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Martin Gagnon: Making Buildings Talk

Posted on May 26, 2016
Martin Gagnon

Buildings speak to the founder and chief designer of the award-winning Montreal architectural lighting firm AMBIANCES DESIGN PRODUCTIONS. Not, of course, in the literal sense of uttering words, but through the more ethereal messages they communicate about their place in history, nature and their communities.

If buildings do indeed “talk,” Gagnon has endowed many of them with an eloquent voice through his stunning multimedia designs. Masterfully mixing lights, video and a variety of scenic elements, he has transformed even ordinary structures like neglected grain elevators into objects of compelling beauty.

Studying Gagnon’s designs, we often felt as though we were watching compelling stories unfold on the facades of buildings, or (in the case of his magical Enchanted Forest project) through rows of trees. It came as no surprise to us, then, to learn that he began his career in theatrical lighting. Storytelling is an obvious passion for him. Speaking to us from his Montreal office, the esteemed designer shared his insights into creating compelling stories with architectural lighting.

Martin Gagnon

You’ve been at the forefront of lighting buildings in rich colors and patterns for a number of years. Now there seems to be a greater appreciation for what you do, as more communities are discovering that they can revitalize buildings with lighting. Do you find that to be true?
“Yes, I think you are right. North America is catching up to the rest of the world in terms of lighting buildings. There is a growing sense that artistic architectural lighting can not only transform a building, but the entire area around it. More people understand that lighting can turn a building into an attraction and source of pride and that you can create an interesting visual display at night. So, yes, the appreciation of colorful architectural lighting is growing.”

Your design for the Enchanted Forest didn’t involve lighting a building, but trees. In it, you wove a rich and beautiful mix of myth and nature together by creating a lightshow in a forest. Can you tell us how this came about?
“As in many projects the client in this case gave us the freedom to come up with a design to submit for approval. We started as always with the white page. All creative endeavors, regardless of what they are, start out at this intimidating place! From the white page, we moved on to create a storyline. In the case of the Enchanted Forest, we drew on the natural setting of the forest and the historical myths that grew out of that setting. Nature is often a canvas for us as it was in this project when we illuminated the trees of the forest.”

So when you start a project and you develop a storyline, what happens next? Do you create the ideas for the images that you want to display first and then look for fixtures? Or do you look at what you can do with the fixtures specified for the project?
“Normally, we start by looking at the installation guidelines. What are the technical specifications called for by the project? What are the dimensions of the structure to be lighted? The power requirements? And things of that nature. Once these have been established, we look at the content – or images as you call them– that we want to display. Then we look for the fixtures that fit the specifications that will allow us to display this content.”

Martin Gagnon

Given what you just said, does new lighting technology give you new ideas? Or is it just a matter of the technology making it easier for you to implement the designs that were already in your head?
“It’s a mixture of both, really. Technology doesn’t actually give me ideas, but it does give me more flexibility, which makes it realistic for me to implement my ideas. For example, LED technology has made it possible for us to have every color we want within the same fixture. Go back to when I started 20 years ago and it wasn’t feasible to access all these colors, especially in an outdoor environment. I guess the best way to say this is that my design strategy stays the same, but ideas get to be more achievable because of the flexibility that technology gives me.”

You mention getting started 20 years ago, how did you begin your career in lighting?
“I began as a designer for shows, theater, opera and television. Architecture always fascinated me though, especially as it related to light. So I spent a year studying architecture and then began doing more and more architectural lighting projects. In 2006 I founded Ambiances Design Productions, which has an emphasis on architectural lighting.”

Does your background in theatrical lighting influence your work now in architectural lighting?
“Oh yes, absolutely! The lessons from my theatrical background have helped me develop a storytelling perspective that I use in every architectural project. Storytelling is not always obvious in architectural lighting. In fact sometimes it is quite subtle, but there is always an unfolding of events in lighting a building, which is the essence of storytelling. Sometimes this may involve the different ways the shape of a structure is illuminated or how a building reveals itself at different times of the day or evening, but you are always telling some story with your lighting. We always have to sell new clients on our storytelling vision for their building, and they always embrace it, even if it takes some time.”

Martin Gagnon

Are the clients hard to convince?
“Usually not, but sometimes they are as in the case with The KALEIDOSCOPE project we did at Buffalo, New York’s Canalside Grain Elevator. That was a long process. We started in 2013 and didn’t finish until November 2015. We had a hard time conveying to the people involved in that project why it was so important to have a storyline rather than just uplight the structure. We had to produce visual support material like a virtual video before they were convinced – but they embraced the idea and now that the project is done they are big believers.”

Can you tell us a little about The KALEIDOSCOPE project?
“It is a dynamic fully automated 360° kinetic lighting art display on older grain elevators on the Erie Canal in Buffalo. The lighting display runs throughout the year and changes to interpret the seasons. This interpretation is represented in sequences that evolve with color changes, movements and texture projections icons that vary in intensity, the way they would if you were viewing them through a kaleidoscope. We use 554 luminaires in the display; all but a handful of which are LED units.

