Shanghai Bund District, China

18th December 2020

The city of Shanghai is perhaps best known for the glittering metropolis of the Pudong district, with its bright, colourful skyline the benchmark for modern urban planning. However, just across the Huangpu River lies the more traditional, classical architecture of the Bund district. A protected, historic area of the city, the district is characterised by a stretch of 27 landmarked buildings that stand out within the wider fabric of the waterfront. All built between 1920 and 1931, the façades of these buildings were previously cast in the warm, almost orange light of high pressure sodium fixtures. However, in early 2018, lighting design studio Fisher Marantz Stone won a competition to spearhead a mammoth re-lighting project that sought to rejuvenate the buildings, and in the process, give the buildings back to the people.

Charles Stone, President of Fisher Marantz Stone (FMS), explained: “I’ve been involved in Shanghai, annually or more often, since 2013, when I began speaking at annual conferences, and served as a judge for a different competition on the Huangpu River involving 60km of Riverfront. We were then invited to this competition. I attended a competition day full of presentations to academics, municipal authorities, a variety of constituents.

“We were awarded the project, and from day one, as soon as we realised that it was going to happen, we joint ventured with Uno Lai Lighting Design, whom we’ve known for many years. That was the beginning of eight months of steady work.”

During those eight months, FMS specifically focused on two of the Bund’s most iconic buildings – the Custom House and the Shanghai Pudong Development Bank – while also developing an overall lighting concept for 25 additional buildings along the Bund, collaborating with Uno Lai and six other local lighting consultants, to deliver the end result. 

Although not given a design brief in the traditional sense, Stone explained that FMS worked closely with the municipality of Shanghai in formulating the original concepts: “They knew that they needed to relight it, because the high pressure sodium was ageing. There were already different kinds of retrofit ongoing, so they already knew what they wanted to do in a larger sense,” he said.

“We discussed with them what it would look like in one year, five years, 10 years and asked them what they were trying to accomplish. From there we helped them write the brief.”

The central question for FMS was how to create a striking new lighting concept that would stand up to what was going on across the Huangpu River – the “riot of colour changing dynamic lighting”, as Stone described it, in the Pudong district.

“Between the two sides of the river, it’s tough to name another city that has more night time dynamism, it’s just outstanding,” he said. “Having that as context, we have these buildings that were all built between 1920 and 1931 that represent a snapshot of history – nobody tore them down, they survived revolutions, they survived big changes in government, and here they are – we wanted to celebrate that history.”

The best way in which to do this, Stone believed, was to move away from coloured light and use solely white light. Although, as Enrique Garcia Carrera, Associate Principal at FMS explained, this was achieved within the wider capabilities of tunable white fixtures. “There is actually the ability to tune the colour of the light for all the buildings, and although we used some colour changing lights here and there, they’re set to be white. But there was a lot of testing to be done as to how close to white we could get, versus how close to the existing high pressure sodium colour the client would allow us. We wanted to make it a little bit more modern, but stay within the warm range of white.”

“There is a drama of expectation,” Stone added. “In other words, our big central concept was that this was to be light for the people. That encompasses things like preserving history, as well as looking forward, and ideas like placemaking and comfort. All of this came together in a central concept that we then linked to white light.

“And Enrique is quite right, the tunable white, which we vary from a warm white into a cooler, whiter white, was driven in part by the history of sodium.”

To create this warm, historic feel with new LED fixtures, FMS kept the white light constrained to a CCT range from 1800K to 3000K – sympathetic to the stately façades of the Bund, and a marked contrast to the dynamic colour shows of the Pudong. However, to ensure a sense of consistency and uniformity across all 27 façades, FMS worked with Signify to develop a range of fixtures that could deliver on their expectations.

“One of the challenges was that we wanted to do this in a unified manner, and to achieve this result across dozens of buildings that all had to be completed in a short space of time,” said Garcia Carrera. “There was little choice but to use somebody with substantial resources like Signify, who we could move with along the whole district together.”

“What we ended up doing is developing new fixtures with them,” Stone added. “Signify was developing tunable white fixtures, and we were giving them a spec at the same time, so once you make thousands of a fixture type, I guess you can put that in the catalogue. I wouldn’t call them custom exactly, but I think they were the forerunners of the range of fixtures that you have today.

