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Moon struck: lunar-inspired light at Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque brings the heavens to earth.

Home to the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates has become synonymous with larger-than-life construction, Disney-inspired design and Vegas-style bright lights. Amid all the flash and panache, Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque, or Grand Mosque, is a welcome oasis of quiet, yet powerful, beauty and architectural sophistication.

Perched on a hill overlooking Abu Dhabi, the mosque hangs over the city like a lunar beacon. At 48,000 sq meters and with room for 40,000 worshippers, it is one of the largest mosques in the world. "This is a national monument just like the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty," says Jonathan Speirs, director and founder of Speirs and Major Associates (SaMA), Edinburgh, Scotland, the firm responsible for the interior and exterior illumination of the mosque.


But, while the building stands out as an iconic presence on the city's skyline, it also respectfully relates to its surrounding environment, thanks, in large part, to the exterior lighting, which was inspired by clouds rolling across the face of the moon. Washed with cloudlike texture, the facade subtly shifts from white to blue and back to white in tune with the Islamic calendar, which follows the 28-day lunar cycle.

The effect is dreamy, ethereal and effortless, but the story behind it is no fairy tale. The lighting took six long years of planning and design, a process that SaMA director Keith Bradshaw calls "a labor of love." What's more, it was a tremendous technical challenge that included creating custom image projectors to produce the cloud texture; designing a plan for more than 1,200 luminaires that illuminate the facade, colonnades and open-air public areas like the sahan, or courtyard; and coordinating a control system of epic proportions.

Along with Speirs and Bradshaw, seven other SaMA lighting designers were recognized for their work with the 2010 IES Waterbury Illumination Award of Distinction. The firm also won the 2010 IALD Radiance Award for Excellence in Lighting Design for the exterior to go along with an IES Guth Award of Excellence and an IALD International Lighting Design Award of Merit for the interior mosque lighting, both won in 2009.



The lighting design began with what Bradshaw describes as "a very simple idea": lighting inspired by the moon, an important Islamic religious and cultural symbol. Speirs explains, "the idea was that when it was a beautiful full moon the building would be illuminated by white light with the textural quality of a full moon in the sky, with a wisp of cloud that is moving across its face. For us, that is a very evocative, very powerful, very poetic image."

The lighting coordinates with the lunar cycle, which begins with a full moon, transitions to a new moon after 14 days and ends with another full moon on the 28th day. White light represents a full moon, while blue light represents a new moon, or a dark sky. "As the moon waxes and wanes, the building changes color slightly either from white to blue or from blue to white," explains Bradshaw. "There are 28 days, so there are effectively almost 14 shades of white or blue."

Given the religious significance of the mosque, "the one thing we didn't want to do was make this into a multi-color, 'resort'-style building," says Speirs. "Sensitivity to color was paramount." Despite the fact that most mosques are illuminated in green--a favorite color of the Prophet Muhammad--the team felt that blue better represented the moon theme, and the client agreed. Moreover, since all mosques are oriented in relation to Mecca, the cloud-like projections on the building's facade were likewise organized so that they appear to be arriving from the holy city.

A simple concept isn't always simple to execute, however. And in this case, "getting there was long and complicated," recalls Bradshaw. "You don't just send someone a set of drawings and say, 'See you on opening day.' It's one of those jobs that could have existed as a computer rendering for the rest of its life, but for us it was never going to be anything until it was real."


To turn the concept into reality, the designers had to face a number of challenges. One challenge was the sheer scale of the structure, which "had an implication with regard to the quantity of equipment we had to use, how we could conceal it and the risk in terms of technology," explains Speirs. "We've never worked on a building of this scale before with this quantity of technological units controlled in this way."


