Shedding Light on the World's Tallest Building: Three firms illuminate the Burj Khalifa with alternating restraint and spectacle.
Architects & Firms
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
From a distance, the half-mile-high Burj Khalifa in Dubai tapers to a near imperceptible spire like a mirage along the windswept desert coast of the Persian Gulf. Up close, within its urban context, visitors and residents are treated to a densely landscaped setting of terraced drives, esplanades, restaurants, retail outlets, pools, and fountains.
In terms of illumination, it was an interesting challenge, says Paul Marantz, design principal at Fisher Marantz Stone (FMS), the firm responsible for lighting the bulk of the tower, as well as the circular Tower Park around it. “You’re either looking up or straight ahead,” he says. “So the question we had was, What do you do with a building that is so tall it dwarfs everything else?”
At first Marantz and his associates considered floodlighting the facade. They soon realized that if they did, the tall, lithe skyscraper would almost always be shrouded in a light-polluting nimbus. Unlike the typically crystal clear atmosphere that imparts definition to the cityscape of Las Vegas, the humid air of Dubai is often filtered with blowing sand — a condition that continually alters the building’s appearance. So the lighting designers reverted to a “close-in” scheme similar to that of the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai, an earlier FMS collaboration with Adrian Smith and SOM.
Here they took advantage of the Burj’s spiraling lobes to layer the structure with a series of small fixtures that wash its surface in a soft, luminous glow. The custom fixtures include tightly sealed metal-halide uplights bracketed to the curtain wall at the ceiling line of the first two levels and installed around the top of the 10-foot-high glass windscreens at the edge of the setback terraces above; halogen downlights affixed to residential balcony sunscreens; and 400-watt metal-halide floodlights on the parapets beneath the needlelike pinnacle. All fixtures are carefully angled and shielded to enhance the building’s texture and form without imposing on the occupants or impeding their views.
Carrying this illuminating parti to terra firma, the FMS design team installed evenly spaced arrays of uplights along the floors between the double glazing of the three entrance pavilions, filling the interiors of the jewel-like lobbies with a bright ambient light that filters through to the outer drop-off areas. A fluorescent glass light box extends this light-wall effect around the lower parking level of the office atrium (where most occupants enter), doubling as a radiant path to and from the plaza. To avoid interfering with the view of the Burj outside, Marantz kept everything in the landscape as close to the ground as possible, using low-level bollards, circular necklaces of in-ground lamps along the roundabouts, and unobtrusive streetlights. Low light levels and warm color temperatures are never harsh or overwhelming.
Of course, festivals and the need to entertain tourists warrant sensation. For this, Emaar Properties tapped two special-effects icons. California-based WET illuminated its dazzling Dubai Fountain with a system that follows the movement of the aquatic displays, while 25 video projectors (in rooms beneath five rings of water jets) are programmed to stream color or painterly abstractions into the bursts. For the Celebration Lighting system, U.K.-based lighting designers Speirs and Major Associates (SaMA) devised a show that morphs the tower into a flashing beacon, with 868 high-power stroboscopes and six searchlights integrated into the facade and palms. A radical juxtaposition to the understated FMS plan, the flamboyant SaMA spectacle, which debuted opening day, is perhaps a fitting tribute to a building and city that demand our attention, yet want to be taken seriously.
Speirs and Major Associates (Celebration Lighting)—Jonathan Speirs, Keith Bradshaw, Gill Pyatt, Iain Ruston, Sarah Wisher, design team
WET (The Dubai Fountain)—Jim Doyle, director of technology
Daniel Bell, Associate, Site Team