Mark Ridler

17th February 2023

After more than 40 years in lighting, Mark Ridler has stepped down as Head of Lighting at BDP, leaving the industry to take up a new role at the Spinal Injuries Association. Here, Ridler looks back on a stellar lighting career, and speculates what the future holds.

Late last year, Mark Ridler announced that he was stepping away from his position as Head of Lighting at BDP. After more than 40 years in the lighting industry, 19 of which at BDP, Ridler began 2023 taking up a new position as Director of Programmes at the Spinal Injuries Association.

The move marks a big transition for Ridler, but is a natural one considering his career-long ambition to create work with a strong ethical consideration and societal impact.

As with many in the lighting community, Ridler found the profession almost by accident, discovering theatrical lighting while studying Engineering at the University of Cambridge.

He recalled: “When at university, another student asked me whether I wanted to do a follow spot. I didn’t even know what one was. I’d just stopped rowing and was looking for something to do outside of studying and said yes. So, my first connection with light was very physical – actually holding and directing a light at a performer and looking at the impact it had on them and the audience. I fell in love.

“I was always split between being good at science and the arts. I had to make a choice for A Levels and pursued the sciences, but I was always hankering after the arts. I rejected pure science for engineering because it had a more direct impact on society. I abandoned engineering because at the time it had little or no ethical consideration – an ‘I make the bomb; I don’t use the bomb’ mentality. But here was a profession, lighting in theatre, that did have an ethical context, made a societal impact and also allowed me to combine science and art. It was utterly compelling, but it was a complete fluke that I found it.”

Following his studies, Ridler developed a successful career in theatrical lighting, a career that he said led to “doing increasingly bourgeois shows and evermore travelling”. However, after getting married and starting a family, he sought a change of lifestyle.

“Architectural lighting had intrigued me for a while with the advent of theatre lighting designers illuminating buildings, notably at the time the Lloyds and Hoover buildings,” he said.

“I was doing a lot of networking and met the likes of Janet Turner, Mark Major and Jonathan Speirs, and others. Maurice Brill was advertising at the time for a senior at MBLD; I applied and got the job. That was a very fast learning curve, but with the support of Rob Honeywill and Kevin Theobald, I made Associate.”

In 2003, Ridler was involved in a road traffic accident, which resulted in him becoming a T10 paraplegic, unable to walk. Following his accident, Ridler explained that he wasn’t able to return to MBLD but was instead offered a job at BDP by then Head of Lighting, Martin Lupton. Lupton had seen an IALD presentation delivered by Ridler about Finsbury Avenue Square – a particularly notable project in his career – and offered him a job as a senior. “The following summer I was moved up to Associate, a couple of years after that Director, and in 2010 when Martin left, Head of Lighting.”

With a background in theatrical lighting, Ridler explained his ambition when he first stepped into the world of architectural lighting: “Coming from theatre, where my work was available to small, paying audiences, it was to make the beauty and power of light available to the widest possible audience, free at the point of delivery.”

This approach led to Ridler preparing a paper for PLDC on the ethics of lighting. “Essentially, the ethos I proposed was that design needed to be centred around the desires and needs of our ultimate clients – all those that use, inhabit, and encounter our designs. It has been my guiding principle ever since,” he said.

Throughout his career, Ridler has worked across a broad range of sectors, from hospitality and retail to infrastructure, workspace, and more artistic installations. This wide variety has meant that he never wanted to specialise in one particular area. “There is delight and frustration in every sector, and learning that can be carried across each that drives creativity,” he said.

“If you are good at listening to clients and understanding their operational needs, then a lighting design is always about revealing the human form in an architectural envelope, facilitating a variety of activities and hopefully creating an atmosphere that complements or inspires that activity.”

Despite having an ethical guiding philosophy in his work, Ridler feels that he never developed a signature style or aesthetic. Instead, projects are “driven by the context, be it architectural, political, social, historic, environmental, etc”. As such, each project has a very different look and feel. This is an approach that he hoped to instil within the lighting design team at BDP as well. He continued: “I led BDP as a design collective where each designer’s voice has equal weight, irrespective of experience, based upon the quality of the ideas expressed.”

Across an impressive body of work, Ridler cites Finsbury Avenue Square as a project that “put me on the map and changed my life in many different ways”, but as for an overall favourite piece of work, he said it’s “like trying to choose your favourite child”. 

“I’m going to nominate one of my last projects, which few of your readers will know because it hasn’t been photographed and publicised yet,” he added. “It is a disused warehouse in Glasgow that has been turned into an event space; it is clearly visible from across the water and adjacent train lines, and accessed by a new public square owned by Barclays.

“Designed with Tom Niven and Bojana Nikolic, the concept used ring of light techniques that Roger Deakins developed for film, combined with a complex colour play through a lattice of exposed rafters. Scenes are auto-generated from local climatic conditions and the whole thing is immersive and beautiful.

“Different designers come to concepts in many different ways. I’m still essentially a theatrical designer at heart. The process of having determined the available mounting positions, the look and feel is derived quickly and intuitively, and so it was with this one.”

Alongside his stellar design work, Ridler has throughout his career worked closely with organisations intent on driving positive change in the industry, from previous work with associations such as the ILP and PLDA, to more recently serving as a founding member of the GreenLight Alliance. This is something that Ridler believes ties back to his guiding ethos.

