Life After the Atelier

Near the end of our two-hour teleconference, during which he’s been informative, funny, and personal, Rogier van der Heide leans toward the camera in the Amsterdam office of Arup…and apol­ogizes. “I would have preferred to meet you,” the global leader of Arup Lighting says. “I offered to come over, but it just didn’t work timewise.” When I say that the talk couldn’t have gone better, van der Heide runs both hands through his Breck Girl hair and nods. “Yes, but because of how I work and see my profession, I need the interaction.”

The remark, at once disarming and outlandish—how many principals of a 9,000-person organization would fly eight hours to give an interview?—suggests why the 37-year-old lighting designer has enjoyed so singular a career. On the face of it, it’s a classic type-A tale: in 2004 after a decade as head of his own atelier, Hollands Licht, during which he developed highly theatrical lighting schemes for some of architecture’s biggest stars, van der Heide joined Arup, where the technical prowess of one of the world’s great engineering firms has put his most imaginative concepts within reach. Yet if the designer is driven, it’s by the opposite of ego—that is, by the often self-subsuming act of collaboration. For van der Heide, whose work’s singularity derives from its seamless integration into an architect’s vision, the personal connection is everything.

A child of classical musicians who grew up, he says, “in the orchestra pit at the Royal Ballet,” van der Heide acquired a love of light in the the­ater. After studying audiovisual arts at the Hoge­school Sint-Lukas, in Brussels—“In Europe there was no formal education in theater lighting”—he became a successful, in-demand practitioner. Nonetheless, he laments, “I was a lonely lighting designer from the lowlands.” Despite the theater’s spirit of cam­araderie, “I had very little interaction with the team. You had a good reputation as long as you were reliable. That is important indeed,” he adds, “but it’s not everything.”

“Everything,” in the designer’s view, was “depth and more room for innovation, within a collaborative setting,” and a lucky encounter with architect Hans Ruijssenaars supplied it. “He said, ‘Why don’t you do something for me?’ It was for a shopping center. I completely messed it up because I came with my theater lights, and they were very hot and bright.”

Still, van der Heide discovered that what he enjoyed about theatrical lighting—not just establishing mood but supporting narrative—could be applied to architecture. “When you light Hamlet, and he’s about to kill someone, you can create a lot of suspense and not only make it easier for the audience, but for the actor,” he observes. “That’s how I see architectural lighting. It’s about helping the users of the building as well as the visitors.”

While continuing in theater, van der Heide began working part-time for the Amsterdam architectural lighting firm Hans Wolff & Partners in 1990. “There were no partners, but that was the name, to make it sound more substantial,” he wisecracks. The designer credits Wolff with being a “pioneer,” but the size of the practice bothered him. “I thought: two, three people—that’s too small to take on something you’d like to do. I wanted a partnership with the clients and my own team.”

And so in 1994 he launched Hollands Licht. “It means ‘the light of Holland.’ It’s a term from art history that refers to Vermeer and Rembrandt, their almost tangible light. And then I added a small caption, ‘Advanced Lighting Design.’” With a staff of about ten, drawn from students at the Wil­lem de Kooning Academy, in Rotterdam, where he had begun teaching, the designer established “the special chemistry that happens when people team up. We had this unconventional approach that fostered design development. I was interested in the big picture—how does the building transform when you light it? So we had these wooden models of the buildings and a miniature camera that could travel through them, so we could watch the journey.” The atelier, he says, “was very buzzy—a good working atmosphere.”

It was fun too. Lighting designer Emily Emerson, who interned there in 2001, recalls, “Everyone got along quite well—they played music in the office, and we all had lunch together every day.” From what Emerson calls “a little family” emerged a re­markable series of lighting designs for projects including Zaha Hadid’s Millennium Dome “Mind Zone” and Richard MacCormac’s Wellcome Wing in the Science Mu-eum (both in London), Asymptote’s HydraPier outside Amsterdam, and San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences, designed by Renzo Piano. All were notable for their dramatic power and organic integration into the overall concept and evolved out of van der Heide’s close creative partnership with the architects. “He doesn’t override you with so-called ‘expertise,’” Asymptote’s Hani Rashid explains. “If I say, ‘Look, there should be downlights here,’ he’s totally on board and figures it out. But then he’ll bring something else to the table and look for a conversation.” This proactivity, architect Ben van Berkel of UN Studio believes, is critical. “Rogier doesn’t wait for material from us—he really collaborates,” he says. The outcome is illumination “that is fully hybridized. The architecture takes care of the lighting, and the lighting takes care of the architecture, almost like they have a joint destiny.”

