Human Light

author Dean Skira
interviewed by Ante Nikša Bilić, Petra Čeferin, Tadej Glažar

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Interviewed in Pula on 15 November 2014


Lighting designer Dean Skira has done his lighting projects in a number of different locations, from Moscow to Montreal. He is, however, especially glad to be able to work in his region of Istria to which he returned from New York to realize his lighting project in Croatia, for which he was educated abroad. When he began to work in Pula, it seemed that there were actually no real conditions for his projects. But through his hard work, Skira has managed to create all these conditions. One of the proofs of his success is the realization of the project of illuminating the huge shipping cranes at the shipyard in Pula. Local citizens identified themselves with the project, and accepted it with great enthusiasm. It is a project that precisely represents what is generally characteristic of Skira’s work: he is not interested in lighting objects—roofs, buildings, interiors, landscapes—but in stirring emotions, creating moods, affecting the public. This is his view of the role of lighting design. We talked with him in his studio in Pula about his understanding of this role, and about materials with which he works.


ORIS: One of the definitions of architecture is that it is the art of building, of construction, which begins with the articulation of a joint – a joint which is assembled, combined, weaved into more joints, and gradually into the ever larger structures. A joint is understood as an elementary particle, a kind of atom of architecture. Could you make a comparison with architecture of light that you design/construct? What are the atoms of your architecture?


Dean Skira: Light is not important for architecture, but for people who live in it. I conclude all my lectures with that sentence, because I believe that the true value of light is the value of experience. We distinguish between biological elements which imply eye response to a certain light stimuli, whereas visual preconditions create emotional response. If we join these components, we get the value of experience in a certain space. Emotions and atmospheres created in a space defined by light are the starting point of each lighting project, whether the project is about architecture, public lighting, or interior lighting. For me that is the basis of everything.


ORIS: Over the years, in our discussions about light, we would often quote Louis Kahn. This is what he had to say about light in his brilliant book Between Silence and Light: All material in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of Light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to Light. How did you become interested in light?


Dean Skira: I have always gravitated toward architecture and design. However, shortly after my arrival in New York in 1986, I met some people who were engaged in lighting. They introduced me to this world. I found a new language, the language of light, which immediately fascinated me, especially because it was previously completely unknown to me. I enrolled in college, to study interior design, and I had lighting design classes for all four years. We had a laboratory available, in which the professors, who had to have a minimum of ten years experience in private practice, transferred their knowledge to future generations. Whilst studying, I worked directly in the field, went to building sites with my colleagues, we designed and supervised together, and that was a priceless experience for me; to learn and work on projects in a country in which the profession originated.


ORIS: You wrote that artificial light is a predictable and controllable light source. But is it really? Is it not the same in your profession, as it is in architectural design, that you can be quite surprised sometimes, when you see your project (which you have carefullly designed in your studio) finally realised in 1:1 scale? Has this sometimes happened to you – as a positive surprise, and perhaps also as a negative one?


Dean Skira: One of the oldest living lighting designers, Howard Brandston, once said that those who could not visualize the lighting of a space with their eyes closed, were simply not qualified to deal with light. That is, my light and my visualization process, indeed, arise from closing my eyes, imagining the space in the dark, and experiencing the form of light; the way it reveals the form of the object it illuminates, what happens with the shadow arising from this interaction. After the visualization of the final version of the project comes the entire process of making technical drawings, simulations, mathematics, calculations, and specifications. It is almost always possible to assume what a final solution will look like, but, of course, there is also the element of surprise. Light, although linear, is often unpredictable, as is the case in the project we are currently developing with architect Michele De Lucchi, in which it is impossible to predict the path of light on the 6mx3mx3m polymorphic bronze sculpture. It is possible to predict light in controlled conditions, and when used in a utilitarian context, as a mathematical fact, but even then it is not possible to predict a person’s mood at the time when the light is turned on. The same amount of light, the color of light does not always suit everyone ... sometimes we are in a better mood, sometimes less so. It is a challenge for me to apply innovations in projects, which can sometimes result in surprises, because there the uncertainty is greater.


ORIS: Your work is research, full of hidden emotions, with the eternal theme of the unreal, the illusory, the dematerializing. You treat light as a construction material in the architectural vocabulary. Your projects and realizations leave a strong impression on us; they touch directly the geometry of our emotions.


