about. Our business model used to be centred on artificial lighting design, and now its daylight design, product design, art and technology. Data and software is the thing that will change use, but I’m not too sure it’s what I want, although we will embrace it. It could produce new business models that make us more creative and commercially successful…or it might close us all down. It’s coming and it’s all going to change. We will not be designing in the same way in 10 years’ time.
Image: Trinity Leeds. Sanna Fisher Payne
TiL: Are you excited about this evolution?
MK: …cautiously optimistic! The prospect of shiny new things has never excited me. It doesn’t drive me. I joined the theatre in my early 20’s because I thought the human race had got engineering and technology covered and maybe I would be best placed to use my skills: art, soul, contemplation and political actions with a small ‘p’.
What’s interesting for me is that all of the conversations around design as a service; IoT, connectivity etc. are being had by the people who are 50 plus years old. I am not being dragged into the 22nd century by my younger staff. I’m being asked to go there by clients and this is driven by a need for commercial success.
Tech doesn’t get me excited, but if it can really make lives better, if it can contribute to solving global warming, if it can reduce the toxic impact and not add to it – then it’s OK with me. But this is down to the next generation who are better qualified to deal with it, because it will have the biggest impact on them.