Hervé Descottes On Why Light Is Needed Now More Than Ever
The cofounder of New York-based lighting design firm L’Observatoire International speaks on his latest projects and how the pandemic has prompted new possibilities for architectural lighting.
Lighting designer Hervé Descottes’s philosophy isn’t all that different from Bruce Lee’s: “You put water into a cup, and it becomes the cup, you put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle,” quotes the cofounder of New York-based lighting design firm L’Observatoire International.
This formlessness goes beyond metaphor in his practice, where he oversees ideation, strategy, and installation of the lighting design for various international projects both residential and public. “We add another layer to the architect’s vision—but it’s a thin one because you don’t notice the lighting fixtures,” he says.
From Steven Holl to Jean Nouvel, Descottes collaborates with prominent architects in ambitious undertakings, most recently the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building. Using light to blanket a subtle atmospheric finish over an art museum setting has particular challenges, but the designer finds the solution in a three-way conversation: “The architect has a vision for volume and space and the curator wants art lit in a certain way, but we fill the gap in between.”
Descottes notes that limited occupancy due to the pandemic has escalated the necessity of eye-catching facades. Light is integral across the 237,213-square-foot building and made apparent upon entering the museum, where an irregularly shaped concrete form creates pockets of luminescence that can be seen from the exterior. For the designer, a successful lighting strategy helps bring folks in by offering “glimpses of the interior through accommodating window design.” After over three decades in the industry, he refers to this solution as “breaking a building’s identity in two.”
The museum’s facades are orchestrated in different volumes of luminosity, depending on natural light, which Descottes considers critical to his practice. Maintaining the thin line between striking and flashy, however, is a trait he stretches his aesthete muscles for. “I have to hold the horses and not press ‘high’ on all the lights for the sake of visibility,” he says.
Inside the museum, a row of linear LED lights at 5000K, which is a color temperature comparable to the natural light coming through the clerestory, is installed in the third-floor gallery to achieve the light needed to elevate the art during the day. An additional row of linear LEDs at 3000K adds a warmer color temperature during the afternoon. The cloud at the center of each gallery is illumined with asymmetric uplighting and provides the benefit of soft indirect lighting in order to eliminate visible sources and commit to Steven Holl’s concept of a luminous canopy that echoes the rolling clouds in the Texan sky.
The Edge, 30 Hudson Yard’s cutting edge—literally and figuratively—observation deck was unveiled a few days before the announcement of a national emergency. Descottes and his team dressed the highest outdoor deck in the western hemisphere with light to softly provide a backdrop to the scene-stealing vistas. His attention to the balance between the dramatic and the subtle here manifests as weightlessness. The lighting scheme intends to leave the skyline as the protagonist, a trait the team previously explored with lighting the High Line. Bleachers, which provide a seating area for those with viewing fatigue, are lit with thematically-changing colors throughout the night. They are also decorated with a blinking effect achieved through light shimmering through the perforated metal surface.
Since March, Descottes has shifted gears after being approached by clients in need of guidance for residential interior lighting. Being at home for extended amounts of time, we observe interiors with a different eye—and according to Descottes, “If someone says they feel good at a place, the dimness is probably a part of it.” The pandemic might have affected some of his larger-scale projects, but the human connection remains crucial for the designer, whether he’s approached by a client with a strictly formed vision or given carte blanche.
Working on a far-flung calendar has been beneficial to maneuvering around the pandemic-related halts. A canceled casino project in Las Vegas aside, the firm has smoothly survived the most testing periods. Few projects have seen extensions in their timelines, such as the Frank Gehry–designed SELA Cultural Center in Los Angeles county.
Currently, the designer has his eyes set on another challenge with Jean Nouvel’s Al-Ula Desert resort. The multipurpose complex is tucked inside a cave, Descottes explains, and “Instead of starting with light to create darkness, I start with the opposite: I am working with a completely dark canvas!”
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