Dean Skira: We all have similar needs for light. Regardless of the interior, be it in the style of Louis xiv or Le Corbusier, despite cultural differences and other factors, our need is universal and light should be treated that way. I have never been interested in the decorative aspect of lamps, and I try to leave the choice of the lamps to the client, his family, the interior designers, etc. I can only suggest whether they suit the project in light-technical terms or not. Generally, people focus too much on the lamp, and fail to perceive the form of light. On the other hand, I am interested solely in the form and its influence, which becomes the topic of research. We study the way it would act—when it comes out of a source, a lamp—on the object it illuminates, and what the appearance of the fourth form, which is generated by light, would be, and that is shadow. We are interested in the intensity in which light, shadow and the overall dynamics of space would affect us. And that is why we try to avoid a visible lamp in space in our projects, as we want it to be only one of the tools we use to investigate the perception of future space.


ORIS: You often emphasize that it is not the lighting source/the lamp that matters, but rather the effects that this source/lamp creates. You are often trying to hide the lamps and make only their effects visible. (Also) from this point of view I find the project of the House of Light which you have designed together with Andrija Rusan interesting. It seems to me that there you not only created a usable office building, but also (at the same time) a giant lamp. So, this time the lamp/light source did matter. Can this be considered an inconsistency in your thinking? Or is this a very special type of project?


Dean Skira: If we analyze our tendencies in which we try to avoid the visibility of the light source literally, then it is achieved in this case. What is visible is only the reflected light of the house, which takes over the function of a luminous object, so to speak. Of course, we, as a company dealing with light, must be able to demonstrate to our clients the technology and the tools we use, and all the things we are able to do with them. In this house we also have a lot of examples of light integration which, construction-wise, were extremely demanding in execution. These were, in large part, successfully accomplished because of my role of lighting designer, client, and interior designer at the same time, so that I was able to supervise the realization of the idea from the moment it was created. Integration with inspiration is the phrase I like to use when explaining my approach to design—when technology, design and art blend with one another. Symbolically, I also present the work on my projects through one meter of the lighting design process, which comprises one creative critical centimeter. The process begins with the exchange of ideas and other valuable information. After making mutual decisions in collaboration with all the parties concerned, after applying standards and regulations, and other elements of the project process, it is this critical centimeter that makes the difference between the utilitarian solution and the project with a so-called wow effect. The Lumenart House was designed according to that principle, with the aim of ensuring that people in it feel good and become inspired, where the priority is always to ensure added value for our client through that synergy.


ORIS: There has been a lot of confusion lately about technological developments in the field of artificial light. Can you say something about the development of technology in your profession?


Dean Skira: Last summer, I was invited by the Lux Review Magazine to speak at their Lighting Fixture Design Conference 2014 in London. I have to admit that the discussions disappointed me, and my impression was that we forgot what we had learned about light in the last 150 years. Everybody emphasized light controls as their priority, envisaging that we would all turn our lights on via our iPhones. I argued that, for me, the way I turn a light on is a rather marginal issue. What matters to me is that the quality of light is always in accordance with my current need for light. The highest quality light that we have today is still the common tungsten filament. What happened was the so-called disruptive innovation that, in a very short time, completely changed and revolutionized the entire industry. Unfortunately, the product currently available on the market has not yet achieved the quality we had readily available a hundred years ago. This innovation, however, is marketed as green and sustainable, yet, in my opinion, it is a total misconception. Because we talk about anything but the man, as if we have forgotten for whom all this is made in the first place. Present-day lamps are sensitive to network overvoltage; their electronics is often not consistent with time in relation to the infrastructure that powers it. Also, at the global level, energy consumption for lighting is estimated to be about six percent, in comparison with the total energy consumed. This means that the portion relating to light is minor in comparison with the energy we spend on everything else, and the quality of light, for marketing and commercial reasons, decreased, instead of increasing. What hurts me the is that the value of experience is at the very bottom of the list of priorities, whereas it should be at the top.


ORIS: We come to the absurdity that contemporary lighting designers design their luminaries as aerodynamic aircrafts. Can we speak about some sort of design dictatorship, and has such a design lost its primary meaning of serving man’s needs?