By way of example, van der Heide cites van Berkel’s 2004 redesign of the Galleria Department Store, in Seoul. The scheme animated the preexisting structure’s uninspiring facade with a dazzling skin constructed of 4,330 glass disks, which displays computer-programmable text and images or else blazes with light and color. To realize it, van der Heide worked closely with the architect on a process that began when van Berkel, considering the Galleria’s luxury-brand tenants, suggested they “create an active structure” for the store. “We had ideas about fluid lines that would go around the building, but that was no good,” van der Heide recalls of their brainstorming. “Then we thought, Maybe we should make the building itself radiant. So we developed that. We understood that we had to make the facade elements small to achieve flu­-idity. So we said, ‘Listen, if they’re so small, they might be pixels in a screen.’ It’s Ben’s concept, but it would have been completely different without the collaboration.”

Van der Heide also draws clients into the creative mix. “If you go to the theater, why is it beautiful? It’s the magic of sharing the moment. If I show a picture of a model to a client, it doesn’t always look believable. But when they are there, and we make the studio dark and the feature lights come up on the model, then everyone gets silent and enjoys. And the feedback is very constructive and inspiring.”

The designer’s enthusiasm for imaginative interaction is just as pronounced on-site. “I watched him on a ladder, testing things out,” Rashid says of van der Heide lighting Asymptote’s 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale installation in the 984-foot-long Arsenale. “You can do a lot on paper, but it’s great to see that gloves-off approach,” an outgrowth of van der Heide’s theater experience that—as with a dramatic text—strengthened the architectural story. “He brought the idea of subtle colors and shifts in the space to these arched forms we created. If you just use standard lighting in a space like that, it gets dead. We needed something extra­ordinary to make it work, and he brought animation and spectacle to it.”

So how did this free-spirited iconoclast end up in bed with a corporate behemoth? Like many successful marriages, it required patience on the suitor’s part and, not least, the recognition by the pursued that the persistent nerd was actually the perfect mate. Hollands Licht and various Arup divisions had crossed paths on different projects; and according to Andrew Sedgwick, chairman of design and technical executive, the firm recognized that van der Heide could fill a void. “The key capabilities of Arup Lighting were analyt­ical and very much about being precise,” Sedg­wick explains. “So we had a strong track record in things like museums, where you have to be able to confirm daylighting levels in a quantified way. What we were missing was someone more creative who could respond when a client says, ‘I don’t know what I want. Give me something fabulous.’” Sedgwick had been especially taken with van der Heide’s work on the Wellcome Wing. “It was a much moodier, atmospheric approach than we would have done—that made me think he had this special imaginative quality. But I didn’t expect him to be interested.”

In fact, van der Heide reveals, “I had something on my mind—a more holistic approach to design. The people at Hollands Licht had all different backgrounds—there was an architect, a dancer, a sculptor, a graphic designer. It was successful, but I failed at my larger goal—it remained myself and the team. What was missing was a sharing of responsibility.”

Luckily fate—in the person of Emily Emerson—intervened. After leaving Hollands Licht, she’d gone to work at Arup’s flagship office in London, but after several years missed the environment and asked if she could work for Hollands Licht from London. When that proved unfeasible, van der Heide recalls, she said, “‘If I cannot join your practice, maybe you should join ours. Do you mind if I introduce your name to the board?’” Van der Heide offers a look of bemused humility. “So it’s all thanks,” he says, “to a girl from Kansas named Emily.”

Though it took him a year and a half, the designer ultimately recognized that Arup, with its multidisciplinary capabilities and incomparable expertise, offered precisely the experience he sought. “They told me, ‘We have all these specialists who are champions in their disciplines, and they are all your colleagues.’” And as he’d outgrown Hans Wolff, he’d outgrown himself. “Size is not everything, but it allows you to innovate,” he says. “At Hollands Licht it would have been harder to convince the client to go ahead with the Galleria, for example, because the glass had to be supported and the building was old and crappy. Now there is a structural engineer sitting thirty feet away who can solve that.” Ultimately, he admits, being the boss wasn’t the point. “I wasn’t concerned about giving up my company. It was just a vehicle to do my thing.”

