Culture & History

A Look into the Past, Present and Future of Façade Lighting in China

Benjamin Chan and Rebecca Wong
Benjamin Chan and Rebecca Wong
Director, Principal Lighting Designer
LWK + Partners
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For this article, Universal Light had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the past, present and future of façade lighting in China with Rebecca and Benjamin as they bring wonderful insights into the importance of lighting in Chinese architecture.

While Rebecca brings into the discussion her wonderful expertise in lighting as the principal lighting designer and Associate Director of LWK + Partners, Benjamin, as an architect and designer, and now Director adds insights into the importance of lighting in Chinese architecture. We believe that this article will provide you with a better understanding of the lighting industry in China

One of the earliest façade lighting methods in Chinese history would be the tradition of using lanterns that started about 2000 years ago in the Hans Dynasty.

What would you say is the very first façade lighting method in China?

Benjamin: One of the earliest façade lighting methods in Chinese history would be the tradition of using lanterns that started about 2000 years ago in the Hans Dynasty. Lanterns are used for various purposes, but it has less to do with lighting up spaces and more with creating a particular atmosphere. For example, red lanterns paint the streets on the last day of Chinese New Year, which is called the Lantern Festival. They symbolise letting go of the past year and welcoming new hopes for the year that is to come. Similarly, in ancient times, parents would often give their children a lantern with the hope that it would bring good fortune. There are also lanterns used explicitly for funerals, which are usually white and round, on which they write the name of the deceased.

Rebecca: In terms of configuration, the composition of the lantern mimics Chinese architectural elements, which consist of a roof, layering of framework and imagery. Most lanterns from ancient times are made from paper or fabric. They’re not everlasting and are only meant for a particular two or three days of festivities. One of the most distinctive features of lanterns is the paintings that remind us of the story and meaning behind that specific event. The illustrations and colours also bring us warmth and a sense of collective sentiment, making every occasion a bit more special.

To this day, the use of lanterns persists and remains relevant to interior design and architecture. For hospitality projects, specifically hotel projects that wish to recreate the atmosphere of ancient China. Lanterns are often featured in the interior, architecture or landscape design to bring about that reminiscence appeal, celebrating the classical beauty of the past.

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Stepping away from ancient times, how did façade lighting trends progress in China?

Benjamin: To understand past lighting trends in China, we’d have to go back to 10-15 years ago, when lighting design was about making grandeur and eye-catching statements.

Shanghai was probably the region that somewhat pioneered the trend for façade lighting in China at the time. Compared to a city like Beijing, which tended to remain quite conservative with strict control on illumination, Shanghai embraced a more vibrant lighting element with various colour tones.

At the time, façade lighting design was somewhat of a competition for attention. In order to be the most noticeable and brightest architecture in the city, buildings would often have lighting covering the entire external structure, from which, at nighttime, the façade became a screen covered with pictures, advertisements or moving texts. Due to this trend, there was a significant disconnect between architecture and lighting design, as the lighting, more often than not, would try to overpower and thus become irrelevant and inconsiderate of the architectural design.

Rebecca: This approach was mainly developed about 20-25 years ago when façade lighting started to become popular in China. At the time, we wouldn’t have had LED façade light fixtures yet, so neon tubes were used for covering building surfaces and generating different kinds of colour-changing effects, which was just beyond fascinating for the period. The developers of these projects would invest considerable amounts into façade lighting, which they target to have advertising influence and utilise the façade surface to make the project an iconic destination of the city.

Benjamin: A great example would be one of my earliest façade design projects in Beijing, China. As a part of the design, I created complicated 3D forms of hexagonal patterns that wrapped around and made a visually inviting architectural skin. However, the lighting designers later did a separate design consisting of altering lighting patterns. So, sometimes, it was a star, other times, it would be moving texts, like Happy New Year, etc. To the public, this was a fascinating effect. The destination became an attraction and photo hotspot for young people and tourists. Though this seems like a great outcome for a project, it is quite a depressing dilemma for me as an architect and designer. In my design, I often aim for a sense of coherence and harmonic balance between lighting and architectural design; however, this lighting design method simply took away the architecture’s essence. So that’s what I think has been happening in China for the past 20, 25 years.

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Beijing National Aquatics Centre

From the outside, the buildings can be considered quite extravagant, did this sense of extravagance carry to the interior lighting design as well?

Rebecca: Interior lighting design is quite different from façade illumination. While façade lighting can be utilised for advertising purposes, interior design prioritises functionality. Thus, the lighting scheme often remains consistent with the design intent, subtle and minimal, aiming to create a gentle, comfortable ambience suitable for the function of the space.

It is a rule of thumb that the façade lighting aims to attract people to the building, and interior lighting makes people want to stay and enjoy the experience.

In your opinion, which building is a great example of good façade lighting design in China?

Benjamin: I think the Beijing National Aquatics Centre was the swimming pool for the Beijing Olympics 2009 and Winter Olympics last year. Generally, the façade powerfully attracts the general public, with a lighting scheme similar to those of the past in its brightness and colour-changing effects.

