Published on: April 29, 2010
Mark Major is the director of Speirs and Major Associates, which he founded with Jonathan Speirs in 1993.
On the occasion of the Stockholm Lighting Days – at which he was a speaker – I had the chance to meet Mark for this interview.
I would like to start by requesting some kind of story telling. Can you tell the stories behind your interest in light and lighting? What kind of path took you into this field, back in the old days?
Iâve always been quite creative and grew up thinking I might become a painter or an artist, but I went through quite a formal education in which art was perhaps not seen as a ârespectableâ profession, so rather than going to art college it was suggested that a better choice would be to study architecture. And, to be fair, Iâve always had a real love for science as well as art so it turned out to be a good piece of advice. For me, going into architecture was quite rewarding in balancing both the art with the science.
During my post-graduate architectural education in Edinburgh, I stumbled across a group of people practicing lighting design.Â That was in 1984. One of those people was to become my creative partner, Jonathan Speirs. He had left college two years earlier and had formed a company with a theatre lighting designer called Andre Tammes. So, my introduction to lighting was quite accidental:Â I had been talking to a friend about my search for somewhere to work during the summer and that I couldnât really find the type of work I wanted amongst the architects in Edinburgh. If I am honest I was quite disaffected with architecture at that time. I often found it too regulated – too many rules. This friend mentioned these two interesting guys who worked with light but in an architectural context and put me in touch with them. So, I met them and the rest, as they say, is history.
But, I think I did realise two things quite early on: First, that lighting design could provide me with an almost perfect balance between art and science but in a more creative way than architecture. Secondly, I felt this was an amazing opportunity to do something that seemed very new and quite groundbreaking. I mean, I had not realised at that time that there were so many lighting designers already in America. So, I was persuaded to do something that seemed quite pioneering and unusual.
So, it means itâs been 25 years since you met Jonathan?
WellâŠ yes! I am getting old! (Laughs). Actually there is a bit of a difference, because I worked for Lighting Design Partnership (the name of their company) for a few years before going back into architecture. When I finally qualified as an architect, I decided to form my own company.Â In fact, I handed in my notice at the architectural firm â the last place I ever worked for someone else â on almost the equivalent day in the last recession to the day that Lehman Brothers went down. I gave in my notice and arrived home to see on the news this financial disaster happening! I thought: âGreat! What an idiot!â But, actually it turned out to be one of the best things I ever did. I found a little bit of teaching combined with some of my own work could keep me going. Basically, rather than being, like most of my friends, unemployed, I was self-employed with very little work. (Laughs)
It seems to me the influence of your architectural background is very clear. Even if you were not fully satisfied with architecture, it was somehow a successful attempt in your search for this art-science balance.
It is hard to say how conscious everything is. If you are being honest about it, things happen and you follow your instinct and your emotional responses.
I liked the idea that when people would ask me what I did, I would tell them and they wouldnât quite understand it. You know, if you say you are an architect, everyone immediately thinks they know what you do. Somehow, having to constantly explain all about the role that lighting plays added a sense of being involved in something new and special.
It is also part of your companyâs statement, to call yourselves âLighting Architectsâ. In which sense does a lighting architect differ from a lighting designer?
Well, this is a very topical question in our studio at the moment! We are in the middle of an interesting change, I think. We are certainly still heavily involved in architecture and stating we were âlighting architectsâ was a statement of intent, almost like a manifesto.Â We used to say: âI am an architect but I work with lightâ.Â But, given where the practice has now got to, and given the incredible range of talented people that work with us, we think of ourselves these days more as âdesigners that work with lightâ. It is not to say we are no longer architects at root but many of the people that are in the studio come from different backgrounds and in that respect I think we are much freer than we were as a result. The work we do these days now includes urban design, branding, and product design. So, it is a good question, very topical.
So there might be some changes comingâŠ
Well, you heard it here first!