Even so, the transition wasn’t easy. “The huge amount of admin, the procedures—it was like a monster,” van der Heide recalls. “But I got used to it quickly because I see the incredible value of all these people.” The challenge as creator and leader is to combine his intuitive design-driven style with Arup’s highly structured solutions-oriented culture. “Arup Lighting has got six locations around the world—a fantastic pool of talent—but with an emphasis on the technical aspect,” the designer says. “And I represent a different way of working—I still have the scale studio, the models and lights, the craftsmanship in the process. I would like to create the best of both worlds.”

While the relationship has resulted in numerous projects—a subtle blend of modulated daylight and electrical illumination in Zaha Hadid’s Ord­rup­gaard Museum extension in Denmark, otherworldly exhibition lighting for the Beeld en Geluid broadcast museum in the Netherlands, a pristine integration of light and structure in architect Jo Coenen’s Amsterdam public library—Arup’s protean ability to convert concept into reality has also encouraged van der Heide’s imagineering. “I’m working on an office tower in the Netherlands for the federal government,” he says. “And in the badge you wear that gives you access there is a profile recorded of yourself. And because it’s one of those buildings with flexible work space, we’re working on a concept that would give people their own light, and they would store their preferences in their badge. So wherever they’d go in that building there’d be a cloud around them—this light condition would follow them. You can play with it,” he continues, his enthusiasm growing. “It can be something different every day. And when people are in a meeting together, they bring in their own light. When I proposed this to the government, I called it ‘the democratic light’—power to the people, you know?”

Considering the almost poignantly personal quality of this idea—an individual on cloud nine seeking to universalize his condition—one wonders how long Arup and van der Heide can realistically serve each others’ interests. When I ask Sedgwick where he sees the firm in five years, he points to Asia and the Middle East. “They’re going to be a lot more important for us. And I think Rogier is ideally placed in that he’s got the vision and confidence to do fantastic things in these places, which we wouldn’t respond to, in lighting terms, very well without him.”

Van der Heide’s response to the question is quite different. “Every lighting designer says, ‘Oh, I emphasize the beauty of the architecture,’” he says. “I don’t think I am. When I give everyone a badge, and it generates a cloud of light around them, I’m not doing architectural lighting, I’m lighting for people and experiences. And in the next five years we really want to build on that.”

In short, what makes the designer an asset—that vision and confidence—also makes him strongly independent and, in business terms, what Rashid calls “a bit of a luxury item.” When asked what that means, he says, “Meeting a guy like Rogier, who thinks like an artist, might rub someone the wrong way. He’s interested in innovation, and he doesn’t get as engaged when we’re not on that track. If you’re willing to go through a few hoops, it works perfectly. But there are clients I wouldn’t expose him to because they’d be going, ‘We’re spending money, for God’s sake—just get the place lit.’”

Nor, apparently, is van der Heide much of a diplomat. “He’s a bit Dutch,” says the very British Sedgwick. “He doesn’t do the English circuitous route to tell you the bad news. But that’s good once you get used to it,” he deadpans. “It’s a very time-effective communication.”

Van Berkel dismisses all this with a laugh. “Yeah, he’s difficult; we’re both difficult. We have the most healthy discussions when we disagree. The more you protect your standards, the better you can convince clients they’re getting the best for their money.” And van der Heide, who lives bucolically with his wife and four children on the edge of a forest outside Amsterdam, also possesses a potent weapon: an abundance of what legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn called “warmth and charmth,” the more disarming for his oft-remarked-on 6’8” stature. “When he stands up in a meeting, he can really intimidate,” says Rashid, who is a petite 6’2”. “But his demeanor is not that of an arrogant tall guy. He has compensated for it by being supernice.” Ultimately, one senses that not only the designer’s personability, but its impact on his work—his talent for conveying the wonder of human experience in light—will carry the day. Nothing conveys this more clearly than a project created with the architect Winy Maas and the firm ZiZi&YoYo, which involved floating 500 illuminated meteorological balloons over the town square of Tallinn, Estonia, in February 2005. “You know, the whole winter it’s dark over there, the people are depressed,” he recalls. “And we said, ‘Can we not just cover it with a blanket of light—a cloud of luminosity over a city in the dark?’ It had tremendous support and so much enthusiasm. That’s why you do it, you know?”

As our conversation ends, van der Heide tells a story about his father. “He used to say after playing a concert, ‘I had a really good evening—two thousand people had a happy face when they left the concert hall.’ It was the only thing that made him happy, and I think he’s right. We disagree sometimes,” he concludes. “But in this I would whole­­heartedly agree with my dad.”

Find out more facts about this story on the Reference Page: December 2007

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