However, the lighting design was done in a considerate way that blends in effectively with the façade structure, expressing the architectural intent without overcasting the building itself.

The façade used ETFE materials in multiple layers to create the unique “bubble” or “balloon” effect. Instead of simply directing light outward, the lighting designer put gas inside to help light travel through the material and light the bubbles. This technique created a gentle glow that radiated from each of the bubbles, adding a unique 3-dimensional appeal and depth to the external structure. Additionally, this lighting design was outstanding because it not only preserved the original architectural intent of the “bubble” structure but perfectly enhanced it by adding that 3-dimensional element through illumination.

Eventually, the reason why this project is an excellent example of lighting design done right is that I think lighting should help the structure express itself but not disguise it.

Please elaborate on what you mean by “help the building express itself at night but not disguise it”?

Rebecca: When we talk about past trends, it’s almost like taking a realistic approach to painting. What I mean is that if lighting designers are painters, then the building is a canvas, and design is about covering and concealing that surface with light fixtures to create imagery or graphics for visual excitement.

As the industry moves forward, we now see a shift toward a more abstract approach where the canvas becomes the work of art itself. In this sense, lighting design evolves to focus on its effects on spectators and is a bit more subtle to preserve the architecture. In addition, it aims to outline and highlight critical elements to create an atmosphere that expresses the building’s architectural syntax.

Benjamin: Having said that, it’s not always easy to persuade developers to implement this lighting design method. There is a solid pre-existing mindset: “I spent million dollars on this project; I don’t want my project to be subtle.” In the past, we have had experiences where we were responsible for the architecture, and the client would employ different lighting consultants. The consultants would do their design, report to the client, and sometimes bypass us, the architect.

We’ve learnt through these experiences that, at the concept stage, it is crucial to render a night view of the project, from the façade material and fixture placements to how bright we envision the lighting effect. Therefore, we aim to work with lighting consultants as early as possible and ideally have them onboard from the architectural design stage. The lighting professionals and architects can work together to fulfil the client’s needs for advertisements while presenting a coherent solution that will appreciate the architecture.

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Hebei Grand Hotel, Image by LWK + Partners

Do you have an example of a project you two have worked on that embodies this modern idea of “abstract” lighting design?

Benjamin: One of our past projects, called the Hebei Grand Hotel, located in Shijiazhuang, one of the northern cities of China, is the perfect case study for this article.

The project site is adjacent to a historical site, so we tried to incorporate certain cultural characters into the architecture to honour and represent the project’s setting and background. In general, we worked on the architecture, design, and landscape architecture for Hebei Grand Hotel. The cornerstone principle of this project was creating a cohesive and connected experience of the inside and outside.

Rebecca: As Benjamin explained, with a hospitality and resort-like project such as Hebei Grand Hotel, we needed to take a minimal approach to lighting design, predominantly using lighting to highlight the architecture.

One of the lighting design’s primary features was creating a unique yet sophisticated roofscape. There are many low-rise villas with various building structures within the establishment. As a way to highlight the architecture, we used linear lighting to outline the roof shape of each building. Subtly running across the architectural lines, the luminaires accentuate the structure beautifully while remaining minimal and subtle, creating a peaceful atmosphere.

For the two main high-rise towers, we use a simple light to reflect the symmetrical arrangement of the two towers. We want to achieve an elegant feeling; at night, it is just a soft touch of the building for the people to enjoy the space inside. We also use uplight fixtures to highlight the planters and, simultaneously, wallwash the brick wall detail to create focal interest for the landscape.

Were there any challenges working on this project?

Benjamin: When we presented our solution to the clients at the early stage, they thought there was not enough brightness to the design. We were still met with the same reaction even when the project was completed. Finally, however, we realised that this issue was due to the lack of urban development in the surrounding areas and not something specific to the project.

Recently, as I revisited the project as surrounding projects came into operation, the whole area became more vibrant with a lot of light to counterbalance. The result seems excellent since sustainable design and architecture aren’t just about the project but also about balancing nature and the surroundings and being considerate of the project’s future for years and years to come. And it’s important to understand that a project is multi-dimensional and shaped by a sequence of design decisions, from the landscape and architecture to the interior.

We have received much success for the project, receiving many awards for the architecture. At the same time, the project outcome worked out great with our clients and Hebei Grand Hotel’s visitors.

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Hebei Grand Hotel, Image by LWK + Partners

Final remarks

In the past, façade lighting was perceived as an additional layer that was merely used to captivate the public’s attention. However, the perception is changing as architects and lighting designers are putting effort into harmonising the façade lighting, the architecture, the interior design and the atmosphere. The future of the lighting industry will focus not only on the aesthetic of the design and the complement to the surroundings but also on environmental friendliness and energy conservation thanks to the innovation of technology. Sustainability is not a trend, it is becoming a principle of the industry.

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