Good! And then when I think of SaMAâs projects, my general first thoughts are related to large-scale, high standard, impressive solutions. Still, the company is dealing with a wide range of project types: from interior private to urban public commissions, passing by churches, care centres, airports, master plans, bridges and so on, with a large variation of budgets and styles. My question is: Where is it that you feel more comfortable? Actually, more importantly: what kind of project motivates you the most nowadays? I might have a hint after your lecture todayâŠ
We are still very motivated by working on individual building projects. I donât think I will ever resign my architectural past completely. But, I equally enjoy the level of strategic thinking that comes with working with a wide range of activities and in particular public space within cities. I think I am becoming increasingly passionate about the nature of this activity. Such work is not just about the qualities of light but also the way that the wider public interact with light in every way, including the need to consider light as information.
Alongside urban projects we have also begun to build quite a lot of work in the area of identity and branding. What we realize is that clients come and engage us not just to solve some functional lighting need but to use our skills to say something about themselves as an organization or to help create a sense of identity. By example, we have recently been doing work for the BBC, Sony, Nokia, and Virgin Atlantic in this direction. Ultimately, they are still lighting projects but what we bring to those projects is something different from what we bring to an architectural project, because we are working for someone that is selling a commodity or an experience: it may be a product, a lifestyle, but itâs something less tangible than form and space alone.
The other thing I should add is our increasing interest in âobjectsâ. We have always been independent from manufacturing and supply but I think we have grown to realise through our work that one of the downsides of that is it deprives you of the opportunity to form good collaborative relationships with people that make things. We certainly donât want to make or supply light fittings but we do want to be able to work with industry to help provide solutions without losing our integrity.Â Doing that would be a huge mistake.Â I feel very strongly that this relationship between the creation of masterplans, big strategic thinking, brand and identity and the impact that commerce has on our lives is critical to our future.Â I donât think it is possible to be innovative, unless you are engaging with what people are producing.
And you have recently made a street lighting luminaire, right?
Thatâs right. It was in partnership with the well known British industrial designers, Priestman Goode. This was the fortunate result of a project that we were working on. We had worked with Paul Priestman before on Terminal 5 where they were designing various things and we worked well together. He was interested in our ideas and the technical knowledge that we could bring to a project. In turn we found their approach really compatible with ours. They do a lot of work in all sorts of areas, within aviation, transport and public realm, designing not only objects but also systems and environments. We came across each other again in the development of the streetlight for the city of Cambridge. There was not enough finance within the project to develop the streetlight exclusively for the city so we spoke to a number of different manufacturers about the idea. We then selected a manufacturer, DW Windsor and worked in partnership with them to co-produce the product.Â Hopefully it will be the first of many such collaborations with industry.
In your lecture you mentioned the idea of the âdark cityâ and addressed the issue of urban lighting. Can you choose one of your projects in the urban realm, that you would like to talk about, and describe a bit the design process, focusing in the decision making of what should be and what should not be lit? I mean, the balance between light and darkness and the relation with the design process.
As I said during the lecture, I was being a little provocative when using the word âdarkâ, as opposed to dimmed. In a way, I was using the word to provoke an idea. I imagine that in future we might start zoning our cities with respect to light and its environmental impact, in which the light output ratio of an area will be considered as a major factor. In fact, this sort of system already exists through guidelines in various countries but through our master planning work we often tend to zone space into different areas of âdistrict brightnessâ. I think, because weâve had the opportunity recently to work on some massive lighting plans for new cities in Middle East, we have learnt to play with this problem at the macro scale.Â We had to really think about how to deal with the lighting based on the uses of different areas.
There is one project in particular where there are large areas dedicated to different activities; cultural, commercial, tourism, residential, community, etc. When you are faced with large areas in which specific different activities take place you begin to ask; âwhat should the personality of this area be after dark?âÂ As a result we found ourselves zoning these different areas not only in terms of quantity of light but also in terms of quality including colour rendering, colour temperature, etc.Â What we found was that in some areas we could be more liberal, like in the commercial zones, accepting brighter lighting levels, a whiter appearance to the light and good colour rendering.Â By contrast we came to understand that the quieter residential zones could afford to be much darker and should perhaps have a different type of light that created less âvisual noiseâ.Â Finally we determined that some areas might exist in which there should be no light at all.Â Thus the city is not just about what we should light or how we should light it but also about what should remain unlit.
