Lawrie Nisbet

Lawrie Nisbet, Managing Director of Lighting Design Partnership International recants his share of ‘accidental’ incidents that shaped a three decade long career, undulating over architecture, design, professional rugby and a specialisation in lighting of the built environment. Nisbet chats with Mrinalini Ghadiok, editor mondo*arc india, about some of his favourite things along the way.

“I would never call myself a lighting designer…” exclaimed Lawrie Nisbet, calmly but pointedly, as I introduced the idea of this interview to him. He went on to complete his sentence, “…I am a lighting architect.”

What could easily be confused as one of the same things, I understood what he meant – as an architect myself, I empathise with his sentiment. He clarifies, “My training is in architecture and urban design, which encompasses what you do and don’t do
with light. It is a critical part of the
larger process.”

For Nisbet, light and lighting are one of the many aspects of design, he just happens to specialise in the field. I guess he also just ‘happens’ to be one of the most sought after designers of light, with projects that range from small boutique hotels to high end residences, posh commercial spaces to institutes and award winning design competitions, of course dotted across the face of the earth.

Nisbet’s story is an interesting one, speckled with various ‘accidents’ as he terms them; these very incidents being what have shaped his journey and exploration in the field of design, with a special interest in light.

“My father was an architect, and a teacher of architecture and Urban Design. So I grew up with it, in that environment. It became a part of my DNA, and I ended up doing architecture… with no particularly great desire to do so.” This was one of the first accidents that plunged Nisbet into the conundrum of design. Having completed his studies at the Edinburgh College of Art, Nisbet took his father’s advice to travel.

On his return, he was faced with another ‘accident’. He found himself knocking on the doors of Lighting Design Partnership (LDP), recently founded by none other than the daring duo – Jonathan Speirs and Andre Tammes. While one hailed from architecture, the other brought the drama of theatre to the table. And Nisbet, fresh out of school, with the world at his feet was standing before them, ready to be plunged into the gruelling waters. Probably the third or fourth employee at LDP, he was exposed to projects that one would seldom get an opportunity to experience at that age, or stage of their career. He was put to task on international works, dealing closely with highly experienced and renowned architects, and some extremely coveted sites.

However, the ride lasted only a few years. “I moved to France to play professional rugby for a while,” he says nonchalantly. And as casually as his previous statement, he goes on to tell me that when he returned to Edinburgh, work just as easily fell his way.

“People started to ask me to look at this project, or that. And by accident, I again got into lighting and design work. I started with doing bits and pieces, then went on to doing more work, and eventually ended up establishing LDPi.”

Lighting Design Partnership International (LDPi) was founded in 2000 with a former colleague who also worked at LDP – Douglas Hamilton. Accredited by the RIBA, the Scottish practice was offered a vast range of works world over, including many masterplans. They completed the largest urban masterplan project for Putrajaya in 2001.

“Our background in design, and understanding of architecture and urban design was very unique. To be able to fully comprehend the environment, psychology of human behaviours, the process of urban design, what people do and how they live, and apply that to the design of light, was unique. We were speaking the same language as architects, and therefore we could explain thoughts better, and integrate ideas better. Knowing the process, and understanding it made it simple for us to work with others.”

This is the underlying philosophy that even today runs LDPi. All senior leadership is born from an architecture or design background. As Nisbet says, “Design is the most important aspect. Technology is something that can be built upon, and anyone can crunch numbers. It is design that not everyone can do.”

As an architect, it is difficult to refrain from expressing ourselves and limiting our views only to what we are asked. I know I face that, so I ask Nisbet if he ever finds himself offering unwanted advice. Back comes the answer, “All the time”! “When people understand that you have more to offer than just lighting, the discussion becomes more interesting. There are more aspects to design than just the world of lighting. In fact, during most design discussions, we don’t even talk about light.” Nisbet credits a healthy design discourse with architects from the world over that sets them apart, and enables LDPi to extend themselves to exciting work.

LDPi approaches each project in its individual environment. Although all design conceptualisation emerges from the head office in Edinburgh, they find themselves illuminating spaces and buildings from East Asia, to India, to the Middle East, all the way to the UK and Europe. Different markets of course pose their own challenges, but they most enjoy an international perspective.

I probe Nisbet into revealing some of his personal favourites. After a momentary consideration he says, “The Barr Al Jissah Resort in Muscat has to be one of our most demanding, yet rewarding projects. We were brought into the process at an early stage and spent a lot of time on it. We worked seamlessly with the whole team, developer and client included. It has now been operating for around fourteen years and still looks as good as then.”

Nisbet describes the architecture as ‘crafted’, and beautifully so. With total control over the site, the lighting architects had the freedom to explore and experiment. With 80% of the arrivals being international and 80% of them arriving at night, light played a crucial role in establishing a first impression, as well as setting the tone for their experience at the 50 hectare, super luxurious property. LDPi’s lighting strategy not only visually tied the three hotels and landscape together, but also addressed concerns for a delicate turtle breeding sanctuary in close proximity. Given that turtles are extremely sensitive to light, the team worked with turtle specialists to devise a scheme wherein the breeding process continued unhindered. “Years later, the turtle ecology continues to thrive. This is one of the biggest signs of our success,” says Nisbet happily.

