House of Wisdom, UAE

5th May 2022

Lighting designers at Delta Lighting Design have created a subtle, yet complementary lighting scheme for the new House of Wisdom in Sharjah, UAE that accentuates the beautiful architecture of Foster + Partners, while giving the building a glowing impression.

Designed by Foster + Partners, the House of Wisdom in Sharjah, UAE, was created with the bold ambition of reimagining the role of libraries in the communities of the future.

Seen by many as archaic, old-fashioned institutions, the goal for the House of Wisdom was to revitalise the concept of the library, creating a high-tech cultural centre that would become a social hub alongside its role as a repository for books and periodicals, where guests could come in search of knowledge and exchange of ideas.

Situated adjacent to Sharjah airport, ten kilometres from the city centre, the two-storey building was designed to “embody a sense of clarity and lightness”, with a huge, floating roof cantilevering on all sides of a transparent, rectilinear volume. The 15-metre-wide overhang shades the façades throughout the day, and further accentuates the building’s glowing form after dark.

To help enhance this effect, Foster + Partners worked with Delta Lighting Design to develop an innovative lighting concept for the building. Intended to support the fundamental layer of transparency, the aim was that this would help to inspire future generations.

Ziad Fattouh, Director of Delta Lighting Design, explained further the lighting concept for the building: “The initial brief from Foster + Partners provided a vision for the project, and in this case the inspiration was taken from the design of some of the Apple stores that they had done, which also consisted of large, clear, glass façades.

“Naturally due to the façades being made of glass, we planned on illuminating key internal architectural elements that would in turn form a big part of the external scheme. Aesthetically, we wanted the building’s iconic architecture to be well captured, and wanted it to be as beautiful during the night as it was in the day.

“Our concept aimed to balance the interior lighting against the exterior illumination. The exterior shell would feel solid during the day and early hours of the evening, with the external lighting dominating the scene. The building would then transform and become much more transparent at night.”

Artificial lighting has been designed to bring out the depth of the architectural composition of the building, revealing its core and its timeless nature. This is done very subtly, in harmony with the transitioning daylight. To create this “chameleonic impression”, Fattouh explained that Delta Lighting Design used four core lighting effects that “form the primary lighting for the building”.

“These include the lighting of the book stacks, core walls, the downlighting – which is the main source of ambient lighting – and finally an exterior light source, that washes the canopy,” he said.

“These four sources run on a scene set with the interior lighting being strongly dimmed during the day, and gradually increasing in intensity during night time operating hours, and then dimming down again to about 5% during the later hours of the night. This serves to reduce energy consumption, as well as creating the changing impressions of the building.

“During the day and early hours of the evening, onlookers don’t see any of the building’s interiors and instead see a very dominant solid exterior. This slowly transforms and the interior lighting begins to increase in intensity and the interior starts to reveal itself. As the night sky becomes darker and the interior lighting goes to full intensity, the building becomes very light and transparent, and its inner core is revealed. Finally, as the last scene of the night happens, the interiors become dimmed again, reducing transparency and bringing attention to the exterior façade.”

A uniform wash of light to the four core pillars links the vast roof to the floor, the sky to the ground. Externally, a carefully selected narrow beam, inground mounted linear light runs beneath the cantilevered roof and provides a soft, uniform illumination to the 13-metre-wide canopy, while subtly grazing the metallic gold screen surrounding the façade. The glass façade – the physical boundary between inside and outside – melts under the power of light, and disappears from visual perception, revealing the core structure of the building. These lighting effects are organised in layers and, through carefully balanced light scenes, create a sense of depth, contrast, drama and orientation for the visitors of the library.

When the light levels to the underside of the roof are kept intentionally lower than the internal lighting, it provides the building with a strong horizontal cap, without drawing attention from the core of the building. Instead, as Fattouh explained, it serves to pull visitors inside. 

“We didn’t want the canopy to dominate how we perceived the building from the outside,” he said. “We wanted it to be understood, but the intent was to keep the lighting subdued in order to draw the onlookers’ focus into the building and create interest. When you look at the core walls, as well as lighting on the book stacks, which run along the entire elevations, you become intrigued and interested to understand what this building holds inside.”

When illuminated, the vast volume glows from within; lifted from the ground, it appears to float weightless, drawing its grace and harmony from the very tension of the architecture. “Our design team in London, headed by Director Mohamed Medani, ran calculations on Dialux Evo, and were sure that the lighting would be very uniform and that you wouldn’t be able to distinguish from each fitting,” Fattouh explained. “They also designed the light on the canopy to be stronger towards the first 50% of the canopy, and to fade away quickly the further you got from the building. This created the impression that the internal lighting was spilling out onto the canopy.”

Medani continued: “A delicate balance was crafted out of the building composition with an aim of pronouncing the architectural anatomy of the structure, and also to achieve the main design intent, which is the glow from within. The factors dictated a strong lighting effect on the cores to serve the purpose of pronouncing the architecture and subtle soft treatment to the canopy, as this is the area where the inner glow should start to fade out to blend with the exterior environment.”

Another key component of the glowing appearance was the careful, seamless integration of fixtures within the fabric of the building. Medani further explained how this approach was achieved, both internally as well as externally: “Seamless integration within architecture was an important element in the design approach – this is reflected in the lighting approach in general and specifically in the helical stairs where the lighting was provided with flexible LED strips concealed at the edges of the stairwell; the integration of downlights within the services channels in the ceiling to provide general lighting; the integration of LED profiles within the bookshelves, which was coordinated with the shelf design at an early stage of the project; and also the integration of grazing LED profiles around the four core walls. This approach successfully provided a cohesive lighting integration within the architecture.”

Throughout the course of the project, Fattouh explained that Foster + Partners remained very hands-on, working with all consultants to get the best results for the project. He said: “Foster + Partners were involved in all aspects of the design, and of course had their vision. We were heavily involved with Senior Partner John Blythe on the design stages, and then with their partner in Dubai, Dara Towhidi on the later stages of design and supervision. They are meticulous and will look at every single lighting design detail.

“Having said that, they get the best specialists on board and expect to get strong, creative, out of the box thinking from their subconsultants. This collaborative approach to design works best, and is one of the reasons that Foster + Partners are so successful.”

Looking back on the project, both Fattouh and Medani are incredibly satisfied with the finished work, happy that the actualised lighting design is as intended. Medani said: “We believe the design delivers the main intent and key vision of the building, which is light from within.

“The building appears like a lantern from an exterior point of view, which attracts observers to visit and explore. The lighting approach was successful in creating a welcoming and comfortable experience for building users to enjoy the different spaces of the building.”

Fattouh added that the opportunity to work on such a striking piece of architecture, with as renowned an architecture firm as Foster + Partners, made Delta Lighting Design’s task easier.

“Working on the lighting design of striking buildings makes our work easier, because you don’t need to come out with magical light effects to make the building more interesting. Simple lighting effects that are well executed and balanced help enhance and show the building for what it is.”

He concluded: “Working with firms such as Foster + Partners is challenging, yet rewarding. I really enjoy the design process when you are working with other designers that really know what they are doing. They will challenge the design at every turn, which in the end is what is needed to create something special.”

Image: Shoayb Khattab