Still trying still to relate big issues with more practical projects: you work a lot in the UK and also so many different places in the world, as China, Abu Dhabi, Denmark, Japan, France, Germany, MexicoâŠ
My question is in the field of âNatural Lightâ, and I would like to know in practice how do you handle with your team the issues of both daylight and light culture?
To start with the daylight question, we have several people in our studios who are very good with daylight.Â As a result we are happy to offer a service in terms of daylight and sunlight design. Its just that we donât push it â perhaps we should?
We recognise however that the engineers working on a building project are more likely to address this issue because they are often doing full environmental modelling. After all natural light should be a very integrated part of any environmental solution.
Often, we ask the client if they have daylight studies of the building or the space, and when the answer is âyesâ we find out the studies they have made are for the thermal modelling, through solar gain, etc.Â These are often very technical studies.
When we look at daylight and sunlight we attempt to look at things in a more architectural way. We have to understand how the spaces work and what the effect of natural light will be on the people that occupy them.Â As a result we will often advise clients if they need help beyond the technical solution alone or if we feel a space has got particular daylight issues, such as with sun glare. At that point we will offer to do studies for the client.Â This is often a practical measure and not something we spend a lot of time actively promoting.
In terms of the cultural effects of natural light we have always been clear that we learn a lot from natural light. One thing Iâve frequently said in the past is that if you can sketch, letâs say, a tree outside in three dimensions and get the effects of light and shade to work then you are probably a lighting designer!Â I say this because you are observing in a similar way to how a lighting designer observes: the softness of the shadow, the fall of the light, the fact that the light changes. Also when you are working in colour we all know that the sky is not blue and the trees are not green by observing them carefully. These are all obviously very basic things for artists to deal with but we do look to nature and the effects of natural light for our inspiration, which is why sometimes we use colour in our work.
As we said before, you work with a wide variety of projects. If it is not too much of a big question: how you would relate all projects in terms of what links them?Â In a more direct way: what is the philosophy of your work? Or how do you define your profile as a company?
I think itâs fair to say that we approach each project totally independently and we very rarely provide generic solutions. I feel very strongly about this but certainly we are not a practice where every restaurant is âhigh contrastâ just because we know that works.Â Some might say, if a tried and tested approach works why not use it? Or perhaps there is a âhouse styleâ a client is hoping for. But, I think we are very different from this. And this is also one of the reasons we have never done just hotels or just airports or just any specialized type of building. We thankfully seem to have avoided getting labelled.
We are just interested in handling each client, each project, and the context of each site individually. If you were going to use a single phrase to summarise this from an architectural point of view you would use the term Genius Loci. This would be the best way I can describe the philosophy of the firm. Combined with perhaps an organic approach, in the sense that we also believe that light is something that constantly changes.
I also donât think we have this sense of trying to create monumental and permanent lighting schemes. I think people think we do this. And thatâs because things get captured as photographs which somehow monumentalize the situation but if you go and actually experience our work you will know it is actually very different from that. I think the feeling we create in our projects is far more âhumanâ than the photographs convey.
You have worked for many years and completed many projects, and I am sure some of these projects have left the best memories. At the same time some of these projects have won awards worldwide. But, if you would have to give one of your own practiceâs designs a special medal, which project would it be?
Actually, more importantly, why? The most important is the motivation, not the real project.
I can think of a lot of projects I have enjoyed or through which we have achieved good results, and it doesnât matter if they were led by Jonathan or Keith or me or a combination of all of us â as long as the project is good thatâs what counts. But this is almost an impossible question to answer because it is nothing to do with winning an award! It is to do with looking back on projects and saying what was good about it and what was bad about it. What went wrong and what went right.Â It is tough, but I will try to answer your question.
For me personally the ones that have provided the greatest challenge are the ones I am most proud of.Â So, in recent times, I would mention the Sackler Crossing.
I really like that project as it was a very interesting one from the outset. We found ourselves working in this very dark area, in a beautiful and famous landscaped garden at Kew Gardens working with one of the greatest British architects – John Pawson. So how can we go wrong?Â Well the answer is that actually it would be very easy to get that very wrong.Â In a way, I can say it was the simple nature of what we did, as it was pretty much one detail that gave a very good result. And it is a good result when you are there, not just in a photograph. Another thing I like about that project is that it builds upon a previous project which was done by Jonathan: the Bridge of Aspiration, which again uses a single detail.Â Indeed, both projects even involved the same designer from our team â Philip Rose.
