Daylight, daylight, daylight!

Interview with Ulrike Brandi

Lighting design is playing an increasingly important role in the overall concept of buildings. In its new exhibition section on Lighting/Smart Building, BAU combines the themes of lighting and building automation systems, covering lighting deflection and control, lighting concepts as well as the issue of daylight versus artificial lighting.

We spoke with distinguished lighting designer Ulrike Brandi, founder and managing director of “Ulrike Brandi Licht” in Hamburg, about the work of a lighting designer. How has digitalization changed the way she operates? What is the role of the lighting designer today and in the future?

Ulrike Brandi
Ulrike Brandi is distinguished lighting planner as well as founder and managing director of “Ulrike Brandi Licht” in Hamburg © Christina Körte

The interview

Architects in those days usually only took sunlight into consideration in their planning and artificial lighting was consigned to the role of merely brightening darkness. How did you manage to convince architects and clients that specialist design of artificial lighting is important in a building?

My favorite architects are those who treat natural lighting with sensitivity. After all, it isn’t just blazing sunlight that has to be managed, but also soft, diffused light, the ambiance at sunset or when the moon is shining. When they embrace these natural phenomena, architects, working together with lighting designers, can create brilliant, soft, fresh or romantic moods in rooms.

A good design partner is one who becomes involved early in the design work of a project. That applies all the more, perhaps, to lighting designers such as yourself, because for you artificial lighting and daylight represent a single unit. How or when did you sense that this concept had really become accepted by the construction industry?

The architects were always the driving force behind this! It was they who involved us in competitive tendering processes at an early stage. Then we sit around a table together and sketch, chatter, discard, learn a great deal about one another, have fun, and go through hard work and successes. It’s an exhilarating experience.

Le Corbusier wrote in “Vers une architecture”: “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” Even though he was talking about natural light, his treatment of lighting was taken as a model for future generations of designers. What sources of inspiration are there for lighting designers today?

That’s a great quote from Le Corbusier and it still applies. Daylight and nature are my greatest inspiration and source of enjoyment. My mother was a photographer. I held the photographic lamps for her, and watched images gradually appear on the photographic paper in the dark room—it seemed magical. My father was an architect and taught me a great deal about specific light moods in landscape.

Nowadays lighting design has definitely been brought to a crossroads by the digitalization of buildings, all the way to the complex smart building with all the technical possibilities. How has this affected your design work?

Trying to incorporate everything that is technically possible is not the right approach. However, it is important to continue to create beautiful, congenial lighting environments designed to be occupied by people. They must be easy to operate, maintain and, if required, change. Digitalization provides a great opportunity to illuminate buildings in a more efficient and diverse way and to increase the proportion of daylight, as we have shown in the Elbphilharmonie Hamburg project.

Smart cities, smart buildings, digitalization—what not so long ago seemed like castles in the air is now reality: Lighting design is an important part of integrated building planning which also touches on many different areas such as building automation. So does a lighting designer also have to be an IT expert nowadays?

Designers are like doctors: Neurologists and gastroenterologists share the same basic medical training and the same vocabulary. They talk to each other when they are developing a treatment for a particular patient. Subsequently they explain it to the patient in lay terms. Similarly, we lighting designers need to know the language, operation and structure of digital control systems as we define requirements for the lighting scenarios we design.

Ms. Brandi, you founded your design bureau “Ulrike Brandi Licht” in 1986, at a time when light planning tended to be done by electrical fitters. What was your working environment in those days? Were there any particular prejudices you had to combat?

There were various reactions to me as a lighting designer. It was often architects who would advocate engaging my services. They enjoyed having specialists in the planning team with whom they were able to discuss design and atmosphere. The building clients were curious about me and many electrical engineers would test out my knowledge of electrical technology. Once I had passed their test, they did respect me however.

All this depends on high-caliber and thorough training for lighting designers. What are the opportunities for lighting designers or what training routes are available and necessary?

Only someone who goes through life with an open spirit, curiosity and a passion for observation can become a good lighting designer. For example, to be able to critically evaluate products such as luminaires, daylight systems and controls, the lighting designer, in addition to design capabilities, needs to keep their technical expertise up to date. LEDs and their operating devices are still the subject of fast-paced technical development. Formats, compatibility and complexity of control units determine their price and their applications in buildings. Superficial knowledge leaves us open to being manipulated for the sake of commercial interests.

As an old hand yourself you have also been providing training at the “Brandi Institute for Light and Design.” What do you teach your students? Do they learn about what constitutes good lighting and good daylight and artificial light planning?

At the Brandi Institute for Light and Design, we teach the integration of design, technology and planning processes. We teach the advantages of comparing calculated results with the sensory experience of an illuminated space, understanding the dynamism and geometry of daylight, the interplay between light source, material surfaces and the human eye and incorporating one’s own expertise respectfully and clearly into a planning team.

In more than 30 years, have there been significant changes in the way you work with lighting in buildings, not least due to integrated systems and digitalization. What are the challenges that will face lighting designers in future? Where will the journey of lighting design take us?

Daylight—daylight—daylight! Daylight is one of the keys to being able to realize the much-vaunted sustainability factor. The current requirement for urban densification demands rational daylight planning. With reference to artificial lighting, the “lamp” as a monofunctional, stand-alone device is losing significance. Light sources are present in (almost) all devices nowadays. The challenge to us lighting designers is to raise appreciation of what good quality lighting is, and the enjoyment of good lighting—like the enjoyment of a good meal.

About Ulrike Brandi

In more than 30 years of design work, she has completed over 1,000 projects from her design practice “Ulrike Brandi Licht” founded in 1986. These include projects as famous as the Mercedes-Benz Museum in Stuttgart, the lighting master plan for Rotterdam or the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg. Ulrike Brandi has taught at Braunschweig University of Art and has lectured many times both in Germany and abroad.

“We create a pleasant atmosphere, in keeping with the building and its function. Our ‘art’ is to integrate lighting naturally into a building using attractive, energy-efficient, modern technology in the process.”

Ulrike Brandi, lighting designer

Through the Brandi Institute for Light and Design, which she founded in 2013, she shares with the next generation her extensive knowledge, which has also been set down on paper in many publications.


Published on April 1, 2018
Thomas Geuder of World Architects conducted this interview exclusively for BAU MAG