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As a lighting designer, Ulrike Brandi designs architecture and urban spaces with light – and is one of the most influential figures in this field. A conversation with Ulrike Brandi about her new book, which places lighting design in a larger context.

Interview by Thomas Edelmann

Ulrike Brandi in conversation with Thomas Edelmann in her Hamburg office. Image: Author

Your new book is called “Light, Nature, Architecture. A Guide to Holistic Lightning Design”. What is it about?

The wonderful and beautiful subject of light and thus also the profession of lighting design. It is a field of tension between many different sciences and practical professions, so I thought I had to bring them all together and relate them to each other, how they feed into this profession.

What can we learn about light from nature?

A lot! Light is a natural phenomenon that behaves on the basis of a few rudimentary boundary conditions. There are a few physical laws that are relevant. These range from reflection to transmission to absorption to refraction. This is how light interacts with different materials, but from this nature has developed its great wealth of different light atmospheres and light situations. And that is exactly what I find exciting. To create a firework of attractions on the one hand or very nuanced, fine lighting situations on the other with a very reduced, you could say “toolbox”.

More than 20 years ago, your first book on lighting design was published, a weighty reference book. The latest publication is small, compact, almost casual. How did it come about that this work became so very different?

With my first book, which came out in 2000, I was basically responding to a dilemma. That’s when I noticed that there were manuals that taught lighting technology to the electrical engineer. For lighting designers who, like me, specialise in designing light and therefore also come from the design side, this was a no-go. Such a book was quickly put away as soon as the first formulas started. Then, at that time, there were already a few splendidly presented illustrated books that showed results. A series of photos, as is common in some architectural publications. A finished house, beautifully photographed. But you don’t know what happens next. Above all, you don’t know how it was built. So what planning processes and what knowledge are required to come up with such a lighting design? And that was what attracted me: I wanted to take on the beauty of a magnificent illustrated book, but on the other hand I wanted to assign all the technical and physical knowledge in such a way that even young people or architects who work with lighting designers understand what is important in this planning process. In addition, I like to develop a language in which different disciplines can talk to each other. Lighting designers stand between the engineers and the architects and speak the language of the technicians, but at the same time also the language of the designers. That’s a nice interface.

At first glance, the new book seems very condensed and easy to understand. The ten chapters are titledwith familiar terms. At the same time, there are different levels of information, both visual and textual. Could you briefly introduce some of the recurring elements of the book?

I fiddled for a long time until I knew what the structure of the book would be, namely in the form of these ten aspects. The basic structure of the chapters is devoted to topics that we might also find important in contexts. Moreover, they are all related to each other. Ultimately, they all relate to nature again and again. And I have described each of the ten terms from different points of view. It was important to me to put this little physical toolbox at the beginning and to ask: Let’s see what happens when a ray of light falls on a material? Or when it falls through a material? Because that’s already where we train our eye in terms of accurate observation. So that comes up in each of these chapters. At the same time, it is important for me to deepen one central aspect of each chapter. Since it is not possible to spread out all the medical and biological knowledge here, I concentrate on one particular aspect each time, for example chronobiology, which is very important for our profession. Then I try to illustrate by means of a project, only very briefly, with one picture and half a page of text, how the previously presented topic can have an impact.

I find this particularly well done: After detailed thematic presentations, each chapter leads into one of your projects, but as you say, characterised very briefly and precisely. Once you have grasped the context, you might see this project with different eyes. How did this sequence come about?

The idea came about while I was writing, in conversation with my editors at Birkhäuser and also here with my colleagues. I wrote while working on projects at the same time. I still think it is important to have clear concepts and to name themes in lighting design. Not because I want to impose something on a project or play my own lighting melody again. Rather, it is an integral part of an architectural project to find its own light melody or voice of light. These are subtle things, especially since light is not something that is objectively visible in a material way, but rather perceived subconsciously and not even named by most people.

I would like to go into a little more detail: In the chapter “Culture”, for example, we talk about the halo effect. There we see, with a photo of the sun in an evening sky above a mountain landscape, a phenomenon from nature, this kind of aura or halo of the sun. Below that, another photo of the Elbphilharmonie. It is a detail showing the ceiling of the plaza. Then we learn that it’s about the light and not the luminaire. A standard saying of all lighting designers. Although the luminaire, designed by Herzog & de Meuron and made by Bohemian glassblowers, is also very characteristic.

First we learn what the halo effect of light refraction in the atmosphere is. Then there are two quotations. Usually, such quotations almost always come from men. Here it is predominantly, but not exclusively, women who have their say. For example, the architect Anu Puustinen from Finland, who speaks of “being alone with nature”. In another quote, Zaha Hadid recalls the “beauty of the landscape, where sand, water, reeds, birds, buildings and people somehow flowed together”, an observation that “never left” her. The next few pages show light preferences in different cultures. Where the layout, just now, seems airy, it is now very condensed. You can certainly describe it better…

No, that’s a good summary!