“And for the manufacturers that were involved in the project, once they were on for our two buildings, they were on the list to be used for the rest of the project, for very good reasons of consistency. If you call something 3000K, and then get another manufacturer’s fixture at 3000K, using a different chipset and different drivers, it will look different. The only way to solve that problem is: once you get one that you like, stay with it.”

When it came to the logistics of replacing the previous, ageing system of high pressure sodium fixtures, Stone explained that it was important to create a balance, and not go for anything too different, too quickly.

“On a practical level, we just threw the old fixtures away – and I say that because there was no question, everybody knew from the first hour that it was all going to be LED,” he said.

“But the emotional connection that could exist, perhaps in an older generation, from seeing the buildings lit in the golden light of sodium, was important. We didn’t want to change too quickly, as this is a project for the people. That wasn’t the only reason for tunable white, but it was a variable to consider, and as long as you go down low enough in colour temperature, you have a facsimile of sodium.”

Garcia Carrera continued: “The way that we laid it out for the client is, yes you could stay with a very warm glow similar to sodium and just update it with new technology and make it easier to maintain; or you could make it modern and bring it into true white light. And perhaps that is the thing to do because the only reason why it was orange to begin with is because there was no other way to do it at the time. Would they want to do it with high colour rendering ‘white’ light if they had the chance originally?

“We showed them what upgrading to a very low colour temperature effect would be, and we also showed them what an increased white effect would be, and then we hedged our bets and ended up with something in the middle.”

“Ever since professional lighting designers realised that perhaps we needed to temper our use of the RGB magic wand, we started thinking about what white light really is, and then here you have questions of what the indigenous colour should be,” continued Stone. “We agreed with the owner not to do colour, because we didn’t want to compete with the Pudong. Instead, with white light we had to find the balance between warm and vintage vs crisp and modern. And even in there, if you zoom in to that piece of the spectrum of white, you have a long way to go from a very yellow, warm incandescent feeling, all the way up to a crisper white.”

Garcia Carrera added: “Normally, we like to talk to the architects when working on a project like this, but of course they weren’t available at this time. We had to go back and start thinking that not all the buildings are made from the same stones, from building to building the stone character changes; the architects picked the stones for certain reasons, and we have to assume that the colouration of the stone is part of the reason, so why wouldn’t we want to be true to that at night as well as during the day?”

As such, FMS opted for a range in CCT from 1800K to 3000K, keeping the light levels warm to bring out the colours of the stone façades. And while, with the new tunable white system in place, there was a risk that the client could alter the lighting to a much cooler, more modern colour temperature, Stone explained that there was a clear agreement from all parties on what would work best. “It had been discussed in words, it had been drawn in renders, and it had been mocked up in the conference room and on site, with yet another more formal mock up on site, so there were no surprises,” he said.

“We walked arm in arm with the architects, the academics and the municipal authorities on the committee, Uno Lai, our partners in design – everybody was presenting a single attitude about how we would do the next step. Few projects have so many incremental mock ups.”

While the project sought to update the old high pressure sodium lighting to a new LED system, it wasn’t as straightforward as taking out the existing fixtures and replacing them, like for like, with new ones. Garcia Carrera explained the approach further: “We took an approach that was almost like putting makeup on an actor’s face where you start off with the foundation. We didn’t want to just highlight certain elements and have everything else go dark because the contrast would have been too much. We found ways to put a very soft wash of light on the main façades, and then we added accenting where we felt it was required. In many cases, that wasn’t in the same locations as where the original lighting was located.

“We also wanted to have most of the wiring and conduits concealed, to come from inside the buildings to the exact location where the fixtures were going to be, but because the buildings were occupied with active office spaces, that wasn’t possible in many cases. Instead, those exposed wires and conduits were integrated into groups behind parapets or cornices, and whatever we couldn’t fully conceal, was painted to match exactly the colour of the stone. Similarly in some cases the fixtures themselves are exposed, but they’re also painted.”

“Without the benefit of shadows from the sun, you can’t find a conduit, because we had scene painters in bosun’s chairs slipping down the façade of the building, painting them to match the colours of the stone,” Stone added.

