x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

The man who engineered the Burj Khalifa's limelight

Jonathan Speirs recalls the challenges of designing the lighting systems for the world's tallest building and also the third largest mosque.

DUBAI // In both purpose and looks, the Burj Khalifa and the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the capital are as different as night and day.

But when the sun goes down, the world's tallest building and the third largest mosque in the world have one thing in common: they come alive courtesy of a beautiful array of lighting designed by the same man.

The complex process was devised and executed by a soft-spoken, bespectacled gentleman named Jonathan Speirs, co-founder of Speirs + Major, a UK lighting design consultancy that boasts a long list of famous international clients.

In addition to lighting the Burj al Arab hotel, Abu Dhabi's grand mosque and the Burj Khalifa, their list of projects includes such diverse structures as London's St Paul Cathedral and the Italian designer Giorgio Armani's boutiques in Tokyo, Milan, Beijing, Hong Kong and New York.

The tasks of lighting Burj Khalifa and the mosque came with their share of dramatic and challenging moments, Mr Speirs recalled this week when he addressed an audience of experts at the Light Middle East exhibition in Dubai.

The 828m-tall Burj Khalifa tower features 868 stroboscope lights, the powerful devices that produce flashes at certain floor intervals.

The aim was to recreate the notion of sparkle, the inspiration behind the scheme and one of three ideas that Speirs + Major presented to the developer Emaar when they were competing for the contract.

While the finishing touches were being put to the lighting system last year, Mr Speirs spent a week working out of a terrace on the 14th floor of The Address Hotel, perfecting the sophisticated computer programme behind it.

A team of designers and computer programmers would gather there every night to work out how the project played out directly on the Burj Khalifa facade.

Using a powerful antenna, the team would run software while watching out the window to see a corresponding visual effect on the Burj itself.

Construction work on the building would sometimes slow their progress.

"Some nights it was one step forward and several back," he said.

The Sheikh Zayed mosque project, for which the firm did both the internal and external lighting, was even more challenging.

Speirs + Major had to come up with a second lighting concept after the first idea, which had reached the detailed design work stage, was shelved. The entire process took more than six years.

"It took a long time, but we think it was worth it," Mr Speirs said.

"It was stressful but, hopefully, people like it and think we have done something that shows respect towards the religion and the building."

It was March 2003 when a call "out of the blue" asked him whether he would consider taking on the job. Upon arriving in Abu Dhabi and finding a bare concrete structure, he learned it had to be finished by December the same year.

Despite the pressure, he was immediately taken with the project."I have to say, I became a bit like a schoolboy," he remembered. "I was calling the office every 10 minutes, telling them, 'You will not believe this."

The design bureau wanted to create a story in lights. And the story that they wanted to tell was one about eternity as manifested in the idea of "the cosmos, the stars and the sky".

That theme ultimately failed to gain approval in Abu Dhabi, and was rejected a week after the design was presented. The team returned to the drawing board.

The second idea - one that can be seen on the mosque today - centred around the lunar cycle which has special significance in Islam.

Depending on the phase of the moon, the exterior of the mosque is lit in a range from white to dark blue.

A sophisticated computer programme creates the illusion of gentle shadows moving across the facade, designed to depict the movement of clouds across the moonlit sky.

Once such a complex lighting system is devised, it must be meticulously maintained or the effect will diminish, said Mr Speirs.

Both projects presented tough challenges for Mr Speirs and his team, but for the tourists and residents of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the results are two shining beacons in the night skyline.

vtodorova@thenational.ae