This is followed by a depiction of daylight as a means of “reassurance over time”, and a literary interlude in the form of a passage from a novel by Juli Zeh. And on the subject of “site-specific light” you refer to painters of the Dutch School during the Golden Age, as depicted in the documentary film “Dutch Light”. This rather feuilletonistic opening is followed by practical tips for lighting designers “Respecting the location and listening to the users – tips for concept development”. So it becomes pragmatic. But it’s not advice, “you have to do it this way and no other way”, it’s help to think, I would call

… or to ask questions!

Yes, and finally it’s about planning requirements for office buildings. These are contrasted with specifications according to DIN and recommendations by Ulrike Brandi. What is this all about?

The norms or the EU standards are seen as shackles by many planners, especially when it comes to complying with minimum illuminance levels, for example. In some places we say: Let’s comply with the standards by combining different light sources. In an entrance hall, I feel that the standards are too low. I come into a room from bright sunlight and have to realise: I am welcome here and it is bright and the light welcomes me.

Finally, the chapter “Culture” presents the “Differentiated Light Intentions” as you were able to realise them on the plaza of the Elbphilharmonie. This is the area between the foyers of the concert hall and the viewing platform, which received its own light. What is the special feature?

In general, it was about what this room conveys with its curved ceiling, which opens up to daylight. What does it convey in terms of light? The halo rings there were created for different reasons. On the one hand, there is the memory of the natural phenomenon. Our big goal was to brighten up the ceiling. But if I only shine downwards, on the red brick floor, the white ceiling suddenly looks pink. And I felt that was tacky and not appropriate for the building. It was also not what the architects envisioned for this place. And that’s where the idea of the reflective rings came from. The light spheres are very sophisticated and bring the light back to the ceiling. In addition, the silver ring around the luminaire, which reflects the light back, means that I have good glare control. After all, you don’t want to look into the bright LEDs at the top of the ceiling. In the Plaza, it is ultimately the movement that we humans make that is important. The light acts as an inspiring gesture: you are here, now go out onto this walkway and look out into the night or the daytime sky and enjoy this wonderful view of the city!

We have already mentioned it: In your book, the readers learn fundamental things about seeing, about physical laws, about man-made norms. For whom did you write it? Who are the addressees?

Preferably everyone who is interested in architecture or in the subject of light. In fact, it addresses the professionals who want to classify their work beyond practical and theoretical knowledge. It is for all the professionals involved in construction, architects, clients and all the specialist engineers with whom I work. But it is also addressed to all those who have a great social interest in the subject of sustainability, which is so much under strain. In the book I try to deal with it in more detail. Part of that is that there are very many aspects to it. And it is written for those who want to browse a bit and indulge in a book on the beautiful subject of light. I deliberately designed it so that you don’t have to read it from cover to cover, but that you can look here and there. And the feedback I received was correspondingly positive. That’s fun.

Most of the projects presented here relate to public spaces or, like the operations centre of a fire brigade, are oriented towards the common good in the broadest sense. What is this all about?

I have always had a high social aspiration. I enjoy it most and it is also the purpose of my life to contribute to all people having a beautiful environment together, to live under fairer conditions than we do at the moment and perhaps also to have spaces where we feel comfortable, where we can both relax and experience great, joyful situations together. That may sound a bit solemn now, but I have a social and also a political aspiration and I can actually pursue that in my work.

A few decades ago, you had to explain what lighting design was needed for. You described this intermediary position between technology and design. The claim of designing with light was something new. Has it become more self-evident today? Is this book an attempt to make us all aware of lighting design in a new way?

Nowadays, many things are more self-evident, but lighting design is, after all, a specialization. The competence for good lighting in a building originally lay with the architect. He planned the windows and daylight openings and then provided beautiful lighting in buildings. With the advent of electric light, another profession was suddenly responsible for artificial light. This was a more serious change in architecture than we usually assume. The electrical engineer was followed by the lighting designers, because it was then noticed that an engineer looks at numbers and meters louvre luminaires to the ceiling. Nobody wants that anymore. We needed someone who not only looked at the numbers, but also at the design side. I want to rekindle the desire to get involved. That means investing time and money so that we can come together with all our knowledge as specialists to act together. Lighting designers have become more self-evident for planning artificial light. The fact that they are also competent for daylight is only very rudimentary in people’s minds. I see this as a major shortcoming. Because daylight planning should be there at the very beginning of an architectural design in order to be effective.

Another point is that today we pay a lot of attention to energy efficiency of buildings and change our building envelopes in such a way that we only think about heat, cold and insulation and not about how much daylight actually gets into the buildings. That’s something that lighting designers avoid. Through my book, I want to shake things up. Because we need a holistic view on this point as well.

Ulrike Brandi: Light – Nature – Architecture –

A Guide to Holistic Lightning Design

Publisher: Birkhäuser, Basel 2023, 159 Pages

ISBN 978-3-0356-2408-2 (German print edition), 52,00 euros

e-ISBN (PDF) 978-3-0356-2417-5 (German e-book), 52,00 euros

ISBN 978-3-0356-2415-1 (English print edition), 52,00 euros

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