The Bartlett


How lighting can power change: Florence Lam, Arup

Alumna Florence Lam tells us why lighting design is about more than technology.

Florence Lam, Global Lighting Design Leader, Arup.

During her second year studying Engineering at Cambridge University, Florence Lam spent her summer holidays interning at the consultancy Arup in Hong Kong, doing what she describes as “simple calculations” to lay out lighting for a warehouse.

“Someone asked me what I was doing and I said ‘lighting design’ and, as the word ‘design’ came out of my mouth, I realised it couldn’t be, because how we experience light is certainly not just a set of numbers and calculations.”

London 2012 Aquatics Centre in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford. Credit: Hufton Crow

Having been involved with some student theatre productions at university, her instinct told her that lighting design demanded a more holistic approach that went beyond engineering.

When Lam graduated and took up a permanent role at Arup in London, she was determined to gain the broader understanding she felt she was missing, and enrolled part-time on the Light and Lighting MSc programme at the UCL Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering (IEDE).

V&A Design Museum in Dundee. Credit: Hufton Crow

Human factors

That was 1989, and today Lam is a Fellow and Global Lighting Design Leader at Arup. The course at The Bartlett has a hallowed reputation today – said by some to be a prerequisite for a senior role in the sector. At the time, Lam was attracted by its holistic approach to the field: “It was the only course that covered the full spectrum of what I felt I needed to learn about light and lighting – not just the technological aspects, but the human factors and the art and architectural side of it.”

Lam says that being awarded the Howard Branston Student Lighting Design Education Grant in 1991 was testament to the high professional promise and appreciation of lighting as an art that she gained at The Bartlett. The daylight fundamentals she learned from the course enabled her to develop an Arup in-house computer programme for daylight analysis – which her thesis was based on – and her being awarded a Distinction at the CIBSE Young Lighters of the Year in 1991.

Kings Cross Station Western Concourse. Credit: Hufton Crow

The list of projects she has worked on since graduating is a glittering one and includes London’s Millennium Bridge and Tate Modern, the Acropolis Museum in Athens, Stonecutters Bridge in Hong Kong, the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and, most recently, the new outpost of the V&A in Dundee. She has also worked on new terminals at Abu Dhabi International Airport and Taipei Taoyuan International Airport, both currently under construction.

Lam was named the Lighting Designer of the Year at the UK Lighting Design Awards in 2013 and the group she led at Arup named the Lighting Practice of the Year in 2016. Lam was also recipient of the Lighting Award from the Society of Light and Lighting in 2014.

Dongdaemun World Design Park in Seoul. Credit: Grace Wong

Over the years, she has built on her interdisciplinary background to develop insights into the future of her sector – looking, for example, at the impact of developments in neuroscience, social science and data science. For example, she is currently investigating and developing applications for lighting systems that embrace the non-visual effect of light and the changing patterns of activity over 24 hours in cities.

“As lighting designers, we need to understand the wider context behind a project and be totally engaged with how that can be properly integrated into sustainable development of cities,” Lam says. “It’s not just about a technological solution, it needs to be a social solution.”1996, more than a third of the finalists in the Society of Light and Lighting’s prestigious award for Young Lighter of the Year were graduates of the course and, since 2010, it has produced three of its winners.