An Architectural Project In London Leads To The Formation Of A Light Lab
London's South Bank Centre (SBC) comprises a series of buildings on the river Thames between Waterloo Bridge and Hungerford Bridge. The principle venue is the Royal Festival Hall (RFH), built in 1951 for the wildly successful Festival of Britain, conceived to chase away post-war blues. This was followed by the addition of further venues — Queen Elizabeth Hall (QEH), the Purcell Room, and the Hayward Gallery — all of savagely brutalist concrete design. A triumph of forward-looking arts and architecture, the complex has held an enviable global profile ever since. However, over the following decades, the surrounding area became increasingly desolate and dangerous, with the art retreating to cower inside the buildings. When I moved to London in 1978, the area was probably at its lowest point — the maze of multi-level concrete walkways proving to be a mugger's paradise — most advisedly approached in at least taxi if not a steel-plated Hummer.
Forward to 2000 and the directorial appointment of Michael Lynch, whose resumé includes turning around a failing Sydney Opera House. A massive refurbishment of the RFH was undertaken for completion in the summer of 2007. The first phase of refurbishment is now done, reinventing the whole stretch of river frontage as a tree-lined pedestrian boulevard with bars and cafés, instantly transforming a war zone into a safe, populated, and gloriously social quarter.
Last year saw the appointment of Jude Kelly as artistic director. Jude's vision and energy is impossible to describe in a short paragraph, but suffice it to say that SBC had finally found the catalyst for its creative rebirth. I first met Michael and Jude with a view of my being involved in the grand reopening of RFH next year. However, Jude immediately confessed to a great interest in lighting and was keen to offer the potential for a much wider, two-fold brief.
Step one involved the shabby and unloved series of buildings that make up Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Hayward. While Festival Hall is getting its radical facelift, these buildings remain untouched and currently create something of a black hole. I was delighted when Jude asked if I might “do something” with them over the summer, even when it transpired that there was absolutely no budget available, but I trusted we could figure something out.
A simple lighting scheme seemed to be the only affordable option, but the sprawling complexity of the buildings would require a great deal of thought. The South Bank Centre site is enormous — over 20 acres, right on the river — so I spent a lot of days and evenings onsite, absorbing the architecture, trying to read the original intention of the planners, and getting a feel for what kind of statement would be appropriate.
In sharp contrast, right next door, on the other side of Waterloo Bridge, sits the National Theatre, a pair of perfect blank concrete cubes prominent on the skyline. A couple of years ago, the National installed exterior lighting of the Studio Due CityColor variety to enable changing color washes over the faces of the cubes against the night sky. It looks fabulous and was an instant massive hit with the public. This complicated my brief to some extent, as it would be pointless to just follow suit, and besides, everything that makes the National look so fabulous simply doesn't apply to the QEH/Hayward. The National has perfect geometry, a clear profile, and lots of convenient lighting fixture locations, while our side of the bridge is a massive and complex jumble of surfaces surrounded by trees, with a complete lack of places to put lights out of the public's reach.
For a while, I wasn't at all sure that the brief was realistic on any level, but I struggled most of all with how to create something affordable which would be distinct from our flawless neighbor. Finally, I was amused to think of a helpful analogy: where the National Theatre is Mark Rothko, SBC is Jackson Pollock. Much as I had initially envied the statuesque Zen building next door, I eventually began to feel the chaotic excitement of this fragmented concrete car-crash of a building that I had been given. I also realized that its beauty might best be drawn out by implication; choosing what to conceal would be just as important as what would be illuminated.
Eventually (and possibly under duress), the publicity department at SBC found a small amount in their budget for me, so I began to look for practical help. I had met Bryan Raven of White Light at various industry events, and both of us being Londoners, had talked to him about this project. He had always responded with great enthusiasm and generosity, so he seemed a likely ally. I also hunted down Alex Murphy, who looks after the exterior lighting of the National Theatre, figuring he would know the territory and might also want to come play next door, which he did.
I faced the reality that I would be working with the smallest lighting system I have worked with in living memory, which would be spread over the largest area I have ever worked with. Given the nature of my day job, I'm rarely intimidated by scale, but by any standards, we were proposing to cover an enormous footprint. In addition, the architecture is astonishingly disorientating — the buildings seem to shift as you walk around them, and from a distance, it's often hard to work out which bit of what building is where.
On top of this, no up-to-date drawings of the place exist. In fact, there's really no information or technical documentation about the place at all, due to a rather wonderful moment of SBC history. During the 1970s, the site was run by the Greater London Council (GLC) and headed up by Ken Livingstone, a left wing man-of-the-people and the nightmare nemesis of Margaret Thatcher. After years of antagonism, in a draconian snit of epic proportions, Thatcher not only got rid of Livingstone but also abolished the GLC in its entirety. On being sacked en masse, the response from the technical staff at South Bank Centre was to take every piece of documentation pertaining to the buildings, including architectural details, power distro plans, cable runs — even the technical signage screwed to basement walls — and fling them all into the Thames. Much as I stand in awe and admiration at the anarchic genius of the action, 25 years on it does make dealing with the building even more of a mystery.
