It is wonderful to be in this room full of people who understand and care about the value of lighting.
I am sure that many of you here tonight knew Bill Lam and were saddened by the news of his passing. Bill was a true legend. He was one of the founders of modern lighting design. Bill was a pioneer, a teacher, a writer, and a great mentor for generations of architects and lighting designers. I suppose you could stay he was a real fixture in our industry, although he wouldn’t like that association with hardware. So I’ll just say he was a shining light.
Here is a little known fact; Bill Lam designed the Pantheon. Well, not really. But he admired the concept. And used it to illustrate an important point…
Before lighting design existed as a profession, and even before there was electric lighting, architects and master builders were lighting designers. They knew how to design with light. With limited resources, they understood techniques for creating wonderful spaces with natural light (the effective distribution of natural light) in ways that enhanced the architectural expression.
When electric lighting arrived on the scene, it was designed in conjunction with natural light and became yet another way to reinforce the architect’s vision. Then, at some point in the post-war boom of the last century, when buildings got a lot bigger, energy was cheap, and fluorescent lighting became widespread, architects began to give up control of the lighting in buildings. Work and school environments became generic spaces where visual comfort was replaced with acres of acoustical tile and uniformly high light levels from lensed fixtures. When the first computers arrived and reflected glare became an issue, these generic spaces went from excessively bright to excessively gloomy.
Integrated lighting? What’s that?!
Throughout Bill’s career, his most enduring message to architects was the need to take back the responsibility for lighting design. Don’t surrender lighting to others who only care about the numbers and who design for the lowest common denominator. His message, like his personality, was clear and persistent: integrate lighting with architectural form. It’s about seeing the light, not the hardware.
Bill’s focus was always on lighting architectural surfaces, including structure, and other features worth highlighting. This meant that the architect had to provide materials and details worth lighting, and also coordinate the mechanical and other systems to create lighting opportunities. It was all about the collaboration and the team process needed to produce the best spaces possible.
Bill considered the design for the Washington Metro one of his finest achievements.
Bill applied principles of visual perception to inform decisions about what should be illuminated and why. The principles that he developed and stood for, we take for granted today. Bill may not have invented indirect lighting, but he took it to a whole new level in his quest for glare free environments. Lighting surfaces, like ceilings and walls, expand space and create the perception of brightness, resulting in visual comfort and interest.
Bill was a big advocate for energy efficient lighting design way before it became a popular or a mandated thing to do. He promoted ambient/task solutions and fought the lighting establishment to reduce illuminance standards. The lighting standards we use today are the result of the criteria that Bill fought for and won years ago.
Bill was also a creative designer who could work at any scale. Early in his career, he designed several ingenious pieces of furniture. One of his tables is in the Museum of Modern Art. He was the first to experiment with and produce vacuum formed plastic shades for light fixtures. For the Montreal Expo in1967, Bill created a lighting master plan, which involved a huge array of tethered weather balloons floating over the expo, to be illuminated by spotlights at night so they could be seen all around the city.
Bill’s interest in using indirect lighting was stymied by a lack of available products. So he became a manufacturer of indirect lighting systems and founded Lam Inc in 1951. He developed some of the early modern fixture designs that became classics for schools and offices, establishing a new standard of quality for millions of spaces throughout the country. Some of you will remember the old Lam profile wall valence fixture. Other classic Lam fixture designs included a variety of extruded aluminum uplights and the original hockey puck, which you can still find in gyms and indoor tennis clubs.
In 1959 Bill changed his role from a designer/manufacturer to an architectural lighting consultant. During the course of his career, he collaborated with architects, landscape architects, and urban planners on several thousand projects all over the world. His legacy also includes innovative approaches to building systems and effective strategies for sunlighting design. For those of us who were fortunate enough to work for Bill, he left a lasting impression, sort of like a branding iron! There is a certain distinctive Lam Way of approaching lighting that characterized Bill’s work and can be traced through all of those who worked for Bill.
Some of the principles that Bill promoted have become standards in our industry for describing good lighting.. His lighting principles were illustrated in his 2 books; Perception and Lighting as Formgivers for Architecture, and Sunlighting as Formgiver for Architecture.
We take these principles for granted today.
- Light the things you want to see and need to see.
- Put the light where you want it.
- The quality of illumination is more important than the quantity.
- Maximize the visual signals, minimize the visual noise.
- Use lighting for wayfinding.
- Use task/ambient lighting solutions to save energy.
- Lighting is applied perception psychology. We see with our brains, not our eyes.
- Light sources, or apparent light sources, should be things worth looking at.
- Lighting is like music and food. More isn’t better if the quality is bad. (Our version of that one is: Lighting shouldn’t be an all you can eat buffet in a greasy spoon.)
Industry had Henry Ford. Jazz had Charlie Parker. Food had Julia Child. Lighting had Bill Lam.
Bill was one of those rare individuals who transformed his chosen profession, took it in an unexpected and original direction, and changed the way everyone since has viewed lighting. We embraced the principles he developed. Bill set high standards in his determination to bring lighting back as an integral part of architectural design, making indoor and outdoor environments better with light. In a sense, we are all keeping his legacy alive, and bringing it forward into the future.
He will be missed.
Photo credits: Kwai Lam (c) 2008 (1), O Palsson (2)