Interview with lighting design specialist Carolina Florian

In our latest blog series we interview specialist consultants from across the practice. Here we speak to lighting design expert Carolina Florian

lighting designer carolina florian from Buro Happold
Associate Lighting designer, Carolina Florian. Image: Harry Borden

Is light a tricky medium to work with?

It is. You can predict a lot with software modelling and a good technical background, but the reality is that the outcome may still surprise you. There are elements that you can never predict unless you do a mock-up or physical model tests. That’s because your eye perceives an environment differently to what photographs or software calculations can show you. An important part of our design process is to get samples from manufacturers to make sure that their products will deliver what we have promised to clients.

Are there any recurring challenges in working as a lighting designer?

The main one is that, because light is such an available material, most people have an opinion about lighting without necessarily understanding it. We often get challenged and have to demonstrate the value that we add.

How would you describe that value?

We have the expertise to bring projects to life for people to experience them. It’s not just the architecture, the technical performance and the client aspirations. We need to combine all lighting-related factors, which includes environmental, socioeconomic and physiological aspects.

Buro Happold really sees the value of having different specialist disciplines to solve very intricate challenges.

Carolina Florian, Associate Lighting Designer

What are the big projects that your team is involved in?

I’d say Stratford Waterfront is a good example. That’s a great project because it combines iconic clients and it’s located in a section of London where, since the Olympics, major things are happening. There’s a lot of residential development there, too, so our work will complement the experience for everyone who lives in the area. We have the BBC building, the V&A, Sadler’s Wells, London College of Fashion and we are doing the lighting in the public realm around those buildings.

Is it accurate to say that good lighting is the lighting that you don’t notice?

Yes. I was watching the Coco Chanel film and there is a part where she says something like, “If you remember the woman then the dress is fantastic, but if you remember the dress that’s because it wasn’t the right one.” Lighting is the same. If you notice the light sources, and you can feel annoyed by them, then it didn’t work.

Is there anything else about lighting design that tends to annoy you?

Glary light sources on street columns. Some of them are extremely bright. A lot of street lighting was quickly changed to LEDs because it was more efficient, but now, after a few years of understanding the effect, you shouldn’t have that cooler, whiter light at night. Another one is the coloured lights that are applied to facades. That can be a nightmare, with green and red and purple lighting going on.

How have LEDs affected your work?

That was a massive change. Now we can use efficient light sources that are very powerful in terms of controls, colour range and dynamic effect. So, you go from designing a scheme with static white light to being able to change the room to different colours or even change the colour of the white light, depending on the daylight parameters and mood. Daylight moves from warmer white light in the morning to very crisp around midday; then it goes into warmer, amber shades again at sunset. That’s kind of how our bodies work.

The body wants different light at certain times of the day?

Yes. Artificial lighting can be designed to behave in what they call a “human centric” way. Nowadays we understand more about how we respond to light, not just in aesthetic or mood terms but also physiologically.

Circadian rhythms?

Exactly. That’s a complicated topic because, although we know that there is an effect, it hasn’t been fully proven that artificial light influences the circadian rhythm in the same way that daylight does. There is a push for trustworthy research on this to inform future applications better, especially for health projects — like hospitals — and night shift environments, which could show more substantial results.

It seems that your lighting design work requires an even balance of technical expertise and artistic flair…

Yes, I enjoy both. Technology in lighting keeps changing a lot. At the moment we are having a bit of a revolution with controls and how you can integrate the lighting with smart cities. For example, another project I have is Amaala in Saudi Arabia. That’s a development on an empty coast comprising three massive resort plots with new infrastructure — so new airport, new roads and everything. The client vision is for an integrated, smart environment that provides the artistic quality and wellness and all the experience of a seven-star resort. If you focus only on the artistic side and don’t keep up with technology, then at some point you will feel left out of the conversation. You won’t know what’s best to propose to the client in terms of what’s out there.

What’s exciting you about where the specialism is headed?

The most exciting part for me is that Buro Happold really sees the value of having different specialist disciplines to solve very intricate challenges. We bring the confidence to enable client visions. That has a lot to do with working closely with the architects, but without the right type of light the project will never be perceived as envisaged.

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