Prof. Dr. Thomas Römhild

Image: Bipin Rao

After more than 20 years as head of Hochschule Wismar’s Architectural Lighting Master’s Programme, Professor Thomas Römhild is retiring this summer. Here, arc speaks with Römhild about the formation, growth and success of the course.

Since 2001, the German city of Wismar has become synonymous with lighting design, thanks to the world-renowned Architectural Lighting Master’s programme at Hochschule Wismar University of Applied Sciences: Technology, Business and Design.

Established by Professor Dr. Thomas Römhild, the course was the first Master’s degree on the subject of architecture and light in Germany, and has, since its formation, become one of the leading qualifications within the lighting design community, serving as a marker of quality for its more than 600 alumni.

Following the course’s 20th anniversary last year, Prof. Dr. Römhild is retiring from his role as course leader this summer and as such, arc sat down with him to discuss the formation, and continued success of the course over the years.

Prior to establishing the Architectural Lighting course, Römhild was a professor in the Department of Architecture at Hochschule Wismar, and with the growing recognition of lighting design as an independent profession, he spotted an opportunity for an educational programme on the subject.

He recalled: “In the previous years, independent designers in Europe began to organise and describe the job profile of lighting design, and it was clear that this also included an opportunity for education in lighting design. We understood that only a university level Master’s programme would fulfil the importance and complexity of the subject.

“Wismar is far away from the centre of the lighting industry in Germany, but the university still offered ideal conditions for the creation of such a course; there was a newly founded architecture course and an education for interior architects and product designers based on the traditions of the old design school in Heiligendamm. There were also departments for mechanical and electrical engineering, which also reoriented themselves – all courses that can make relevant contributions to a new range of courses for lighting designers.

“I recognised this potential and brought the necessary players together. With external advice from Prof. Jan Ejhed and Prof. Dr. Heinrich Kramer, considered one of the founding fathers of lighting design in Germany, a study programme was developed that is essentially unchanged to this day.”

The study programme in Wismar was the first Master’s degree in light application that was founded in an architecture department, a move that Römhild feels “manifested a new perspective on lighting”.

He continued: “The reference to architecture, and thus the view of the people who use the space, expands the understanding of spatial design with light in relation to social and cultural aspects.

“This holistic approach is certainly one reason why this course has established itself as pioneering and has proven to be very enduring and successful. Another advantage of the course being taught in English is that it attracts students from across the globe, which has created an international network of graduates.”

Alongside the interdisciplinary approach, the fundamentals of the course are rooted in the methods of architecture training, namely through project-oriented teaching. Over the course of the Architectural Lighting programme, students are given several lighting design tasks that cover all facets of a real project. Necessary specialist knowledge is then developed through various tasks, with students learning how to develop, apply and deepen their knowledge. “It is important that the methodological skills for the lighting specific design process are trained,” said Römhild. “In addition, the various forms of influencing lighting are dealt with in a variety of practical exercises – “Light in the Box” and “Light Material” to name just two examples offered by colleagues Prof. Blieske and Prof. Rohde, are seminars that deal with the interaction of light, space, and material. In these practical exercises, students examine the design possibilities with light to experience the influence on visual ambience, the intuitive behaviour, and the function.

“The workshops in which the students design and implement atmospheric light installations for or at events are of particular importance. In this way they come into direct contact with their audience, receive feedback and learn to critically evaluate their creative skills. For the same reason, we try to choose the project tasks in such a way that real stakeholders evaluate the students’ results.”

Within these practical, architecture-inspired elements, the lighting design programme is based on the fact that projects with different thematic focuses are processed into three modules, with the basic knowledge and problem awareness conveyed to students through their work on various assignments – it is a formula that Römhild believes has been “tried and tested” over the years.

“Building on the basics that are taught in the compulsory subjects of lighting design and daylight, as well as lighting science and, in the second semester, light and technology as well as light and sustainability, this method-oriented training enables students to acquire the current knowledge required for the respective projects and to apply it,” he added. “In addition, the Light and Economics module, and an excursion to the lighting manufacturers, are compulsory.