It is interesting to find similarities between such projects.Â Perhaps at the time we didnât realize we were actually consciously applying something we learnt from another project. Only later when we post-rationalized things we fully understood the similarities of those approaches. Even the same manufacturer was used despite totally different contexts. One is interior and the other is exterior. I really like these projects and I think they pretty much speak about the way we work â very different yet with similarities in approach – influencing each other.
Another project would be the re-lighting of St Paulâs, Cathedral because this project made me sweat the most. It is one of the few projects that made me wake up at night thinking I might want to change this or that â usually when it was already too late. This is probably the project in which I have sat for the longest time doing nothing but being in a space and thinking, âhow on earth do I do this?âÂ I have another cathedral project at the moment which is perhaps even more challenging. We have just started working on Canterbury Cathedral which is a really amazing building with such an incredible history. At least St Paulâs was largely conceived as a single project by Sir Christopher Wren.Â The problem with Canterbury is that it evolved over hundred of years making it a very difficult building to interpret through light. So, yes, I enjoyed doing St. Paulâs and I enjoyed the tough process of really making sure weâd made no mistakes about anything. I mean, intellectually as well as in terms of details.
And finally and more recently Jonathan and Keithâs project for the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is quite amazing. I had no involvement with this other than when I went to see it during the programming and focusing phase.Â When I first saw it I said to them both: âReally, this is not just a great project. This is an awesome project!â To be honest it is as scary as hell in its ambition but they certainly pulled it off. Naturally I see Jonathan and Keith as âmasters of lightâ and I think great designers can create âmasterworksâ during their career. This is certainly approaching a âmasterworkâ and it makes me immensely proud that they have produced this as part of the work of our practice.
Then, if you think of other peopleâs projects, projects you have seenâŠ I mean, there is no question SaMA is one of the most influential companies in our field today and I believe among lighting design students, for example, there are people who think: these guys can do whatever they want! (Laughs)Â At the same time, I am sure there are projects which made you think: âI wish I had done that!â And I actually remember in your âMade of lightâ lecture, I think in Milan, a few years ago, when you said that about the Allianz Arena, in Munich. Can you talk about projects that made you wish they were your creations?
Another very difficult question, but a nice one.
I think the Allianz Arena is a very profound piece of lighting design in the way the building changes identity. And here I must confess I have developed a great passion for football and I really identify with the notion of a brand colour of a team and what this means to the fans. From that perspective I understand how clever it was to allow this building to change colour in this way to deal with the problem of sharing a stadium, but not only as applied colour, but as light. So, I really wish I had done this project because: 1) It is a football stadium! (laughs) and 2) They made it change colour to represent the value and identity of the users! So, yes, wow! I wish I had done that.
Actually, the people I feel envious of are the ones who do what I would love to do but they are in two ends of a spectrum.
I used to go to the theatre â a lot more than I do now â and Iâd kind of envy the theatre lighting designers. Sometimes I would watch a show and look at the lighting they were doing, rather than necessarily concentrating, as I should have been on the action – even though the lighting designer was doing a great job and not upstaging the actors!Â I was often fascinated with the level of exaggeration and the fact they create transitory lighting for a few weeks or months and then it goes away and it supports and promotes ideas and creates emotions, all the things that we do but with huge expectations, as they know itâs going to go and it is just for a moment.
One of the worrying things about architectural lighting is how permanent it becomes and how there is an expectation that it will be permanent from the point of view of the client.Â If I plan something and it ends up not being quite right, I canât do what a theatre lighting designer does, which is go up the ladder and change it. I have to live with the result.