Other exciting works include the Bahrain World Trade Centre, a major landmark building, which received many accolades for its dramatic lighting scheme; Oxford University, where the structure was left un-lit from the outside, but glowed from within instead; the Kempinski Hotel in Prague, which demanded a particularly sensitive approach to its historic building structure; and many others.

We venture east as our conversation takes us to Nisbet’s initial interactions with design in India. He claims it was another ‘accident’! He was introduced to Sonali and Manit Rastogi of Morphogenesis, with whom LDPi completed their first project and went on to do many others in the country. “Morphogenesis is all about design. They practice an architecture we like, they follow a design style that we like; it is contemporary with a grain of Indian culture. Some of our influences and references are the same, be it Le Corbusier or Geoffrey Bawa. So it has always been a seamless integration.”

Of the first project being a high end residence in the posh neighbourhood of Golf Links in New Delhi, Nisbet says, “The house was an art piece. It was an interesting design exploration which formed the beginning of our understanding of India, and its culture.”

As people who are passionate about different cultures and environments, and with years of global experience behind them, LDPi embraced India gracefully. While Nisbet strongly believes that design is universal, the cultural variations stem not so much from the design process, but in how you deliver it.

“Managing cultural differences becomes natural. If we know how the process will be, we know what will go wrong and how to react. If we know the market, we can do it very quickly. It is not just about lighting, but one needs to understand the products that are available, where they come from, and who will support you locally. If you are open to design, you pick up on these things very quickly,” explains Nisbet.

He goes onto describe that while there are no technical differences here as opposed to elsewhere, the biggest challenge of working in India, besides the time, skill and commercials, lies in the process of delivery. This is aggravated with the commercial desires of developers, as can be seen in any emerging market. “Developers are the same world over, reference points are the same, aspirations are not any different, but the process definitely is.”

Having worked here for almost a decade, Nisbet is clear to state that, “I don’t think this will change, this is just the way developers work.” However, he also defines a cycle for development, a cycle that all markets and economies must traverse. For Nisbet, the next step will be refinement, and he is ready to face that as well. “We learn from our experience; be it good or bad, it is a learning process. We will never say it is too hard; hard or not, we will always be there. We put our back into the work, and we understand that the emerging design is fantastic.”

He is optimistic about design and lighting in India. I suppose that is why LDPi can be seen as putting their name on a number of projects. They have been working on the Michael Schumacher World Tower in Gurugram with London based architects UHA, for Homestead. Designed to emulate the aerodynamic modeling of a racing car, the highrise is wrapped in a metallic ribbon reminiscent of the curves of a race track. LDPi’s concept mimics the architectural intent in strong graphic lines, bold moves and dynamic lighting.

Other projects in India include numerous corporate offices, high end residences, commercial towers and super luxury mega structures scattered over New Delhi, Gurugram, Mumbai and even Kolkata. Each project presents its own demands, and each demand is catered to with utmost care and precision.

Nisbet says plainly, “The reality is that you need very little light. However, cultural variations of the colour of light and the quality of light can be addressed only through an understanding of the culture and the client’s requirements. At the end of the day, design is all about people.”

Nisbet follows this philosophy unquestioningly, and it takes him full circle, bringing LDPi back to Oman. Having recently won an international competition with COX Architecture from Australia for the Oman Museum: Across Ages, the lighting architects are back in the Middle East facing their biggest design challenge so far. The legacy project is conceived in contemporary architecture but steeped in cultural values of Oman.

Driving inspiration from how sunlight reacts to the open areas, mountains and landscape, with varying colour temperatures juxtaposed against local hues, they are currently discovering expectations, regional nuances, and looking at a story to tell.

“If there is a story to tell about the architecture and design, there should be a story to tell about the lighting.” And so LDPi embarks on weaving their own tale. Mapping the journey of a visitor’s arrival to the desolate site, the designers are charting the way to the resort, choreographing the entire sequence through light, and bringing the visitor to an impressive vantage of illuminated mountains. I am curious to know how they intend to light the mountains. “We actually went up the slopes and put light fixtures into the landscape,” Nisbet says with a glint in his voice.

I was familiar with LDPi’s work and Nisbet’s passion, but this conversation is opening chapters that leave me intrigued about how a small office (all of fifteen people), of which the principals are mostly traveling from country to country, manages to pull out of their hat one stunning project after another across the globe. More than that, they have in their kitty some of the most compelling works. Who would have thought the biggest boat in the world requires the magic wand of a lighting architect, or that perhaps the most expensive residence in London is being illuminated by a Scottish firm, or that LDPi is in cohorts with lighting a football club!

Nisbet can not be more cursory in his explanation, “People work with us because they like us as people. We are very confidential about how we work, and that is appreciated.”

I cannot wait to ask, “When do we see LDPi take a more permanent position in India?” I am met with an impish smile, “Yes, we are expanding. How we will do that, we don’t know! With respect to an Indian office, I will never close that as an option, but the spark will always be in Edinburgh.”

He continues, “We are not the biggest in terms of numbers, we do not want to take over the world of lighting design. We want to work with interesting people on interesting projects, and run a commercial business. It is about being able to steer the ship in the right direction at the right time. That too is an art, specially when you are not trying to be the biggest.”

Pic: Courtesy LDPi Team