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7 Iconic Architecture Firms Harnessing the Power of Light — Inside and Out

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We interact with light every day. We use it to grow, to communicate, to navigate and to learn. It takes the form of radio waves, microwaves, infrared, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays. It affects our natural rhythms and provides us with the vitamins needed to function and in an increasingly built world light is an essential element, allowing us to perceive architecture and to live and work in buildings.

Over many centuries architects have pondered the possibilities, challenges and boundaries of light. They have pushed artificial lighting to new limits and they have harnessed natural light in previously unimaginable ways. Great architects down the years have grown an understanding that, although light is not built, it can be designed, akin to an ethereal material in its own right. Influenced by the likes of Louis Kahn and Alvar Aalto, this collection highlights some of the biggest contemporary names in architecture, showcasing how they have explored, exploited and expanded the power of light in contemporary projects.

Louvre Abu Dhabi by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

Inspired by the region’s rich architectural traditions and the museum’s unique location at the point where the Arabian sky meets the sands of Saadiyat Island and the waters of the Arabian Gulf, Jean Nouvel wanted the Louvre Abu Dhabi to rain light. The geometric dome was inspired by the cupola, a distinctive feature in Arabic architecture. Woven metalwork and a mix of surfaces provide a mesmerizing experience as you explore the various buildings surrounded by water.

Filtered natural light is present in all the galleries, from lateral windows or through ‘zenithal’ lighting, which using glass mirrors to capture and direct sunlight into the spaces while also scattering rays to reduce glare. A feat of construction and a sight to behold, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a masterpiece of architecture, born from light.  

Heydar Aliyev Center by Zaha Hadid, Baku, Azerbaijan

Undoubtedly one of the most prolific architects of our time, the late Zaha Hadid’s name is synonymous with light. Her talent for hidden integration and her exploration of light function has been memorialized in the vast number of projects to which she turned her hand and lent her eye.  

Of all the projects in which she and her team were involved, the Heydar Alive Centre in Baku stands out. The lighting, seemingly fused within the very fabric of the building, is a true masterclass in illumination. Started in 2007 and completed in 2012, the project was a huge leap forward for lighting technology, and many of the ideas and systems first used here have become common practice today.

Apple Fifth Avenue by Foster + Partners, Manhattan, NY, United States

Since the first Apple Store opened in 2001, there have been 5 iterations of Apple’s lighting designs, each part of a never-ending search for the perfect indoor sky. From white luminous ceiling panels — reminiscent of a cloudy sky — to transparent pavilions with wooden ceilings, Foster + Partners and Apple’s own engineers have learned everything worth knowing about light in their quest. 

Apple Fifth Avenue boasts a grand hall beneath a bustling plaza. Overhauled in 2019, the ceiling, now comprised of a backlit, three-dimensional curved fabric, cleverly combining artificial and natural light to match the changing tones of daylight throughout the day.

TikTok by Gensler, Culver City, CA, United States

TikTok skyrocketed to international recognition in 2020, and although the company’s ascension has been rife with controversy, it has made an indelible mark on tech culture worldwide. Gensler topped the list of firms vying for the commission to design TikTok’s new American headquarters. Located in Los Angeles, the 120,000 square foot hub has embraced lighting technology to create a space that is not only functional, but also fun.

100-foot-long LED walls with continually changing images become kinetic backdrops, while neon lights are entwined to replicate the roadmaps of its LA home. Pops of color and intense neon messages are integrated throughout, helping to create a vibrant and energizing workplace.  

56 Leonard Street by Herzog & de Meuron, New York, NY, United States

Light is adaptable, bendable and ever-changing, making it gloriously unpredictable. It is this unpredictability that inspires Herzog & de Meuron. Their use of metal and glass creates reflective façades that reach up into the skyline of the cities in which they are present. 56 Leonard Street is a classic example — it continuously reflects the current weather, seeming luminous when the sun shines, ominous when the clouds roll in, fiery at sunrise, or inky and sparkling through the night.     

The Greater Accra Regional Hospital by Perkins and Will, Ridge, Ghana

As a leader in their field, Perkins and Will have invested millions of dollars into their research department. Their work in healthcare and the impact of lighting for well-being is unparalleled, a fact that is apparent in many of their projects. However, it is in the design of The Greater Accra Regional Hospital at Ridge in Ghana where they harnessed truly life-changing technological advancements. 

In an area troubled with power outages, a lack of running water and socio-economic challenges, light is harnessed for solar water heating and daylight harvesting, providing passive cooling, running natural ventilation systems and aiding rainwater harvesting. All of these light-powered technologies were developed and adopted to build a state-of-the-art healthcare facility.    

Cifi Beijing by Steven Holl Architects, Beijing, China

Daylight has long since been the tool of choice for Steven Holl. His buildings engage all the senses, but it is with light he creates some of his most unique and awe-inspiring experiences. In each of his designs, Holl and his team attempt to bring daylight into places where it is not usually found. Light wells, reflective surfaces and sharp shadows are key elements within much of his work, evoking different emotions at each turn. He has described his work as an orchestra of light, and within his proposal for Cifi Beijing, it is clear why.

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