At the other end of the scale, I really admire and envy the rock & roll lighting designers, primarily because they have this great lifestyle. They go to all these parties and have a wonderful time going around the world. I know they say they donât, but I think they do! Iâm kiddingâŠmore seriously they are obviously working on the cutting edge in terms of technology and they introduce the most amazing ideas. I have actually been talking to people in this field and they all say it is not like that, that there is also budget and it is just like in our work, but I really think they have far more creative freedom to realize their ideas and have them executed by professional people, who want to build them and make it all happen. I do find that sometimes in architecture the disappointing thing is that the people who are installing the lighting or making the building are often not that passionate about what they are doing. You can say thatâs a failure of the system. Sometimes you get a good comment back from the contractor, saying something like: Wow, I never realized what you guys did but itâs fantastic and I really like it. But, most of the time it is just a fight about money. They often just donât want to do it saying it is too complicated, difficult or expensive and that they canât see the point. So I like the rock & roll lighting designers and the fact that they do those big budget projects where they are allowed to realise their dreams which then go on to let other people enjoy themselves.
As my last question, I actually want to repeat the question I made in the conference after your lecture, as I believe it is worth publishing your answer.Â To rescue the question: you mentioned in the lecture that mankind mainly does what can be done, as opposed to what needs to be done and nowadays, with all the technology available, we can do a lot. So my question to you is: what is it that we really need to do for the future?
Well, I had to time to think about the answer to this question, fortunately, as this is very difficult, but inevitably the answer is to educate people about light a little better.
When we say that people are important, somehow that is kind of obvious! Of course they are. And of course their education is important too.Â But, the education I want to refer to is a more global sense of education, not just to do with what KTH or Wismar teaches for example; and of course it is great that lots of students are receiving an education on lighting design, which is â by the way â a very difficult subject to teach, as itâs about the immaterial. But, what I am talking about is a wider education of the general public, of people who administrate cities, politicians and, also in a way our children.
In our book Made of Light, one of the things I am most proud of is this little exercise we did with children, done through Jonathanâs childrenâs school, and I felt these few pages were really great because the childâs view of anything is always really interesting and makes you realize things.
I obviously also talk to my own children, quite a lot, about lightâŠ well, one is only four so he is not really into it, but the other is eight and has started to ask what her parents do. So she is naturally quite interested and when they are asked at school what does your dad do, she says âhe paints with lightâ!Â Â Thatâs a really nice way of putting it. So somehow I feel my kids are inevitably going to get some kind of lighting education given what I do which, at the same time, makes me realize that other kids wonât. You see it is not a topic that often gets discussed â light. When you are with people in the streets or friends or lawyers and they ask âso, what is it that you do?â what often follows is a rather long explanation, and you really feel you need to actually go through that to get the point across. And anything that requires such an explanation must mean that this is really remote from their experience.
So it is this broad education, which is critical in which lighting is not treated as a sort of Cinderella subject or some add-on to society, but is actually part of society and daily life.Â I hope I am making sense?
In your answer during the conference you actually said, in the middle of your speech, that we need to bring light into peopleâs lives.
Ordinary peopleâs lives?
Exactly and thatâs why in my lecture I was happy to talk about light as a sort of âlife-style productâ. Despite what I said earlier people are worrying about light more. The fact that wealthy and semi-wealthy people are spending money on lighting is probably a good sign in that it shows that somewhere along the line they value good lighting as something they need.Â At the same time I am concerned about delivering good lighting to everyone â not just to those that can afford it.
And this actually leads us back to where we were in the discussion with Erik Olsson and JĂ¶ran Linder. Maybe they have actually hit the nail totally on the head by saying that in a way lighting design up to now has been an elitist activity, limited to people that can afford it.Â I think what they are saying is that we have to find a way to bring light to ordinary peopleâs lives and help them appreciate it. I think they are doing great work, in that respect.
Will Speirs and Major Associates do that type of work? I donât know. I think we are not structured to work in that way.Â We have certainly done social lighting work in the past but right now it is not something people come to us for.Â We obviously do a lot of public work and we would like to think that helps society. We have also done a number of projects for charitable organizations in which we have worked on a pro bono basis. We canât afford to do that all the time but there are certain people we have met and projects we were interested where we wanted to help such as with the Maggieâs Centre in London.Â I mean if the chance is there and you can afford to give your time for free to make sure something is made better for people that deserve it then you should do it.Â Like architecture, lighting design needs to develop a social conscience.Â So, whilst our future is probably not in âsocial lightingâ I think we would like to do maybe a little bit more of work for good causes in the future alongside our other projects.
Thanks for the inspiring talk, Mark!
Posted by: Diana Joels