Another challenge was finding equipment that could produce the desired animation and color effects. After evaluating a number of large-scale image projectors, SaMA conducted a successful mock-up using Martin's MAC 2000 image projector. However, as it turned out, the perfect fixture wasn't so perfect; the luminaires were intended for interior applications and couldn't withstand the harsh desert climate. Since, according to Bradshaw, comparable exterior luminaires didn't exist, SaMA teamed with Martin to develop a fixture for the project. "We took the components we needed from the MAC 2000 and put them in an interior enclosure for 60 deg ambient temperature. It was complicated to find a fitting robust enough," says Bradshaw.

The result is an IP65-rated, 1,200-W metal halide luminaire that was tested in harsh environments, like the Nevada desert and northern Denmark, to meet stringent weather requirements. At the mosque, more than 400 of these image projectors are housed in 22 custom-designed, 17-meter-high, steel-and-glass-reinforced totems, which are set back 30-40 meters from the facade. The same luminaires are also roof-mounted to light the courtyard. Each totem holds as many as 13 fixtures. Three-dimensional CAD models helped SaMA determine fixture location and aiming angles. Precision was key "given the distances we were throwing the light," says Bradshaw. "You had to be extremely accurate about where the focus point was because if you were a half-degree off you'd miss the building."

While the image projectors produce the cloud effect and most throw light onto the domes, minarets and the courtyard from afar, a closer layer of light was needed to give shape to the structure's three-dimensional surfaces. Grounding these surfaces are a combination of luminaires, including 150-W wash lights that light the base of the domes, 150-W inground luminaires that illuminate large walls in public areas, and a combination of 150-W and 575-W wash lights that light vertical surfaces like the facade of the main prayer hall. Martin provided all luminaires for the exterior in order to streamline procurement and simplify maintenance.


Another entertainment lighting manufacturer, ETC, supplied controls. Comprising more than 50 universes of DMX that control nearly 2,300 circuits in 17 custom built equipment racks and 52 dimming racks, the control system is complex to say the least.

Such advanced technology might have been difficult for a lighting professional to manage, let alone a facilities manager, but the system is designed to run automatically to simplify maintenance. The system's light servers are linked to a built-in lunar clock program which tracks the moon's cycle and produces the appropriate color lighting. An astronomical time clock keeps track of the sunset and sunrise. "Above all else, reliability was the most important thing," explains Speirs. "We wanted to have the confidence that this project would look as good as it does now for years and years to come without having an army of people looking after it."

In addition, the luminaires are equipped with remote device management (RDM) capabilities that send status and error messages to notify building personnel of problems with the fixtures. The technology can pinpoint the exact luminaire that needs repair and diagnose whether it's a lamp, mechanical or data issue, so that the maintenance team can come prepared to fix the problem. The same RDM system was used for the interior lighting. "The system helps make sure the building is maintained well, which means that the client's investment is returned back sensibly," says Speirs.


Sometimes, bigger is indeed better.



About the Designers: Jonathan Speirs, BSc (Hons) Dip Arch, RIBA, ARIAS, PLDA, FRSA, Hon. FSLL, is a principal and founder of Speirs and Major Associates, which has studios in Edinburgh and London. His work has been honored with a number of international and national lighting awards and he received the Lighting Dimensions International Architectural Lighting Designer of the Year Award in 1997.


Keith Bradshaw, BSc Arch, PLDA, is a director at Speirs and Major Associates. Mr. Bradshaw was trained in art and architecture at Bourneville College of Art and the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, and has more than 10 years of experience as a lighting designer. His projects include Grand Mosque of Abu Dhabi, Armani Ginza Tower Tokyo and the Copenhagen Opera House.

Mr. Speirs and Mr. Bradshaw were joined on the Grand Mosque project by Speirs and Major Associate's lighting designers Carrie Donahue Bremner, Iain Ruxton, Sarah Wisher, Katja Nurminen, Francis Milloy, Malcolm Innes and Sandra Downie.


Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan Mosque

Lamp Types: 4

Fixture Types: 5

Total Number of Fixtures: 1,200
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Author:Hall, Elizabeth
Publication:LD+A Magazine
Date:Aug 1, 2010
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