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01.27.2014
Q+A> Tao Ham
HGA's senior lighting designer talks about light's natural beauty, and the art and science of lighting design.
Lakewood Cemetery Garden Mausoleum.
Paul Crosby / HGA

Whether lighting an office building or a train station, Tao Ham likes to let nature take its course. Originally from China, Ham, a senior lighting designer with the Minneapolis-based architecture firm HGA, gained attention last year when her shop took home an International Association of Lighting Designers award for their work on the Lakewood Cemetery Garden Mausoleum. She earned her Ph.D. in interior design from the University of Minnesota, where she has taught lighting design for interior designers. Ham shed a little light on her design philosophies during a chat with Ian Fullerton for AN.

 
 

Ian Fullerton: When developing the lighting design for a project, where do you start?

Tao Ham: I think this is where my training in architecture comes into play. I imagine myself going through each of the spaces, touching every surface of the building, and feeling it from all different aspects of my sense—not just visually. I totally start a project by thinking about just walking through the front door and then finding out what needs to be emphasized in each room.

In presenting HGA with an award for its work on the Lakewood Mausoleum, IALD said that aspects of the building’s lighting design “heightened the spiritual qualities of the space.” What role did the balance between natural and electrical lighting play in achieving this effect?

I think natural light is the most beautiful thing that a building can bring in and that you can look out onto. In the mausoleum, every skylight has its own shape and position, so each chamber has its own individual quality.

Not only is daylighting an energy saving measure, it also transforms the nature of the building, and it’s important not to disturb those qualities. After that, you can think about how electrical lighting acts as a supplemental source. Even during the day, natural light sometimes needs to be complemented; in contrast, a big bright window can make another wall look dark. Hopefully visitors don’t even notice that electric lighting is there, but it just gives the room a subtle balance.

 
 

When should lighting design be considered on a project and how do you work with architects or other designers?

Ideally, lighting should be involved in the early stages of any design work, and a lighting designer should be invited into the team at the beginning in order to brainstorm ideas and concepts. A lot of great lighting schemes aren’t just attached to a building’s surface; they really should become integrated into a building system. For example, if you wanted to hide light fixtures into cavities on the wall, you really have to have those ideas incorporated early. If we all wait until the last minute, the space for those wall slots might already be occupied by other building elements.

I really believe my strength is that I can conceive the building, so when introduced to the design team early I can start to define where lighting needs to be expressed.

Do you find inspiration for natural lighting design in older, possibly pre-electricity architecture?

Funny you should mention that. I just finished a renovation project on an old train station, the Union Depot in St. Paul, which was built in the 1920s. It was interesting to see how little light people got by on back then. The lighting instruments in that space were limited to sconces and pendants, and they barely met our egress standards for today. I think back then people were largely using daylight as their main source. If you are talking about inspiration, I’d say historic buildings give us a lot of ideas on how to introduce daylighting that is not only functional but also enhances the experience of the building.

 

What are some of the major challenges of lighting in architecture? Are there any specific methods, materials, or styles that you try to avoid?

I think one of the big challenges is to design a lighting system that is maintainable in different environments. For instance, when you have to install a light in an auditorium that is eighty feet in the air, how do you service that?

In terms of what I try to avoid, the first thing that comes to my head is shiny surfaces. Whether it’s a nice piece of wood or something else, I try not to shine light on them. When a surface has too high a sheen, it reflects the light source when lit. Sometimes we find solutions in using more ambient light or making the contrast of the material lighter. There are other ways to emphasize those materials other than through lighting.

What are you working on now?

Right now we are working on a renovation project at the Minnesota State Capitol Building [built in 1905]. We’re mostly restoring the building to its historical character, and in some spaces we’re doing an interpretation of the historical lighting. It’s a very challenging project in a way, but it’s fun.

 
 

That gets back to the idea of updating the lighting scheme in an older building. Are there roadblocks in keeping the capitol building well lit?

In general, the main public chambers are pretty well lit, but from a lighting perspective there are some challenges. Historic buildings have typically low lighting and rely largely on daylighting. But how we use these buildings now is so different. For example, they now do lots of TV production there, and we have to provide a high level of lighting to accommodate video while maintaining the historical feel of the building. Those things just don’t go well together.

 

As a teacher of lighting design, what are some of the main ideas you try to instill into your students?

I was teaching interior design students, and with them I tried to convey the concept of conceiving lighting with the design, so that it does not become after thoughts.

I also try to emphasize the importance of experience: You can’t just sit in the classroom and imagine things, you have to go out and observe. We did a lot of lighting journals where the students thought about what worked and didn’t work in different settings.

Thirdly, I ask them to pay attention to how light behaves. To someone who is not an experienced designer, it might seem like a light will stay perfectly framed on an object or a wall, but its not that way. Unless you have a beam shaper, light tends to spill out. The light fixture itself is just a physical piece of material, and what it produces is a totally different thing.

Are there other areas of study that an aspiring lighting designer can pursue to supplement their academic practice?

I think a good lighting design student needs to be educated in the arts. You have to have that grasp of what is good form, what is a good use of space. The technical side of lighting can be taught. What is really hard to teach is the intuitive sense of the art itself. As an artist, you can be taught how to make the brush strokes, but what is really important is whether you have passion.

Ian Fullerton