Designing lighting displays for buildings is a tricky business. On the one hand, the illuminated structure should stand out, captivating all who see it with its dazzling colors and patterns. On the other, it is the edifice, not the illumination, which should be the star of the show. Achieving this balance requires the designer to walk a fine line, by creating work that is attractive without being distractive. Elizabeth Coco has walked – or more accurately floated – across this line with remarkable grace and style.
As is readily apparent to anyone who saw her work at the National Cathedral’s “Seeing Deeper” event earlier this year, Coco has a flair for threading the design needle, creating lighting displays that inspire awe for their color and beauty while at the same time accentuating the best architectural characteristics of the building they shine on. Although her building designs seem to flow effortlessly, they are the result of countless hours of hard work and careful planning. A USA 829 union designer for Atmosphere, Inc. in Washington DC with a MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Coco talked to us about the process of turning stone into an artist’s canvas.
Is there a term that you would use to describe your work at the National Cathedral? Building projection? Architectural lighting?
“Architectural lighting with a punch of event pizazz.”
You’ve done beautiful work on the inside and outside of buildings. Do you approach a project differently when it involves indoor vs. outdoor lighting?
“Absolutely! When I’m working indoors I don’t have to consider what Mother Nature will throw my way. She’s a feisty one! I also don’t have to worry about power as much. Usually I can scrape up some power when I’m indoors, but outdoors, there is rarely any power to be had. I also have to worry about spec’ing gear that is IP rated for water exposure. My Assistant Lighting Designer, Christal Boyd, is incredibly helpful in this area. She has a background in architectural lighting and was an electrician, so she often will assist in making sure I’ve put the right gear outside, making sure I’ve requested rain protection as needed, and double checking electrical specs if we’re looking at tight power situations. When I’m indoors I usually start from artistic design ideas first, and then go down the gear rabbit hole based on those ideas. So outdoors is function before form, and indoors is form over function so to speak.”
In concert lighting, designers are always careful not to take attention away from the artists with their lighting. Is there a similar concern with building lighting? Can building lighting be overdone? An architectural version of flash and trash?
“Oh yes! Very much so, and particularly if the architect is still living, or there is a historical association with the building. You have to be very careful to accentuate, without re-designing the architecture. You want to enhance without distraction. You can use smooth surfaces to do the flash part, but you need to just accentuate the more complex architecture.
“While you want them to go ‘wow’ over the lighting, you want that wow to be at how it transforms the space, not in how it creates a show ‘on’ the building. It’s a fine balance between blank canvas and re-touched art. Something to also take into account is the difference in lighting a building for an event vs an installation. What I do is for a ‘special’ function and thus has a bit more wiggle room to be more ‘flashy’ and thematic than if it were for a multi-functional installation that had to serve a building year-round. Sometimes an event really wants to go all out on the building, and you do have to set aside the idea of enhancement, and look more into ‘how do I make this a totally different space.’
“A few years ago I designed an event where the client brought in projection mapping and completely wrapped the historic venue in vivid imagery. The lighting then lit the floor and ceiling and supported the transformation with complementary colors and patterns instead of just enhancing the space. It’s interesting to see what clients are more interested in: the building being a complementary background for their event, vs a spectacle.”
What are the things you look at in a building to evaluate it before you begin designing lighting for it?
“I’m looking at the shapes. What parts of the building are most visible to the viewer, what can be accentuated, what do I want to make less prominent, what is going to take light well? Then I start looking for where I can get a shot from and hang or rig a fixture in some manner. The older the building the harder that is. If I can’t get a shot to that surface, then I can’t even think about including it in a design. Then I start looking for power. If there’s limited power, or it’s all far away from where I want fixtures then I have to take that into consideration when choosing what to light and then what gear to use for it.”
That being said, is there a specific thing or type of lighting you like to start with when you design your building lighting?
“I like to start with color or texture. Whichever is going to best accentuate or transform the building the most in regards to the event theme.”
At the National Cathedral you had a lot of ambient sunlight in the building at times. How do you account for ambient light in your designs?
“I’ve studied a LOT about how the sun creates shadows, and affects the color temperature of what you’re looking at during various times of day, seasons, and weather. Lots of time with visual research, looking at natural paintings from classic painters, and using my art degree to understand what the eye is going to perceive as ‘natural light’ vs ‘artificial light’.