Dean Skira: We could say that the trend is headed in that direction. The lamps I designed, however, show that experts around the world still appreciate and recognize design which caters to the needs of man. The applications of these luminaries are clear because they are designed on the principle of reflection on the form of light and the object they illuminate. They are a result of precise requirements which could not be met with the products available on the market. They do not comprise any decorative elements, and are a reflection of pure functionality. The basic form of the Lun-Up range is one quarter of a circle. It is modular, because we can connect it into circles or curved lines, and is intended primarily for illuminating vertical objects which are organic or round in shape. Its production was not possible three years ago due to the fact that adequate technology was not available at the time, which indicates how much our profession is contingent on technological development. In order to minimize glare, it is designed with a lot of smaller led sources, it is completely black, and what is also important, it is not visible during the day. Thus, what is important is not the lamp itself, but the object it illuminates. The inspiration for the Trick range came to me when I was designing the hallway in the Novi Spa project, where we had to intervene structurally in order to achieve the effect this lamp produces; it had to be constructed, literally. During the conception phase, I started not from the design of its housing, but from the desired form of light. And then I came to the manufacturer with that idea. We produced an innovative optical system; when it came to patenting, however, we found out that a similar patent, applied in lighthouses, had been obtained 130 years ago. This means that we wanted to protect a principle, not a technology, because technology changes daily.


ORIS:This principle and this work were employed in your pavilion at the Milan Fair, that is, as part of the Milan Design Week, which was titled Hooked Up. Could you explain the idea behind the pavilion?


Dean Skira: The idea originated from the word integration. Lebbeus Woods named fifty words which he called dead words. Those are words which we still use today, but which, in fact, no longer have the meanings they had when they were created. In architecture, we constantly use the term integration of light; here we come to a philosophical paradox where any light source, be it circular, linear or indirect, is always of greater intensity than the space it illuminates. The only way for light to be integrated into architecture, literally, is to make architecture a source of light. But when architecture becomes a source of light, then the shadow is lost, and where there is no shadow, there is no perception of the third dimension, and, paradoxically, space disappears. In Milan, I had to make a site-specific design on the topic of Hybrid Architecture and Design. It was precisely the topic of integration that I wanted to encourage and analyze with that installation. I started to work on the design in order to integrate a new object within the existing one. Thus, I first had to disintegrate it, and then reintegrate it by using non-tangible construction material, i.e., light. The Trick range was used for the first time for that purpose. The final result was quite impressive. The object, 16 x 4 meters in size, sparked interesting reactions, and aroused the interest of the audience, which was important to me, considering that a group of top architects, such as Daniel Libeskind, Steven Holl, also exhibited their projects, and each was supposed to deal with the given topic through his own installation. My installation of the hybrid just thematized this non-tangible construction material.


ORIS: The lighting projects for the Postojna Cave and the Red Square in Moscow involve diametrically opposed scales and landscapes. Both projects have received a lot of interest from the media. Your lighting projects for small Istrian towns, both along the coast and in the interior, and for other urban conglomerations, rarely leave people indifferent. How do you handle the different scales of public spaces?


Dean Skira: Let us say that, in terms of design, the simplest, but also socially the most responsible is the public lighting design. Any electrical designer can plan lampposts in public spaces at certain distances, which, unfortunately, is the way public lighting is all too often designed, I mean, lighting in general. In large scales, each lamp forms a part of a dynamic grid, in which one influences another, and it is this interdependence that should be harmonized. The Postojna Cave project is interesting for us on more than one level because, in addition to illuminating the underground landscape, in our lighting design laser scanning of the site was used for the first time. In collaboration with a surveyor, we made a 3D model of each of the stalactites and stalagmites; only then did we start thinking how to illuminate them to make the experience realistic, to make each detail as authentic as possible. As for the Red Square, I am extremely proud of that project, but its realization has currently been suspended because high politics intervened.


ORIS: Do you think that in lighting design as well we should start from master plans and work towards a smaller scale?


Dean Skira: The implementation of lighting master plans has been unsuccessful for the past two decades, because this basic principle has been disregarded. Just like urban planning, lighting master plans should be the tools to manage the illumination of spaces, and a mechanism for the overall strategic development. It implies setting out a strictly defined analysis of structures, their connecting factors, and the overall connective tissue, i.e., the roads. This issue should be approached as a whole rather than a single object, and defined in a detailed urban light plan.


ORIS: What is the difference between lighting design in architecture and lighting design in landscape architecture?


Dean Skira: I am especially fond of working on lighting designs in landscape where light is not so easily controlled as it is in architecture. Yet at the same time, you can achieve the most romantic, theatrical stage designs. Objects you illuminate are already set for you; the scene already exists in its original, natural form.


ORIS: You have also worked on infrastructure projects such as the illumination of the roundabout in Rovinj.