Garcia Carrera continued that, during the refurb, FMS called for the removal of unnecessary, dated hardware and equipment that had previously been used to light some of the buildings. “The dome of the Bank building was illuminated with a bunch of out-rigged arms and light fixtures that looked like flies circling around the dome. We got rid of that, and convinced the client to go on the other side of the boulevard by the river and erect new poles so that we could get a proper aiming angle and be away from the building to let the building breathe.”

“It’s one of my favourite stories,” Stone added. “I do believe a lot of people involved thought ‘we can just use those brackets, we’ll just put new lighting on it, it’ll be LED and it will be wonderful’, then we’re out there saying that it all has to go, take it all down. And we came back a few weeks later and they had taken it all down – maybe the owner just wanted us to be the bad guy. He knew it had to come down – we had a great client.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge for this project was the very limited timeframe. For large-scale projects such as this, it’s not uncommon to be given several years to complete such extensive re-lighting, but for FMS, the timeframe of just eight months meant that everything had to move very quickly.

“We had to develop a point of view and a concept and just be sure of it right away, because there was no backpedalling,” said Garcia Carrera. “Once the concept was developed and signed off by the client, it was just about implementation and overcoming the obstacles.”

Stone added: “That’s one of the reasons people come to FMS, because we adopt the view that as a professional you don’t question a decision that’s well made. So yes, a compressed timescale was challenging, but also kind of fun in retrospect.

“But Enrique’s point is we had to go in a straight line, there’s no going back. You couldn’t get out to the field on the second mock-up and say ‘well, maybe not, we should do it another way’, everything had to go in a straight line.”

“And the projects really do look like the renderings that we presented early on,” Garcia Carrera continued. “They were very true, there was very little that changed from day one to the final implementation, and that’s rare. When you have time, you change it a lot, and maybe you go back to the way you had it originally, but after going through a whole process. We didn’t have time to go through that process, so we were very glad that we got it right the first time around, because there wasn’t going to be a second time around.”

“I’m certain that there are dozens of old city light ups in Europe over the last couple of decades that have received the same kind of care, attention and approach, but not in eight months,” Stone added. “It takes a curious blend of will, money, cultural integration, and imagine the bureaucracy that was avoided somehow. Imagine doing this almost anywhere without having 42 different civic organisations all involved in it and protesting this and that. This was a unique opportunity and we have a unique result.”

This unique result has brought a new lease on life to the Bund district, casting the landmark buildings along the waterfront in a new light, while also paying tribute to their heritage status. And while there is a uniformity to the new lighting, Garcia Carrera believes that this helps to bring the district together.

He explained: “The buildings bring their own character and their own individuality. The architecture varies from building to building, but what the lighting does is bring them together into a unified district.”

And the decision to solely use white light is something that Stone feels makes the project stand out on a world stage: “If they were lit each in a different way with bits of colour here and there, red and blue and green and yellow, it would be just another night of colour on somebody’s waterfront. That’s the key right there. There’s nowhere else in the world you can go and see it done quite so well at the moment.”

Garcia Carrera continued: “It also helps to establish the astonishing contrast with what’s happening on the other side of the river. Whereas, when you’re in London or Paris or other cities that are based around a city centre that has a river running through it, you usually have the same feel on both banks of the river. Here we see a unique contrast.”

Indeed it is the remarkable nature of the project, whether that be the location, the use of white light, the timeframe, or the combination of all three, that both Garcia Carrera and Stone believe makes this re-lighting project – which has already been recognised by the IALD with an Award of Merit – such a success.

“It’s hard to find something like this elsewhere, on the river front, all built within the same time period, from the same era, unobstructed by views because of the river,” said Garcia Carrera. “And I think that what we did with that, and how it looks at night now, really conveys the idea of the Bund as a district. It’s a destination. There is a common idea uniting these buildings. They’re distinct, but they’re joined together; and part of what joins them together is the lighting, and the lighting looks great.”

Stone concluded: “It’s a testimony to the power of white light. If we had used multi coloured light, and you flew in and out of Shanghai, it would easily be forgotten as another night of coloured lights, but instead the Shanghai Bund is etched in your mind as this white image of history. The light doesn’t tamper with the history. Instead, we’re enhancing your appreciation of the architecture, and creating a waterfront for the people.”