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Integrating light into heritage design

Lighting can play a crucial role in working symbiotically with a heritage structure – bringing to light the existing beauty of an older building. As Martin Klaasen, founder and director of Klaasen Lighting Design (KLD) shares.

Alila Hotel, with incredible lighting design

Effectively designing a space requires the near-genius integration of architecture, interior design and engineering. Across the board, from architect to engineer to interior designer, quality design is impossible without cohesion.

This leads us to a common tool that if used well, can weave each element together to create a cohesive, functional and aesthetically appealing design: lighting.

On March 27, various leaders in the lighting design game will gather in Melbourne for the inaugural Light·Space·Design 2019 summit to explore the key trends, philosophies and concepts revolving around lighting’s role in achieving cohesion within the built environment.

Among these leaders sits Martin Klaasen, founder and director of Klaasen Lighting Design (KLD). Klaasen, whose award-winning lighting practice is based out of Perth and Asia, is especially well-versed in the art of lighting heritage buildings.

One such building is China’s Alila Yangshuo Hotel and Spa Resort, located near Yangshuo’s Guilin Mountains. Converted from an idle sugar mill in 2017, the hotel site carries great significance due to its long history and quality feng shui with the mountains to its north and the Li River to its south. These surrounding elements provide a unique, often unexpected visual experience for hotel guests, which Klaasen has utilised to striking effect in his work.

“Besides offering river cruises, the Li River in Yangshuo is also the background and location for the famous ‘impressions from Sanjie Liu’, a stage performance with sound and lighting effects on arguably the world’s largest natural theatre, using the river and the dramatic mountains as its stage and backdrop,” Klaasen explains.

“As a result, the [hotel] site becomes part of the light show when the banks of powerful floodlights switch on to illuminate the surrounding mountains – it is only a couple of minutes at various intervals during the show at night, but adds a dramatic visual guest experience no other hotel site can boast off!”

Zooming into the hotel itself, KLD was required to integrate its lighting into the building’s ‘natural’ architecture: “the architectural concept of the new buildings very much embrace the natural elements not only in materials but also in the way natural daylight is used to filter into the building”.

“The open bricks let daylight in during the day while they breathe out lighting at night – our task was very much to embrace and integrate this approach in all its facets, to validate the architecture by integrating lighting as ‘invisibly’ as possible.” The lighting in the villas and main building were consequently designed to subtly radiate like a lantern at night, drawing attention to the spectacular bamboo artworks assembled across the walls.

The lighting itself was actually designed to be concealed from view wherever possible; its pared-down aura allowing the architecture and artwork to retain the spotlight, or, as put by Klaasen, to “validate the architecture and facilitate wayfinding by being harmoniously integrated.”

Lighting for heritage buildings traditionally work best in this way, when rendered near-invisible – but achieving this result can be a tricky task, requiring a deft balance between functionality and focused feature lighting for artworks and the building’s intricate structure. Klaasen says this balance can be successfully achieved by “letting the building speak through the reflections and focal points of attention created by carefully planned lighting”.

From day one, KLD set out to integrate the lighting within the hotel’s architecture where possible, using indirect linear lighting coves in the corridors, and reducing the use of downlights to a bare minimum, ensuring that very little lighting sources were visible. The landscape lighting situated throughout the hotel exterior followed the same approach.

“Lighting of the landscape uses concealed locations, making you wonder where the lighting is coming from,” says Klaasen. “Façade lighting spotlights are also concealed from direct view, making both day and night time a total experience, where lights are physically non-existent during the day and a mood provider at night.” Managing the light levels this way, both by day as well as by night is key to creating the type of magical resort feel that allows a venue to succeed.

Each of these elements was intricately woven together by KLD to create well-integrated lighting that serves to illuminate, in a fundamentally simple way, the beating heart of the structure: the hotel’s uniquely industrial heritage architecture. Though the lighting design is complex, it doesn’t require a large output of energy – a vital requirement for an industry increasingly committed to sustainable built environment practices.

“Light control management plays a big role in the sustainability of the lighting, minimising energy consumption,” Klaasen states.

“During the day, lighting is only sparsely used to compensate for the available daylight in the interiors, and during the night lighting scenes are highest during dinner time, with peak hours gradually reducing the levels towards the end of the evening, with minimal after-hour use,” to ensure safety and security.

With the main lights only being switched on as needed, and dimming controls being utilised in key public areas, energy is vastly reduced. Making use of the latest LED technology also ensures that building management need not worry about substantial energy costs and maintenance problems.

“The technology, with its efficient performance and long-life span, provides the client with consistent lighting effects and minimal maintenance worries.”

After more than four years of design and installation work and a brief hiatus due to torrential rain and flooding, the hotel opened its doors to much acclaim. A star attraction of the Alila Hotel brand, KLD’s subtle, cohesive lighting was fundamental in transforming what was once a disused sugar mill into a breathtaking 5-star resort.

Some key design players including BVN’s Ninotschka Titchkosky, Steve Brown of NDYLight, and Arup’s Florence Lam will join Klaasen at Light·Space·Design 2019, held at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.

Photography supplied.

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