‘Light is a weird thing. You can’t actually touch the stuff. You can’t grab it. It just exists.’ Coming from a child, a comment like this, on a substance as basic as light, is sure sign that the time when the world grew from our bodies is over. That time, a time when seeing is believing, when trees don’t fall – silently or otherwise – in hypothetical forests because, fool, hypothetical forests aren’t real, is over, finito, kaput. You didn’t make the moon at night, the grass beneath our feet, the water in our glass blue. You didn’t. The sun did - on surfaces. It’s over, kid. Nobody has Superman eyes, not even Superman. It’s over. Sorry.
Course, it’s not. Over. Not for anyone, and not least that child. Jonathan Speirs, from whom the comment originates, and who died last Monday, was not a child. He was an adult; and not just any old adult – me, for example. Co-founder of Speirs + Major, a multi-award winning light design practice, Speirs spent his life knowing light. He knew what that child, in giving up being god, is about to gain. He knew that Aphrodite didn’t make our eyes, that they are not composites of soil and water and air and fire, but thought light no less wonderful for the loss of that and the countless other stories gazumped by science. He knew that light is electromagnetic radiation (EMR), and that the light we see, which has a wavelength of 380 to 740 nanometres, is just the tip of the iceberg. He knew about reflection, refraction, packets of photons, Newton, Descartes, theories galore – wave, particle, quantum, you name it, he knew it. He knew light.
But knowing about light is what scientists do. For Speirs, the key to light was not its properties, or the number of candles, lumens and whatnot required for this or that space. He didn’t think in photodiodes, footcandles etc. Photometrics, at a guess, was not bedtime reading. Light is not about, as he said, knowing the numbers. Turner didn’t turn paint into light with a measure rule. Who, before now(ish), knew anything about bleans? Even now? Hotels, office exteriors, after dark way-finding systems aren’t lit by calculators. On the contrary: they’re lit by ideas, stories, the imagination. The key, said Speirs, is to look at how light might work in a given space, how it will be reflected, absorbed, bounced or stifled by the objects, to imagine how it will change over the course of time – a day, a month, a year. Fill it with atmosphere. Make that atmosphere change. Do what the church builders did. Tell a story.
Looking at light this way is to know (imagine) the function of your space, to walk a tightrope between fulfilling and creating the desires of its users. What is it for? What will people need - and want – to do, to feel? A building without light is not, beyond the experience of structured darkness, a building. Make light. Make an experience. Make something like the Pantheon. One of Speirs’s enduring loves, the Pantheon’s original purpose, to honour the gods, is exemplified by its use of light, provided entirely by the sun, via a single portal, the dome’s ocular. A lead slide in many a Speirian lecture, he saw in the Pantheon’s design an extraordinary use of time, of nature. What better way to illuminate the power of god, than to take light, and turn it into a beam that travels the innards of the world’s (still) greatest concrete dome, its stretch and contractions – its positions – an hour hand made of god matter? Not for him, then, the 24 hour single atmosphere factory lighting systems of today, its users compelled to work in the bright permanence of a midday sun.
Speirs’s work is suffused in narrative. Fed by his love for all great storytelling, for anything from the theatrical dramatics of baroque architecture to the lighting design for Another Brick in the Wall to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner, Speirs’s designs, like all beautifully told stories, are illuminated as much by the absence – as it is the presence - of light. Hence returning (or offering to) the fee for the exterior of the Gherkin, which he believed needed more the shades and lines created by its interior lighting; hence the pulsating, thermal-imitating design for the Bethlehem Steelworks, Pennsylvania; and hence the exterior lighting for the Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi, which mimics the lunar cycle, the textural flow designed to illustrate light in its many after-dark forms.
Speirs’s special brand of storytelling was, like its effects, always designed for the group, for friends, collaborators, fellow lovers of the narrative. Sometimes the hardest of all stages, he had – by all accounts - an extraordinary knack for making the start of project accessible, exciting, doable. ‘He was,’ says Adam Scott, who worked with him on the recent Blackpool regeneration project, ‘at the start, simply talking about the lighting scheme for the promenade, but what he told us was the story of a journey, a story supercharged by wide and anecdotal references to rock ’n roll shows, the crackling crust of molten rock, Las Vegas and sunrise in the desert. It was a great story and one with lots of social hooks allowing us all to grab on and make it our own... It was at once a spectacular narrative and one that was inclusive and personal.’ He took, in short, this weird, untouchable thing, light, and bent it for human purpose, gently, beautifully.
Jonathan Speirs 1958-2012
Mark Major's tribute to Jonathan Speirs can be found here.