“What is special about the course are the numerous compulsory electives, which enable the students to set their own priorities. For example, one of the electives I offer is called “Light and Symbols”, which deals with the different aspects of light in the context of culture, history, and art in relation to natural phenomena. Another elective offers an opportunity to deepen the knowledge base in technical and conceptual terms for development of new interactive, dynamic indoor and outdoor lighting scenarios.”

With such a tried and tested programme in place, Römhild explained that while the course has grown in prominence over the years, its fundamental, interdisciplinary offering has remained relatively consistent.

“At the beginning, we set up the course across faculties together with colleagues from mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. Within the faculty, colleagues from architecture, product design and interior design were also involved. Over time this collaboration has diminished, mainly due to downsizing and organisational changes, but the interdisciplinary approach has still remained.

“Organisational changes and the involvement of individuals from much broader or more specific backgrounds have added unique value to the content and the character of teaching. However, this does not mean a fundamental change, but rather the advancement of content. The diversity of projects also means that no two semesters are the same, and that new tasks are constantly being introduced into the course.”

That being said, the technological advances within the lighting industry have meant that certain elements of the programme have adapted over the years, as Römhild elaborated: “Our teaching method comprises of a situation-related, dynamic conceptual approach towards design projects. But initially the approach was mainly related to static architectural and mono-functional aspects. Over the years, a more dynamic view on the tasks is possible and dynamic solutions made feasible, at the same time employed to more user-centred lighting. This is accompanied by research projects and teaching subject areas of controls and daylight as a natural model for constantly changing dynamic lighting.

“At the moment, three full-time professors teach and research on the course: Prof. Michael Rohde, with a focus on Light-Space Communication; Prof. Jan Blieske on an endowed professorship, with a focus on Light Applications in Architecture, half of which is also used for research; and myself, focusing on Design, Building, Climate and Lighting Planning.”

One of the driving forces behind the adaptation of the course, Römhild explained, was the introduction of a part-time “blended learning” course in lighting design 10 years ago. The course, offered by Römhild together with his colleague Prof. Dr. Marcus Hackel is a combination of face-to-face and online classes and fuses topics surrounding architectural lighting design and design management to span the spectrum from architectural lighting through planning practice to the professional management of lighting projects.

“In development of the study programme, with contributions by Prof. Dr. Harald Hofmann, I also invited many well-known colleagues to be part of the programme, such as Roger Narboni, Paul Traynor, Nathan Thompson, and colleagues from KMUTT in Bangkok – Prof. Dr. Chanyaporn Bstieler and Prof. Dr. Acharawan Chutarat,” Römhild continued.

“This introduced new content, which in turn influenced the on-campus course as well.”

 Through it all though, Römhild said that there is an overarching philosophy within the Architectural Lighting programme at Wismar, that he has sought to instil within his students over the past 20 years. “Lighting design means shaping light, or shaping space with light,” he said.

“Lighting design can be described as a creative process that aims to achieve functional, atmospheric, and emotionally touching lighting in a specific physical environment, according to the situation defined by the task, the expected behaviour, and the social position of the user, taking into account the demands of human physiology and psychology, as well as the environment.

“The aim of the training is to sensitise the students to the complexity of the task. I like to say that the students have to learn to see light, they have to recognise the importance of light as a mediator between people and space.

“The interaction of people, light and space with the corresponding interfaces to lighting technology is the core of the education. Lighting designers trained at Hochschule Wismar not only have the ability to creatively design lighting, but also have knowledge of the relevant areas of architecture and interior design, as well as electrical, photometric, and building climate control.”

With this in mind, the teachers offer various tasks to integrate into the various modules, with practical exercises – where students develop a concept for an existing architectural structure and experiment with in-house luminaires – a very important part of the course.

The faculty also includes a light laboratory, led by Bipin Rao, which offers a large experimental space for students. The space contains an artificial sky and an artificial sun, as well as movable ceilings and variable walls. 

