I stood in the empty, darkened building and felt how the light would strike the columns and how it would light me. My boss turned to me and asked me how I would go about lighting this great cathedral. That moment was the start of a two year journey in this building and was the turning point in my career. It was the moment I found my niche and became a lighting designer with purpose.
A few months later I attended a meeting of the Fabric Committee of Durham Cathedral. They looked after one of Britain’s greatest buildings. Construction started in 1093, less than 30 years after the conquest of England by the Normans in 1066. It was one of a series of cathedrals built by the Normans to establish and consolidate their power over the Anglo-Saxons. The project to replace the existing lighting, from the 1930s, was planned to be completed by the 1000th anniversary of the start of construction. This was a momentous moment for the building, for the cathedral staff and for me.
The committee was chaired by the Dean of the Cathedral, who was the cleric in charge of the entire complex. Although a cathedral is the Seat of the Bishop, the cathedral itself is not his responsibility, that rests with the Dean. The lighting design scheme that I had designed was presented to the committee for their approval, prior to proceeding with detailed design work and preparation of contract documentation.
The Dean stood up to complete the process and ask for the committee’s approval. In his closing remarks he spoke about their responsibility in taking care of this building and ensuring it is passed on to the next generation in as best condition as possible. He then finished by saying,
We are proposing to introduce technology into this ancient building that may seem at odds with its simple yet grand structure. It is always a difficult process, that of taking an ancient building into a modern era, one which we should only embark on with care. When the Cathedral was originally conceived and built there was no artificial light beyond the humble candle. The building existed in daylight. You could be forgiven for thinking that that is how it should remain. I do not agree with that view. So how do we decide what is an acceptable addition to the building and what is not. For me, and I hope for you, that decision can only be made by referring back to the original builders and what they would have done. The question to ask yourselves is if this technology had been available to them would they have used it. My answer is a resounding yes. This proposal is designed to enhance the interior in a way that they would have wholeheartedly supported, and so I urge you to do the same.
The scheme was unanimously approved and the detailed design and installation proceeded. It was completed in time for the 1000th anniversary. That was a proud moment for me.
I started this project as a designer employed by the design practice. By the time I started on the next great cathedral, Ely Cathedral, I was a Director of the practice, on my way to International fame. This shift came about because of the dramatic increase in my confidence in myself as a designer. This confidence came from the fact that the entire design process at Durham was conceived and managed by me and the fact that the design ideas were all mine. I went on to repeat this process at many other cathedrals, becoming the British designer with more cathedral designs under his belt than any other. Years later my run came to an end not because my design work was not good, but because those responsible for the architectural care of these great building felt that it was time to introduce another design point of view.
I have talked about how I found my inner light and how I connected my design work to it. This process started at Durham. I spent many months visiting the building and getting to know those whose lives revolved around the building and its establishment. I spent time with everyone from the clergy to the electricians. I found my way into the soul of the building and so it found its way into my soul. I attended services as a member of the congregation and came to understand what the place meant to the people who visited it either one time, occasionally or regularly. For me taking control of the visual presentation of the cathedral was more than a technical matter it was one of revealing the numinous quality of the space while enabling people’s enjoyment and use of the space.
I was able to marry all the various needs of the people using the building with the needs of the building itself. I was further able to take these ideas, present them in drawings and specifications, and manage contractors through the process of installing them. It was in doing this that I realised that I had thoroughly absorbed what I had learned in my time in the theatre. I had learned to combine dealing with concept and detail so that everyone involved understood what was happening and felt part of the entire process. The Dean and the builder fixing brackets to the wall had very different layers of understanding, yet both needed to feel an equal part of transforming the presentation of the space. I learned how to connect everyone into what was happening because I was connected at all levels.
Many years later, on my last project as a Professional Lighting Designer, just before my retirement, I was on site working with some electricians who had been installing the lighting I had designed. It was a dramatic new theatre in Aylesbury, north of London. The architectural design incorporated a seemingly random collection of wooden beams and pillars that created a multilayered space of floors and stairs that climbed up into the distance. The lighting design was my last great challenge, one that I pursued with relish. I designed an extremely complex system comprising hundreds of individual glass pendants hanging randomly throughout the foyer. Their combination flowed through the space indicating direction and spatial emphasis. They were designed to represent the dappled light you get in a forest when the sun shines through the tree canopies.
Although the layout was intended to be random I had to spend months detailing the exact location of each pendant and length of cable. I had to imagine the flow of randomness in my mind and transfer the details of that onto the largest spreadsheet I had ever created. When the electrical contractor received the information and saw what he had to install, he thought I was completely mad. The on site electricians had no understanding of what the end result was meant to be but responded to my confidence and communications with them and trusted me, despite thinking that I was mad.
I was on site at a critical moment when the covers protecting the glass pendants were removed and the scaffolding needed to access them was removed. I was working with a site foreman who was an old, experienced electrician who was making fun of me because of what he saw. As the result started to be revealed his attitude completely changed from making fun of me to being in awe of what he saw. He freely admitted that the result was extraordinary and transformed the space. He had undergone months of detailed installation work, far more than with a normal lighting scheme, now he understood why. This moment was as precious to me as the moment the Dean of Durham Cathedral recommended my lighting design to his Fabric Committee.
In between these two moments were years of developing ideas at the forefront of architectural lighting design. I was part of creating a method of creating lighting strategies for cities. Strategies that took on board all the exterior lighting elements that exist in our night-time environment and moulded them into a new presentation of cities at night. I was part of creating something that was eventually used by designers all over the world. They adopted not just the idea but also the method of carrying it out.
I developed a way of working on theatre foyers and auditoria and became the designer who lit more West End Theatres in London than any other. This, incidently, was accompanied by a study of the lighting of “Theatreland” for Westminster City Council. This along with the Edinburgh Lighting Vision, was some of my most satisfying and enjoyable work.
As I progressed in this work I became more senior and more conceptual in the work I did. I worked more and more with young designers who went on to become reputable designers themselves. I taught many people how to light cathedrals and theatres and how to develop lighting strategies, as well as many other aspects of lighting design.
I was at the peak of my creativity and I understood why I had become a lighting designer: I was good at it but it also entered my soul as my life’s work. I look back on it with pride and a sense of satisfaction that I have contributed something significant to the world.
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Photo Credit: Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury