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Lighting designs that lift you up and leave you breathless

As one of Australia’s most specialised lighting designers, Jenni Gillard of Gillard Group has lit fish, artwork, Ovolo eggs, places of worship and more. She shares the maths, science and creativity behind her craft.

Lighting designs that lift you up and leave you breathless

Ovolo Hotel, The Valley, Brisbane.

With a master’s degree in lighting, Gillard Group’s Jenni Gillard completed a thesis on lighting for places of prayer, learning everything she could on lighting churches and places of worship.

Having worked with consulting engineers throughout her study, however, Gillard found her skill set needed a more focused home: “When I graduated, I discovered there’s no specialised lighting design. So, I started my own firm in Brisbane”.

Sentosa S.E.A. Aquarium.

Since then, she has worked on some of the most extraordinary projects from churches to shopping centres. She was also responsible for lighting the Sentosa S.E.A. Aquarium in Singapore, which is wholly reliant on artificial lighting.

“All the millions of fish and commercial success of the venue rely on artificial lighting. Every habitat had unique day and seasonal light conditions to replicate.” Gillard explains further: “The whole lighting design took two years of maths and science.”

Lighting an oceanarium is one of the world’s most complex lighting challenges, as she says that “certain animals won’t come out to eat or school in front of the paying public, unless the lighting is just right”.

Mitchell Gallery.

Throughout her career she has been involved with iconic works, such as helping to light Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles at the National Gallery of Australia early in her career. For this work, Gillard devised a ceiling mounted projector light. Of enormously high quality, the bespoke solution was designed to illuminate the exact dimensions of the painting.

The list of projects Gillard has worked on is in fact astounding – homes, institutions, events, sporting arenas, conventions, landscapes and even the sculpture of Mary MacKillop by John Elliot to name a few. But if you think you have her pigeon-holed, think again; she also designed the lighting for King Kong in the Ovolo Hotel in The Valley.

The Woods Bagot design for this project included a colourful sculpture of King Kong on a pedestal. The reception vestibule is a work of art comprising an embroidered fabric wall with 60 stainless steel Ovolo eggs back lit by fibre optic cable. Recessed linear flex LED arches over reception and staff faces are lit by theatre profile lights.

Ovolo Hotel.

Indeed, the lighting mirrors the Ovolo Hotel’s desire to creates points of difference – a sense of fun through art and theatre. The results reflect Gillard’s encyclopaedic understanding of what light can be made to do.

“The sparkle crystal light is achieved by front-lighting the chain mesh curtains with glass tube argon gas. At night, the porte-cochere shimmers themed pink.”

Related: Lighting design that helps humanise the office

St Mary’s Church, photography by Scott Burrows.

Churches, however, are Gillard’s passion, whether it is creating theatre, a sense of calm, or simply undoing the bad lighting of previous iterations. “Most of the time when we get called into churches, they’ve never seen their ceilings, because they’ve been lit so badly, or not at all. Half the human brain is devoted to interpreting the visual world. Our designs go beyond function and compliance. We want to attract and hold the viewers’ gaze and take their breath away,” says Gillard.

As most churches of significance are heritage listed, a conundrum arises. Heritage imposes significant restraints on the lighting designer to ensure that mounting of luminaires does not damage materials, yet to appreciate heritage spaces requires first-class artificial illumination. Moreover, if we remain true to historic conditions and lit by candles (whale oil, kerosene or gas lamps), then it would only be a matter of time before all churches went up in smoke. The laws governing 240V cabling also demands intrusive and potentially ugly interventions.

The Chambers, Stage 1 lighting.

That said, Gillard not only understands these challenges but has invented clever ways to overcome them. She appears driven by a great respect for both the sanctity of spaces and architecture of the sites she works on. She sees heritage restraints as a vital means to conserve important buildings. All her heritage projects start with an audit of existing electrical and lighting conditions: “We have not yet found a historical church that is not, in some way, diminished. One church was in such poor condition, we concluded that it was not if, but when, it would catch fire or electrocute someone. It caught fire, but it was extinguished by happenstance,” says Gillard.

She also has an innate sense of the many ways a church needs to be experienced. As such, while the theatre of moments, such as where the church leaders stand or where a wedding party arrives, are important, it is the ability of well-lit architecture to inspire awe or a deep inner peace that she is most able to articulate. To this end, the lighting Gillard creates is ambient and extremely elegant: “A lot of our lighting is indirect just to really make it more pleasing for the human eye and environment.”

Spectrum Apartments, award-winning affordable housing complex.

The Gillard Group comprises Jenni Gillard Architectural Lighting Designers (JGALD), established September 2005, and Aglow, established January 2008. Using art and science to deliver unique lighting solutions, JGALD is complimented by Aglow, which uses business cases and technology to offer lighting as a service and delivers sustained value.

Gillard Group

Scott Burrows

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