“The KALEDOSCOPE reflects its natural setting, yet at the same time it honors Buffalo’s heritage as an industrial center. In the process, it has helped to turn a largely forgotten structure into a popular attraction and a source of local pride. To me this speaks to the impact that architectural lighting can have on a community.”

How do you determine what kind of story you will be telling with your lighting? For the Enchanted Forest it was based on local myths; for The KALEDOSCOPE it was inspired by natural surroundings – but will it be different at other sites?
“The story will always depend on the site. This is where creativity comes into play, and it’s something I enjoy and am passionate about. So it might be the local legends in one case, the natural setting of a building in another case and a particular feature of the building in the third. You let the site tell you the story, then you convey it in your design.”

Martin Gagnon

A few moments ago, you talked about your early love for architecture. What is it about lighting buildings that attracted you?
“That is a question that can be answered on many levels. I can tell you that buildings talk to me. I do not mean literally in the sense that I hear voices, but each building has its own personality; its own way of reflecting something about the people who brought it to life and the community that it is a part of.

“There is a history running through each building. There are design ides in its features. There is something about the way it blends with its environment – and so many other things that speak to you if you listen. Look at the Buffalo grain elevators; they stand there as a remembrance of the city’s industrial past from a century ago. There is something rewarding about bringing them to life and turning them into a vibrant attraction with light.”

Do you always visit a building before you begin your lighting design?
“Absolutely. When you’re on site you have a different feeling about the building. You really get to know it. I also am inspired by learning about the people and the community that surround the building. I want to get a sense of what it means to them. Once I do this and stare at a building for three or four hours, I start to get ideas.”

You’ve been on building sites all over the world. Does architectural lighting design differ from one region to the other?
“When you do a project in Russia or the Middle East, it is very different from doing one in Europe or North America. The process, permits and procedures vary in different regions, but also there are different design orientations. For example, in Russia the bling is much more important than the story narrative. Some colors are more appropriate in some countries than others because of religious or political considerations. I do enjoy going around the world, absorbing different cultures and applying what I learn to buildings that are significant to people of the area.”

Speaking of colors, do you have a favorite one to work with?
“I have a preference for blues.”

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Why is that?
“Ah, that is a difficult one to answer because it does involve such personal taste. I would say though that blue is soft and pure. It conveys good feelings.”

Do you have a color that you find most challenging in architectural lighting?
“Green is the most challenging. I don’t know exactly why, but it is always difficult to combine it with other colors. Of course, I do work with green when the design calls for me to do so, but there is always a challenge involved.”

In addition to architectural lighting, you’ve done quite a few museum projects. We were impressed by your work at the INOX Exhibit in Montreal, where you used overhead fixtures to create a beautiful even field of light for a photography exhibit. How does this sort of project compare to architectural lighting?
“There are a couple of fundamental differences. In architectural light I am telling a story through my illumination of a structure, but in museum lighting I am supporting the story of an object (or objects) created by someone else. It is really a supportive role. There are also a lot of added parameters that you have to respect with museum lighting, so it is somewhat less open to interpretation. It is a work of detail. I like that part of it very much.”

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Do you find that even though they are different, architectural lighting and museum lighting complement one another? Does doing one aid you in doing the other?
“I think so. Everything you do strengthens you in all other areas if you are able to absorb and apply the lessons that you learn. In addition to my work in lighting, I write, create and design multimedia projection shows that are centered on different fantasy and historical themes. Doing this has helped me grow as a storyteller, which is something that strengthens my work in architectural projects.”

Your projects tend to involve a multimedia approaching mixing lighting and video, with interactive and scenographic elements as well as (in many cases) sound. Why do you favor this approach over one that focuses more exclusively on lighting?
“We do this because it makes our creation more complete. People do not see the world in terms of lighting or video or other multimedia elements. They tend to see their world in terms of integrated scenes where many elements interact to create a single impression. The closer we get to this concept, the more realistic our storytelling becomes, which in turn makes it more compelling.”

Given your creative drive, we’re wondering if you ever did light art?
“No, but that is something I am intrigued by and would like to try one day- but right now I am so busy, so maybe – we’ll see!”

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How do you get inspired creatively?
“There is no one specific thing or routine. Nature inspires me, but it is really a very personal process, so it’s hard to answer that question.”

What makes a good architectural lighting designer?
“You have to be passionate about what you’re doing. The idea of transforming a building and creating this beautiful narrative on its surface has to excite you. Then you also need creativity to go with this passion. The passion and creativity are qualities that have to be inside a person. You can study and learn all of the techniques you need, but if you don’t have the passion and creativity inside you, it will be a struggle.”

How do you want to be remembered as a designer?
“That is a good question. I come to work every day, excited about what I do and strive to make it the best, so I don’t think about how I want to be remembered. Now that I am thinking about it though, I would tell you that I would like to be thought of as someone who was always very passionate about his work and tried very hard to bring out the best in every object or building he ever lighted.”