Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 August 2020

Grand Mosque stands as beacon to lighting designer's legacy

We commemorate the award-winning light architect Jonathan Speirs, whose ambitious vision enhanced the beauty and significance our most important building.
Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Speirs's signature project for the captial. Courtesy Allan Toft/Speirs +Major
Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Speirs's signature project for the captial. Courtesy Allan Toft/Speirs +Major

We commemorate the award-winning light architect Jonathan Speirs, whose ambitious vision enhanced the beauty and significance our most important building.

At dusk each evening in the UAE, three of the most iconic buildings in the Middle East - if not the world - find a fresh lease of life thanks to three very different but equally inspiring displays of lighting.

The award-winning illumination of the Burj Al Arab, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Burj Khalifa was the work of Speirs + Major, an Edinburgh-based firm of lighting designers.

And, since the death at the age of 54 of company founder Jonathan Speirs on June 18, the three projects have also served as fitting memorial tributes to the talent and vision of the man who, quite literally, helped the world to see them, and the aspirations of the UAE, in the best possible light.

Speirs was born in 1958 in Ardrishaig, a village perched on the side of a hill overlooking Loch Fyne in the west of Scotland. After school he studied architecture at the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture and the Built Environment in Aberdeen, and then at Edinburgh College of Art, but he never worked as an architect. Instead, he went straight into what was then the niche business of lighting design, co-founding the Lighting Design Partnership in Edinburgh in 1984.

"At the time, while it wasn't unprecedented for there to be independent architectural lighting designers that would work alongside the architectural team, it was quite unusual," recalls Mark Major, who met Speirs in 1985, during his final year studying architecture in Edinburgh, and who in 1993 teamed up with him to form Speirs + Major.

In a moving tribute to his "long-term creative partner and dear friend", posted on the company website on the day of Speirs's death, Major recalled a man who was "Charismatic, energetic, ridiculously enthusiastic and totally passionate about architecture and light" - and a source of boundless fun for those around him.

His obituary in The Guardian recalled one of Speirs's favourite quotations, Maurice Chevalier's observation that "Many a man has fallen in love with a girl in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit by it".

His passion found expression in hundreds of projects around the world - including 30 St Mary Axe in London, known affectionately by Londoners as "The Gherkin", Beijing International Airport, Copenhagen Opera House, London's Millennium Dome and the interior of London's St Paul's Cathedral, beautifully re-lit in 2008 as part of the renovations carried out to mark the building's 300th anniversary - and earned numerous awards from his peers.

It was a passion that bloomed first in childhood. Speirs's parents, Robert and Margaret, were in the hotel business, and Major believes the young Jonathan may have been sensitised to the possibilities of both architecture and lighting in Morecambe, a seaside town in the north-west of England where his family lived, and ran the renowned Art Deco-style Midland Hotel.

Growing up in the Midland, says Major, almost certainly proved inspirational, in more ways than one. For a start, having parents working in the hospitality industry probably "explained his gregarious, extrovert and sociable character". More than that, though, "The Midland is an amazing building and I think it inspired him architecturally."

And, curiously, Morecambe was also where Speirs' interest in public lighting first developed. Until 1996, the town was well-known for its displays of streetlighting, albeit less spectacular than those in Blackpool, a larger resort just 20 miles away.

As a child, says Major, Speirs "used to sit and look at the illuminations through the windows of the hotel, waiting for them to be turned on. All of these things have a kind of influence."

From Morecambe Bay to the Arabian Gulf, Speirs + Major has enjoyed a long working relationship, particularly with the UAE, which began shortly after the company was founded with the landmark contract to light the Burj Al Arab.

The job, one of the company's first major projects, had come through a recommendation by Atkins, the British architects of the 321-metre Burj. While many of the company's lighting projects were to be team efforts, recalls Major, this one was Speirs's from the start.

"He was immensely proud of it, as we all were," says Major. "You create something and you hope it has an impact, but I think even he would have admitted to being surprised and delighted at how important a lighting project it became.

"I think that was partly because it was such an iconic building anyway, and partly because the lighting scheme reinforced its iconic nature - certainly, a lot of the images you see of it tend to be taken at night, because of the show."

Because of the scale of the building, the challenge was "enormous", says Major, but Speirs, inspired by Dubai's frontier spirit, rose to it.

