Send in the clouds
Speirs & Major has created a theatre of moving clouds across Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque
“If they had asked us to simply floodlight it, we would have politely run screaming from the building,” says Jonathan Speirs, director of lighting architect Speirs & Major.
“Lots of people can floodlight buildings. It has to be something more for us. We would prefer to expend our energy for clients doing something special and unique.”
In early 2003, Speirs was flown to Abu Dhabi for an initial interview to design a lighting scheme for the interior and exterior of world’s third-largest mosque, the new Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque or the Grand Mosque. At the interview, he bravely asked his prospective client whether they “wanted a building floodlit or whether they wanted us to tell a story”.
Happily they wanted the latter and the firm got the job. Speirs spent the rest of his stay in Abu Dhabi walking around the unadorned concrete structure of the Grand Mosque, awed by its vast spaces.
“It was just incredible,” he says. “The mosque was canyon-like, with these Louis Kahn-inspired, awesome spaces. There were no windows or doors, just incredibly good-quality concrete.”
The building began on site in 1997 in honour of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the former president of the United Arab Emirates, who died in 2004, having never seen the completed mosque.
After the structure — which was designed by the in-house architect at Italian firm Impregilo — was finished in 2000, it lay dormant until 2003 when a new team, including Italian architect Spatium, was appointed to design the interior.
The 48,000sq m building, which sits on a raised platform about 10m above the road level, boasts some formidable statistics: it features four minarets, each rising to a height of 120m; a main prayer hall measuring 150m long by 25m wide and 25m tall; 34 arcade domes 35m tall; three domes in the main prayer hall, of which one is 75m tall; and five other major domes at the entrance and corner buildings. The mosque can accommodate some 35,000 worshippers in the interior and exterior prayer areas.
While the Grand Mosque is not the first religious building Speirs & Major has worked on — the practice was designing the lighting scheme for St Paul’s Cathedral at the same time — it is the first mosque, so it required the practice to get up to speed with the religion of Islam.
Its first exterior lighting proposal involved incorporating the cosmos into the design, creating a story using stars. The client initially supported the idea but, after the presentation, it rejected it, says Speirs, because it found it “a little too festive”.
Speirs admits in retrospect that it was probably too unusual for the client and had a very strong artistic concept.
The practice then looked at the Islamic calendar for inspiration and, says Speirs, proposed “to tell a story that related to the cycles of the moon”.
The exterior lighting scheme would change from pure white light when there was a full moon to a deep blue light when there was no moon. In addition, wisps of cloud would be projected on to the mosque, moving very slowly across the surface.
“Achieving this texture across this mass of domes was difficult as the clouds are always shifting and not static,” explains Speirs.
“The directionality of the texture was also important as all the clouds are coming from Mecca. We had never done anything on this scale before and we believe this is a unique endeavour and unlikely to be done again.”
Keith Bradshaw, a director at Speirs & Major, says the clouds were the most difficult aspect to get right. “Creating the right scale, speed and intensity of light to make the clouds look otherworldly but, importantly, believable, was very difficult,” he says.
The practice used theatrical principles and techniques to achieve the end result using Martin 1200 projectors.
Speirs & Major has a philosophy of concealing lighting equipment, and so was adamant the projectors would not be seen. So, 22 steel totems, clad in glass-reinforced concrete — 17m tall and 1.8sq m at the base — were erected symmetrically around the mosque, mostly 45m away, to each house 13 projectors.
The projector manufacturer also created an error reporting system to indicate, for example, when a lamp has blown, enabling easy maintenance of the lighting system. Bradshaw says it is the first time an error reporting system has been made to this scale and at this level of complexity.
There are also a large number of exterior light fixtures that fill in the gaps and are discreetly hidden around the mosque. All the exterior and interior lighting is controlled by a very sophisticated and, says Speirs, “incredibly cool” central control system.
Before installation, the lighting scheme was tested with a 3D computer model of the mosque with the totems and lighting fixtures plotted on. The virtual model enabled the angle of every single fixture to be adjusted and tweaked in the software.
“I still can’t imagine how we would have done the project without creating the computer model,” says Bradshaw.
The exterior lighting scheme was completed in June this year while the lighting of the interior spaces, also by Speirs & Major, was finished about two years ago.
Speirs says that “to see [the lighting scheme] work in the flesh and to do what we had dreamt was a thrill”.
Would he still, in today’s difficult climate, turn a job down if the client wanted a building floodlit? Speirs says he still would.
“I hope I’m not sounding arrogant, but it’s not how we think. We like to work on projects that are going to be special in some way,” he says.
Client Department of Municipalities & Agriculture, Abu Dhabi; Lighting architect Speirs & Major Associates, Executive architect Halcrow Group, Interior architect Spatium Architects, Main contractor Sixco JV, Electrical contractor EMI, Exterior lighting manufacturer Martin Professional,Electronic Theatre Controls and Louis Poulsen; Interior lighting manufacturer ERCO, iGuzzini, AC/DC and Meyer