Landmark Status

12th February 2021

Rogier van der Heide examines the extra efforts to which lighting designers need to go to effectively and sensitively illuminate our heritage monuments, with some striking examples.

Some call them “monuments”, others say “heritage” or simply “historic buildings”.

Either way, they are part of our cities and villages and they link our understanding of the present to our collective memories of the past. 

Monumental buildings form a critical part of the cityscape. They are often beautiful to look at, they provide your city with uniqueness, charisma, and character, and many of them still function remarkably well, making them a testimony to sustainable building.

Those historic structures, that simply seem to have been there forever, are important for a city to make its citizens feel at home, to create destinations and navigational beacons, to get attached to and to be fond, or even proud of. Who will ever forget the expression of devastation on the faces of the eye witnesses when the Notre Dame of Paris was on fire? For many people, a piece was ripped out of their heart and it was not the cathedral that caught fire, but a whole nation.

The economic relevance of monumental buildings is obvious, too. In European cities – the capitals of the “Old World” after all – historic buildings form a key attraction. A major experience that delights tens of millions of visitors in every city, every year. Their images – by day and night – are broadcast all over the world on Instagram and in the digital photo albums of people everywhere. Chances are slim that Apollodorus of Damascus – the architect of the 2,000 year old Pantheon in Rome, would have thought of that! Good historic buildings may change their function over time, but they remain relevant. It is this relevance that deserves great, imaginative illumination, so those structures can perform their much-needed role in today’s society.

Fortunately, there are more and more lighting schemes of historic buildings that recognise all of the above. Lighting that links historic buildings to their environment rather than detaching them. Lighting that is like a narrative, telling you what you see, by highlighting details and unexpected elements of a façade. Lighting that demonstrates respect to a building that has been watching the city grow and change, and that proudly endures, and stands the test of time.

Eleftheria Deko’s lighting of the Acropolis is a fine example of that. Though it was featured in much greater detail in the previous edition of arc magazine, it is worth mentioning again that Deko’s lighting is fantastic. 

The iconoclastic poet Kostas Karyotakis wrote in 1920: “The Acropolis, as a queen up there, wearing the scarlet sunset…” If you have visited Athens you’d agree it’s nothing less than that. 

To me, the Acropolis tells the story of civilization. What better could the lighting designer do than connecting the Acropolis’ most important building – the Parthenon – to the city of Athens as it is today? And how she did! By lighting the rock that elevates the Parthenon over the city, a genius gesture that is intuitively understood by all. The result of unconventional thinking, but more importantly, of a profound understanding of the nature, the story, and the cultural relevance of the monument at hand.

Another recent example of outstanding lighting of a historic site is Charles Stone’s illumination of the historic façades of the Bund waterfront in Shanghai. A collaboration between Fisher Marantz Stone and Uno Lai, the scheme aims to be “light for the people” as Stone explains it. What he means is that while the lighting clearly shows the history of the site and its 1930s façades that all remarkably survived, the whiter light firmly positions the Bund in the future of Shanghai. The lighting designers also wanted to show the different kinds of stone of the 27 façades, and reveal those through subtle shifts in colour temperature. It is light that tells a story: the story of a harmonious waterfront, where delicate differences contribute to a holistic approach, as a juxtaposition to the “visual density” and chaotic cacophony of the Pudong district that is for many of us “Shanghai as we know it”. 

These two projects demonstrate that the lighting of historic buildings is not about floodlights and wall mounts but all about making an effort to learn, and to discover the true meaning, function and role of the building at hand. Poets and historians will get you further than lighting engineers and project managers. And once you understand, you’ll decide what to emphasise, what to tell, and what to leave up to the imagination of the viewer. That is the magic of great design: to show just so much that the viewer wants to discover more. Our experiences are fuelled by curiosity.

When we illuminated the façades of the National Museum of The Netherlands (the Rijksmuseum), we shifted to revealing greater detail, using less colour, creating lower contrast and embedding the “building image” much better in the Museumplein environment. The building’s night time appearance has become more welcoming, less monumental if you like, and truly a destination of everyone and for everyone – much like how it was intended when it was built at the end of the 19th century. The fact that other European fine art museums of that time used to be palaces that put private collections on display, while the Rijks was built on purpose, with public money that funded both the building and the collection, is truly remarkable. And it is more than worth interpreting in the way the building presents itself at night. That’s how a governmental strategy some 130 years ago inspires a lighting design today.

Buildings and their purpose change over time. An important trend is the refurbishment of existing buildings, giving them new, often commercial, purpose. Think Milan-Post-Office-becomes-Starbucks. Despicable? Not at all! 

Often, these commercial investments are the only way for historic buildings to survive these days. Many of them are restored beautifully. And moreover, just like their previous function, their new role is most likely not forever anyways. 

The Milan “Palace of Post” has a gorgeous façade, and the lighting by Jason Edling’s Niteo from Seattle plays with theatrical tricks, with contrast and sparkle, to give the building a makeover after it became worn out by its long service for the Italian Post. It is as if it wants to say: I have been rejuvenated! It’s anti-aging at its best. It requires a great sense of detail and again, a profound understanding of the client and the role the monument plays in society.

An even better example of such a redevelopment is perhaps the Palais Hansen in Vienna. Named after its architect, Theophil Hansen, who designed it as a hotel for the World Expo of 1873. Two years later, it was converted into an apartment building. Being a purely neo-classical façade, the Palais Hansen has defined this part of the “Schottenring” avenue. The government sold the palace to Kempinski, who committed to renovating it and emphasising its original Greek-inspired splendour. 

With a lighting design by Dan Hodgson of acdc, the façade obtained an incredible subtlety without disappearing from the streetscape. The monochrome lighting – that actually leaves many areas of the façade in dimmed illumination – symbolises understated luxury: the trademark of Kempinski. It works out perfectly on this classic façade. The statue of Nike – the Greek goddess of victory – at the top of the façade receives a well-deserved highlight, telling the story of Hansen’s inspiration, that he got when he worked in Athens.

The lighting of historic façades and buildings is great fun, but a great responsibility too. It is like Howard Brandston said: “when you start to have an awareness of the world, it is a richer experience”.

Pic: John Lewis Marshall