“Design has to be for everyone that encounters our design, which makes sustainability imperative,” he said. “Carbon is rightfully the concentration during a climate emergency, but it is the mass extinction event that human society is causing that should drive the circular economy, in my opinion. That, and resource depletion.

“I have always been collaborative by instinct, which is why I have devoted time to the ILP and PLDA in the past. The GreenLight Alliance is another example of how likeminded people can get together and make change. 

“I think it is doing great work with tangible impacts, like TM66, but almost more importantly by influencing the culture within the industry. There is a long way to go, of course, but I haven’t seen a similar initiative achieve as much as this in such a short time.”

Over the course of his 40 years in lighting, Ridler has seen a number of advancements and changes across the industry – not just in terms of lighting technology, but in the way that we work. “The biggest change has to be mainly technology,” he said. “At the start of my time at MBLD, we had one computer, faxes, no email, and concept presentations were paper pictures cut out and stuck onto bits of board. 

“Since 2003, there has been the explosion of the internet, social media, CAD to BIM, Adobe Photoshop and InDesign, the rise of video, communication over multiple platforms, mobile phones, Teams vs planes. So, everything to do with the production, distribution and exchange of design is faster – time for thought, planning, creativity, is at a premium, and I miss the widespread use of pencils.

“In lighting itself, the big change has been LED, of course. But control has also evolved, in particular into auto generation. Smaller, more discrete, lower energy, cooler, more precise optics, more control over the quality of light, but with the loss of the beauty and controllability of tungsten.”

As for further changes in the industry going forward, Ridler believes that the continued developments in technology, and in particular AI, could have a lasting effect. “I feel like a canal worker being asked that question [about the future of the industry] just at the beginning of the railways. We’ll still need to move goods, but it won’t be with horses and boats, it will be with trains and steam.

“While we do things at night, we will always need artificial light, but I don’t think anyone in the industry is quite understanding the impact that technology, and AI in particular, is going to have. Will there be such a thing as a lighting designer in 20 years? Perhaps not. Will the concept of professions survive? Again, I doubt it. And if they do, the way that we monetise design will be utterly disconnected from the human time spent in the means of production, as it is now.

“We need to have a much clearer sense of what humans are good at, as distinct from machines, and concentrate on those qualities. Those who laughed at me sticking pictures onto a board with glue 20 years ago should consider how pasting JPEGs onto electronic paper will look 20 years from now. Compiling a mood board from Pinterest is well within the grasp of machines, as is selecting luminaires and optimally placing them in a model through parametric design.

“Where the industry goes is outside of our control, but what I would like to see retained is elements of humanity, empathy, lateral thinking, intelligence, and ethics.”

From January of this year, Ridler has taken on a new position as Director of Programmes for the Spinal Injuries Association. An organisation close to his heart, the Spinal Injuries Association is a national charity that provides practical help to people who have been paralysed by spinal cord injury – its purpose is to be the expert, guiding voice for life after spinal cord injury, and it campaigns, educates and supports people affected, to show that an independent and fulfilled life is still achievable with paralysis.

Prior to joining the association full time, Ridler served on its board for four years, and also on an NHS board for the last two years. He explained what his new position as Director of Programmes will entail: “My role is to lead the delivery of all the frontline services and the charity’s communications and campaign activities. 

“It will be a massive challenge working in a sector in which I have no operational experience. However, the skills I’ve developed in running a business, leading teams, project work, my knowledge of the NHS and lived experience, I hope, will qualify me to bring new perspectives to what is a strategically led, energetic, thriving organisation. There’s a lot to do and a lot to learn, but then that is exactly why I’m excited.”

Looking back on his time in lighting, Ridler is hopeful that he has left a positive mark on the industry. Speculating on what his legacy may be, he said: “My friend and colleague Colin Ball joked in my goodbye card that at first I will be missed, then blamed, and then forgotten, and I think that is right. Light is intrinsically ephemeral and that is one of its attractions, so my legacy, if there is one, surely will not be projects. It may be an ethos, some words spoken that live in a memory and perhaps passed on to another with a smile.”

After stepping down from his position at BDP, the lighting team there will now be led by Colin Ball and Tom Niven. And while Ridler is excited about his new opportunity, he described the decision to leave the lighting world as “bittersweet”.

“I have been working in light for 45 years, and to leave that is going to be hard. But of course, I’m not leaving light behind. I can’t,” he said. “I live in the Cambridgeshire countryside, and I’m surrounded by the changing seasons of light and a magnificent dark night sky. I still look up every time I enter a room.

“There is much in architecture, however, that I became tired of, and I feared I was becoming stale. I need a change and a challenge, and I couldn’t make that happen within BDP, so it was time to hand the baton to the next generation and do something else. The future is bright with Colin and Tom. They are both talented designers, and have very complementary skills. They have already grasped the opportunity and articulated a vision on growth and internationalism.”

While he hopes to still keep an eye on the goings on in the lighting world in the future, he offered some closing words of advice to the industry to which he has devoted 40 years of his life: “For all the troubles in the world – political, economic, environmental – we as designers have agency. We can make a difference. That should be a source of hope that is important, I think.

“On occasion, look up from the day-to-day challenges and realise and celebrate the work that we have done. As a profession, much of it is good, and it is important to be kind to ourselves and remember that at times.

“The world of lighting is special because it acts as a community. While we are in competition, there is a mutual respect, and in many cases in my experience, affection. If I am going to miss anything, it will be that.”