Dean Skira: According to the initial concept, the Rovinj roundabout was inspired by the curves of the town’s contour, the fishing nets, and the sea waves. I did not wish to transpose those into sculpture literally, but the curve inspired me to reflect on the linearity of the light path. Light can only travel in a straight line. It cannot bend. With this construction and spatial intervention, respectively, I actually achieved a visual experience of light traveling in a curve. The sculpture serves as a transporter of light, even though it is not; the perception of an 80-ton steel construction, which is 300 meters long, creates such an impression. The sculpture of a tree in the middle of the roudabout abstractly takes the form of a pomegranate, the symbol of Rovinj. My vision of that tree was a little different, but we found a compromise, with the aim of making the design a dynamic lighting attraction capable of being activated on special occasions.


ORIS: Your proposal for the illumination of the shipping cranes at the Uljanik Shipyard in Pula dates back to 1998. That design took 15 years to implement. I have not seen or experienced a spatial intervention to stir so much interest in a long time, both among the citizens of Pula and the international media.


Dean Skira:For me, emotionally, Pula’s cranes have been the most interesting project of my career to date. Probably because of the whole story behind them, as the idea was conceived more than twenty years ago. Also, the cranes are still active in the building of the ships that Uljanik delivers, which is why this is a unique project in these parts, possibly in the world, as well. Having managed to complete the financial package with the Pula Tourist Board, the sponsors and the donors, for seven months we worked day and night with Uljanik’s master craftsmen on the assembly, the testing, the designing of spotlight brackets, the implementation of the wireless technology through which they would communicate with each other, and so on. After all these months or, I can say, years of work and thinking about the project, something happened that, for me, was a great honor to experience in my town. The opening drew tens of thousands of people, and I really do not remember ever seeing so much interest and response from the citizens, which led to a total traffic collapse in the city center. The greatest recognition of our efforts was the moment when the cranes’ lights went on, and when those fifteen, twenty thousand people fell silent, literally. There was a complete hush. The scenography lasted for six and a half minutes, and was followed by a large applause from the audience. The most valuable thing in that entire project, which, in my opinion, is also a reflection of its publicly responsible design, is that people have accepted that design as their own. The people of Pula were and still are proud of the cranes, and Pula was provided with a new vista, classifiable among more attractive vistas in Europe and worldwide.


ORIS: Present-day design equals stage directing which involves creative people of different professions, which means, this idea is not on a paper, in a studio, the idea is in motion, in a conversation, in a touch, in a dream, in a fig leaf, in the shape of a coast whose line we cannot draw. So, the entire present-day process of creation, from architects to all engineers who participate in it, is complex and requires synergy.


Dean Skira: Successful projects are based on successful cooperation. Good ideas materialize only when everyone suppresses their egos, and when the result of a project becomes a priority for all participants. I always point out the importance of integration in lighting design, which implies a close collaboration with the client, the architect and the interior designers. I am fortunate enough to often find myself in situations where the architect and I complement each other, which results in lighting and structural installations in space. A structural change to the architecture and the interior, because of the light, becomes an integral part of that space, regardless of whether that light is turned on or not. It is fair to say that Skira’s three-dimensional approach to lighting design is very specific and recognizable to many. Unfortunately, there are not always opportunities for such performances, as the relationship between myself, the client, and the architect becomes crucial. If one of the links in that chain breaks, the idea cannot be implemented. My best experience is with the people who have, at least a morsel of enthusiasm in them, and who are genuinely interested in the outcome of the project. I have a problem with speculative clients who are indifferent to improvements on the ground, who only care about the budget. Apart from professionalism itself, today’s world and its challenges require many personal qualities, and given the complexity of all design elements, the synergy you mention is vital. Of course, it does not always happen that way, but when the team’s creative energies multiply, the result necessarily reaches the viewer, as well.


ORIS: In the introduction to your book My Light you mention a publicly responsible lighting design. What do you mean by this; how do you understand a publicly responsible design of lighting?


Dean Skira: Publicly responsible design directly ties in with everything I talked about. It puts the focus primarily on man as the user of space, as well as on nature and other elements, such as technology, socio-economic factors and the like. Such design implies a responsible designer and a client who should not be concerned with the consequences of his work solely within his project, but in the broader context of the environment, as a long-term benefit. The thing I would put first is to provide the people who live in that space with quality, emotional experience, and the value of that experience. With our present-day competencies and abilities, I believe we all deserve a lot more.