“If I have an event at the cathedral in the spring/summer when I know it’s going to start before sunset, I urge clients to use the stained glass to their benefit by lighting the balcony area surrounding the rosette. Then you get those stunning pictures with the sun streaming through the beautiful colored glass against a painted surface in tones that accentuate the glass, and bring in the linens or décor colors for the event and tie them together.
“I also encourage them to light the ceiling in broken colors, or dappled light rather than a pattern so that the light blends from natural light into artificial light in a more cohesive manner. In the winter, I encourage clients to use the early sunset to their benefit. Create the art on the ceiling with pattern and carry it down the columns to eye level as well. I also use darker, more saturated colors in the winter, whereas in the spring/summer, I’ll use warmer hues and amber tones, since I can get away with being brighter without hurting the viewers’ eyes. I also have to light the floor during the winter because it gets pitch black without the sun coming through the windows since the glass is so thick.”
Much of your building projection light involves uplighting, but you have also down lighted architectural elements. Does uplighting and down lighting present different challenges to you as a designer?
“I actually prefer to layer with side lighting as much as I can, treating it more like lighting for dance. Once I get the base layer of light in with an uplight or wash, I want to layer texture in from a more angular shot to create more depth. The uplighting as a base throws the light onto the ceiling of wherever I am and allows for more ambient light as well, which is important for events. A downlight just dies off, and doesn’t really grow into anything else, so I prefer not to use them unless I have to. I can’t blend a downlight into the surround like I can an uplight. If you need to isolate an area though, a downlight solves that far better and allows me to control. Even when I’m doing a patterned wash over the floor of a space to light décor, tables, etc., I try to do so from an angle instead of straight down. It’s just going to mold the space better and be more comfortable for the guest/viewer.”
Is there a favorite type of building you like to design?
“Hmmm. Anything with intricate design really. Columns, ornate ceilings, frescos on the walls (like at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium). Really anything I can get light on where it will create a more dynamic look by layering in color and texture.”
Can you give us a little background about how you got started as a lighting designer? When did you start lighting buildings?
“I grew up in the industry. My mom was a costume designer, working primarily for dance companies, small theatres, and pageant contestants, creating costumes for their performances. I was a ballet dancer for 22 years and fell into lighting through performing. I went to undergrad for Studio Art (concentrating in painting and graphic design), and Theatre Lighting. I started working in the event space on campus that was presenting small touring events and concerts each week.
“I moved to New York following undergrad to pursue a career in lighting for opera and dance, but fell back into Corporate Events. I decided to go to grad school to get more experience in the commercial side and hone my skills as a theatrical designer. I received my MFA from NYU Tisch School of the Arts prior to moving to DC to work for Atmosphere. There was a stint in TV and broadcast in there as well with CNN as an Assistant Lighting Director. Architectural just fell into the mix.”
Are there common mistakes that designers make when they first try their hand at it? “
“There are definitely some common mistakes! Several. The most common I’ve seen are not taking into account power availability, weight of a fixture, how the light can be hung/mounted, and what size lighting fixture to use to make a shot (throw distance is usually long in architecture than theatrical design). Often designers forget to work through the power situation before they create a design, then they’re disappointed when their budget or the infrastructure just can’t support their vision. Back to the drawing board they go…hopefully before load in. Predicting Mother Nature is always a thing too. For events that involve architectural lighting you really have to know your seasons in whatever city you’re in, and take that into account when designing an event that is using architectural lighting vs an install that is year-round on a building. You have access to completely different gear in event lighting than for installations, and most event gear is not rated to be outdoors so you have to know what you’re getting into and be smart about what you do and don’t use outside.”
In your view, what makes a successful building lighting project? In other words, what is it that you hope people take away from seeing your work? Do you want it to give them a new appreciation of the building? Or do you want it to be an aesthetic experience in its own right?
“I want people to see the building and be in awe, if only for a moment; to have a ‘wow’ moment when they see it all turned on. I want people to see the beauty of the architecture transformed into a painting of light. The lighting shouldn’t take away from the beauty of the architecture, but it should transform it into a further work of art.”