Motoko Ishii lights up SPARC 2013

By Alice Richard
Tuesday, 11 June, 2013

Can lighting design have a social, environmental and cultural impact? Motoko Ishii believes it can.

Speaking at SPARC International Lighting Event 2013, Ishii gave a brief history of Japanese lighting design from the 1970s to the present day, describing her design aesthetic and the impact good lighting can have.

Returning to Japan from working in Europe in the late 1960s, Ishii established her lighting firm, the Ishii Motoko Design Office, becoming the first freelance industrial lighting designer in Japan at the time. Not only was she a pioneer in her field, she was also a female designer in a heavily male-dominated industry, at a time when a woman’s place was considered to be anywhere but on a construction site.

Ishii’s work on Tokyo Tower earned her international attention. To address rapidly dwindling ticket sales to the structure, Ishii was hired to redesign the tower’s lighting arrangement. The result was unveiled in 1989. Positioned in and around the tower’s frame, 176 floodlights illuminate the structure. From 2 October to 7 July, sodium vapour lamps are used to bathe the tower in a warm orange glow. From 7 July to 1 October, metal halide lamps throw a cool white light over the tower.

Ishii tries to express a sense of season in her lighting design, as seasons are important to Japanese culture. The choice of warm colours and warm whites during the winter months serves to offset the cold weather, Ishii says, while the cool white light used in summer provides a foil to the hot weather.

Despite taking her work seriously, Ishii also injects a sense of playfulness into her designs. The Tokyo Tower, and many of her other designs, are lit in different colours for special events and holidays. The Tokyo Tower received a ‘diamond veil’ for its 50th anniversary: 276 lights in seven colours distributed across the tower’s four faces gave the effect of a glittering diamond. Just this week, Ishii said, the Tower was lit with blue to wish the Japanese soccer team luck.

Ishii has worked extensively lighting up important Japanese buildings and monuments since establishing her business. In this instance, Ishii believes lighting has a social, not just a practical purpose. Lighting structures that were previously invisible at night attract more tourists in the evening, which stimulates spending and can enliven areas of a city. Highlighting historic buildings and monuments can also strengthen and promote cultural heritage, Ishii said.

While lighting draws attention to a building at night, Ishii says it’s important that the lighting design doesn’t detract from a building’s beauty during the day. Particularly with traditional buildings, she says it’s important that the lighting hardware be placed in such a way as to be invisible at best, or unobtrusive at the very least.

Ishii takes a structure’s surroundings into consideration when designing lighting. For instance, she designed the lighting for the Shanghai World Financial Center to be deliberately ‘quiet and elegant’ in contrast to the busy, loud Shanghai skyline, bringing a Japanese aesthetic to the Chinese city.

Ishii was commissioned to design the lighting for the recently reopened Kabuki-za theatre in Tokyo. The building’s facade is illuminated in a white light that varies in warmth with the seasons and time of day. The theatre’s traditional roof tiles are lit from above with LED lighting on the top floor of the adjoining 130 m Kabuki-za Tower, designed to resemble moonlight.

Despite the extensive lighting arrangement, the use of LEDs makes the lighting efficient to operate: the electricity cost comes in at around $1.50 per hour of operation. Most of Ishii’s recent work employs LEDs, solar panels and often wind power. While the solar panels don’t produce electricity for a lighting arrangement when it’s needed, Ishii said they feed clean energy back into the grid, which then supplies mains electricity for the lights’ operation at night.

Ishii’s presentation was an interesting insight into the history of Japanese lighting design - and its future.

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