“Bipin brings his expertise to the hands-on workshops and gives classes that help students with simulation programmes and lighting control,” Römhild added.

While the course has adapted with the times over the past 20 years, modifying certain modules and focuses in line with technological advances and attitudes towards architectural lighting, Römhild explained how the faculty has, alongside other higher education facilities around the world, kept abreast of industry developments to ensure that its offering is always up-to-date. 

“Through various research projects in the field of daylight, lighting of public spaces, light and health or light in the preservation of monuments, we have worked with researchers from other universities to deepen relevant topics.

“We have strengthened the resulting network through symposia such as the regular Light Symposium in cooperation with Aalborg University Copenhagen and KTH in Stockholm, the Dynamic Light conference and Licht Campus 2019, which was organised in cooperation with several universities, and a new row of conferences named “Light and Heritage”. All colleagues involved in both courses are practicing architectural lighting designers also.”

After more than 20 years as the head of the Architectural Lighting Master’s programme, Römhild is set to retire this summer, and while he has largely withdrawn from the organisational work in the lead up to this, he said that he still works with students “with undiminished intensity”, particularly now that students are back on campus in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite his impending retirement though, he is showing no signs of slowing down: “Together with my colleague Prof. Dr. Marcus Hackel, I hope to be able to continue managing and teaching in the blended learning programme for a few more years,” he said.

“I was also elected Chairman of the LiTG, Germany’s lighting society. The now 110-year-old association of people who are professionally involved with lighting is an incredibly exciting association in which various aspects of light are dealt with, be it in research and the communication of research results, further education, as well as in the practical application of how lighting knowledge is offered by the members of this community.”

As he begins to look to the future, Römhild doesn’t know for sure what will come next within the lighting industry, however with the extensive experience he has gained since starting his doctorate on the symbolism of artificial lighting 40 years ago, he can offer some predictions: “My work at the university and in the LiTG gives me a good insight into future developments, but I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “As with everywhere else, the discussions are currently very much in the direction of sustainability. But what does sustainability mean for lighting and the lighting industry? For industry, the further development of production methods seems to be moving in the direction of product flexibility with resource-saving use of materials. For the user, the focus is on the possibility of individual use of light with low energy consumption and undesirable side effects such as light pollution.

“We held a conference last year to celebrate 20 years of Lighting Design at Wismar, and one of the results of lectures and discussions at the event was the demand for sufficiency of lighting – i.e., only providing the light that is needed. In the research project ‘Dynamic Lighting of Public Spaces’, we examined how the design process would have to look in order to really be able to offer lighting that meets people’s needs. It has become clear that static lighting systems will become more and more questionable in the future and that a lighting system must enable a variety of scenarios. That brings us back to the requirements for industry. In addition to the versatile lights, control systems and interfaces must also be offered that enable customised lighting situations.

“For the lighting design, especially for a dynamic solution, similar to software design, it applies that an individual, interdisciplinary task is a prerequisite for successful planning. The holistic planning approach makes it possible to develop lighting that is understood as a prerequisite for a differentiated, atmospherically dense, multifunctional, resource and environmentally friendly urban space in the morning, evening and night, and not as a necessary addition to be planned purely in terms of lighting technology.”

With this in mind, Römhild shared the key piece of advice that he has given to students over the years: “One of the results of the 20 Years Lighting Design conference was the demand to get by with less light in public spaces. When it comes to lighting, sufficiency can be summed up in simple words: We use as little light as possible, but we also need as much light as necessary. Only a precise analysis of the task can lead to the determination of the required quality, quality in the holistic, sustainable sense. This can then result in an individually optimised solution that meets the requirements of the user.

“It takes time and commitment don’t let yourself be put under pressure, do your job properly!”

With more than 600 graduates from Hochschule Wismar’s Architectural Lighting programme over the last 20 years, it’s safe to say that, on the eve of his retirement, Professor Dr. Thomas Römhild has been doing his job properly for some time.

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