The hilarious solution resulted in my producing what is possibly the first lighting plot in history to be drawn using Google Earth. The images from space are about the only way to get a firm grasp of the layout and correspondence of the buildings and their many interweaving walkways and terraces.
I used just two kinds of instruments, ETC 750W Source Four profiles and MBI 400W floods. The floods were tucked into corners and crevices to bring out the contrasts of surface, sometimes highlighting shapes by leaving them dark. The concrete itself provided all the texture, some of the more weathered parts taking on an extremely painterly quality, which I loved. The Source Fours were placed around the building, shuttered into slots to catch edges and corners in that pleasantly brown tungsten open white. This managed in some way to tie all the parts of the buildings together and give an implied coverage over a large area with very few instruments.
The installation itself was enormous fun. Murphy headed up a small team heaving 2km of cable all over the site. I was very hands-on with the process, and it was such a privilege to have access to parts of the building that have been closed for decades. Being able to see how all the original terraces and walkways were intended to communicate only increased my admiration for the building and its architects. The view from the roof is among the greatest the developed world affords: on the left, the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and the London Eye; on the right, St. Paul's Cathedral and Canary Wharf, with the river Thames and its multiple twinkling bridges spread out below. I am not ashamed to admit that having such a private view was an entirely thrilling experience. Even the more unsavory derelict areas that have been periodically colonized by vagrants and junkies took on a magical aura after dark. Though it seems unlikely in hindsight, I remember being utterly consumed with spontaneous joy at realizing where I was and what I was doing, even though, at that precise moment, it was raining, and I was dragging an illuminated MBI and its cable backwards through a puddle of piss on a disused terrace of the Hayward.
We finished the installation on the longest day of the year when, in London, it begins to get dark at about 10:30pm, so it was a very low-key opening. The installation stays illuminated until 3am, so to begin, it was just something that people might notice on the way back from the pub or while riding a double-decker night bus home. As the summer wore on, it became more apparent as each day went by, and the evenings began to set in. We're now looking at how to modify the installation to help it survive the winter (given the miniscule budget, weather-proofing had to be something of an afterthought). Or maybe we'll do something else entirely, but either way, I'm delighted to be involved.
A Home For Lighting
The second step in my dialog with Jude Kelly has been an ongoing discussion about light in a more general sense and particularly people who work with light in various ways. For all the recent blather about convergence, there is still a remarkable lack of dialog between the various lighting disciplines. There are few opportunities for theatre, rock, and architectural lighting designers to meet, let alone have any meaningful exchange, while artists who work with light are usually viewed as another species altogether. Yet on some level, we are all dealing with similar issues as we attempt to harness and mold this impossibly abstract idea that we call light. Crossing the boundaries continues to provide the most rewarding and educational experiences of my work life, so it seems like a missed opportunity that there are no centers of communication for all people who work in light-based art disciplines.
As a result, at South Bank Centre we are talking about establishing some kind of Light Lab, the principal notion being that light is its own genre and to create a year-round program for it. The Hayward Gallery has regularly presented exhibitions by the greatest light artists of our time, including James Turrell and most recently, Dan Flavin. In addition to such high profile work, it seems vital to open the doors to the entire spectrum of artists and designers and to encourage work to be created on and around the vast SBC site throughout the year, on both large and small scales. Given the inquisitive resourcefulness that often seems natural to people involved with lighting, maybe the opportunity to colonize the South Bank is enough of a catalyst for us to get started and then figure out the rest as we go along.
Education is also an important part of the vision. In its previous incarnation, the technical departments in the venues at SBC have long had onsite training, aimed mostly at budding technicians. This will certainly continue as part of a much wider educational program designed to be as broad as demand will allow.
With the whole of the site as a canvas, the hope is for SBC to become a place of communication for anyone involved in lighting. This kind of cross-pollination can't be forced; it can only happen organically as a byproduct of a place, which provides reason enough for people to be there, and that is certainly the goal.
Currently it's still an open brief. The Light Lab could find itself hosting a program of high-level symposiums, or it could equally well find its primary function being a late-night bar/hang out spot where lighting persons can collaborate in plotting world domination. Hopefully, it can encompass all of the above, so watch this space. The lighting community has consistently proved to be extraordinarily resourceful; as a group, there is a lot we can learn from each other, so let's not pass up this opportunity. If you work with light and you're ever in London, do make a point of dropping by. To submit ideas for The Light Lab or for additional information, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org