"He was a fun-loving, gregarious guy, and particularly at that time in Dubai there was a lot of energy, a lot of drive, real ambition, and he just got on really well with that. There were lots of people in Dubai who had huge visions at that point. He naturally was the sort of person they took to because of his enthusiasm and that enthusiasm was reciprocated - he found what they were doing exciting and wanted to be part of it."

Speirs "absolutely loved his time in the Middle East and enjoyed every project he worked on" - and there were to be many more. Chief among them was the Burj Khalifa, the celebration light show of which is already a familiar sight around the world. But perhaps the project that had the most impact on Speirs personally was the creation of the lighting for the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, on which he worked with Keith Bradshaw, now Major's co-director.

"It was a terrific scheme," says Major. "I took the initial inquiry but because Jon knew the region we discussed it and he flew over to the mosque when it was still a concrete shell. I remember him being very enthusiastic and saying the physical scale of the building was unbelievable. He was blown away by it."

The vast lighting project would take almost six years from concept to completion. In a film made afterwards by Speirs + Major, Speirs recalled that he had asked the clients, "did they want the building floodlit at night or did they want some other story, a philosophy, an idea, that would be different from just the building illuminated in a normal way? And they said absolutely they wanted something different, and we said we would love to help."

The idea he developed was "to have a building that, by full moon, is lit pristinely with white light, but with a textural quality evocative of clouds slowly drifting by. As the moon wanes over its 28-day cycle, the lighting grows gradually bluer to signify darkness. On the fourteenth evening the mosque is lit in deepest blue".

In the same way that the moon has an impact on the tides, "we wanted the moon to have an impact on the building", he recalled.

"We wanted to tell a story that spoke about dignity and respect and had a reference to the functionality of the building. This is an important Islamic space, for education and for prayer, and we wanted to try to take all of those things into consideration."

As a result, "Even the directionality was important, in the same way as the orientation of a mosque is critically important; we wanted to have this movement of the texture coming from Mecca."

Dealing with the third-largest mosque in the world, "The exterior challenges on this project were huge", Speirs had said.

Equally challenging, however, was the "cultural responsibility and sensibility" of the project. "The one thing we didn't want to do," he recalled, "was make this into a multicolour resort mosque; this is a religious building and thereforefore a sensitivity in the use of colour was paramount."

Both the Burj Al Arab and the Grand Mosque - emblems of the secular and the sacred and yet jointly symbolic of the UAE as a nation that is part of the modern world, but with its roots embedded firmly in the values of faith and tradition - stand as fitting tributes to the work of the man who helped them to convey their messages to the world. And that, says, Major, would have pleased him.

"Jonathan did an awful lot of other projects, here in the UK and elsewhere around the world, but I think it is fair to say that the Burj Al Arab and the Grand Mosque were the ones he was most proud of. And I think they are of a scale and a magnificence that he has a right to be proud of, partly because the final effect was great, but also because they were hugely ambitious, innovative and daring."

Speirs was diagnosed with terminal cancer in early 2010, when he retired from the practice to spend more time with his family - his wife Elizabeth, whom he married in 1988, and their two daughters, Lucie and Erin. The couple's first child, Calum, died in 1993, aged two, after a long illness.

"Jon fought very bravely and very hard and we were very fortunate to have him with us for a couple more years," says Major.

During those years, more honours came Jonathan's way; in 2010 the Grand Mosque won the International Association of Lighting Designers' Radiance Award and Speirs was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland; last year he was the recipient of the Professional Lighting Designers' Association's Lifetime Achievement Award.

His obituary in The Scotsman recalled a man who had "substantially changed the world of architectural lighting and the appearance and perception, not only of numerous major buildings and structures, but of many international towns and cities".

In this, he had "achieved more than the vast majority of architects could ever dream of ... Jonathan won all of the supreme accolades in his field, some of them on several occasions. He was a man of considerable and genuine modesty. Nevertheless, his work declares his genius."

Thanks to a scholarship fund being set up in Jonathan's memory, his career will serve as a beacon for others to follow.

"There is," wrote his partner Major, "no more fitting way to celebrate Jonathan's remarkable life than to continue doing what he was so good at - inspiring and helping the next generation to reach higher than they might otherwise achieve by doing the thing he loved most - bringing magic to people's lives through the imaginative and creative application of light."


Updated: August 3, 2012 04:00 AM



Editor's Picks
Sign up to our daily email
Most Popular