When material meets light

What can we build using light? Light is an incredibly important aspect of design, yet it is often poorly understood. Well-designed light can give a building, object or space a qualitative boost.

So can we build with light? This tricky question was tackled in a special lecture by one of the experts at Material Xperience 2014.

As is clear to anyone who has experienced the works of artist James Turrell, light has a powerful sensory presence. This statement forms the basis of the presentation by Rogier van der Heide, who is Chief Design Officer at Philips Lighting.

Light science
Starting with a look at the ScienceMuseum in London, Van der Heide shows multiple effects of lighting. Blue light was chosen for the museum’s new wing, as it fits with the technological theme of the building. This lighting helps create the scientific atmosphere which enhances the museum experience.

But a trick is played by the designer. As you walk into the space, you go through a hall lit in red. In this corridor, your brain adjusts to the red light, compensating your vision by adding blue to the image you see. When you step into the blue hall, your brain suddenly gets an ‘overdose’ of blue light, bathing you in colour. This magnifies the effect the colour has on you. It is, states the designer, an almost material light.

Zaha Hadid
Further experiments with lighting design add to the wealth of inspiration during the lecture. For the Sheikh Zayed bridge in Dubai, Zaha Hadid wanted to accentuate the design’s flowing curves. Working with Van der Heide, they developed a scheme of bright up-lighting which focuses our view on parts of the bridge’s construction, accentuating the most impressive aspects.

This leads to the question of how to work. Light is difficult to scale – a 1:100 model reacts differently to a lamp than a full-size model. So an important requirement is to work as close to full-scale as possible.

Renzo Piano
That principle was used in the design for Renzo Piano’s California Academy of Sciences. Its huge aquarium required specialized lighting to ensure that the coral, fish and other marine life stayed healthy. Even with powerful lighting, the illuminance is only a fraction of what it would be in nature. So by experimenting with different lighting, the designers found that stadium flood-lighting works remarkably well, as its specific wavelengths help photosynthesis.

In general, the idea is that lighting can really help the experience of space. Though not strictly a building material, light can have such a powerful effect on its surrounds that it almost feels real.

Examples by UNStudio shows this to great effect. To simulate a magnetic field, 3D sawtooth lenses were developed and printed. These maximize the focus of available light, and can be used to great visual effect. A dichroic film completes the shimmering effect.

To close, the question is raised of what the future holds. Van der Heide notes that the future doesn’t render well. It is clear that light can have a positive effect on the experience of space, though it can be hard to define that experience exactly.

Working with various companies leads to cross-over developments. He mentions Barrisol as an enthusiastic partner for light-weight and well-lit interior panelling. This sector looks set to grow.

The future
A current development is bioluminescence. Both light from plants, pictured above, and light for plants are being investigated, with all sorts of wonderful applications. Bioluminescent algae can be fed using methane that comes from kitchen waste. So we have a natural source of gas-powered light, as well as a very natural material that produces it.

It also turns out that we can grow vegetables for one person on just 1 m2. This bodes well for food production, and increasingly important global theme. So there is more to light than meets the eye!