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Feature> Spotlight: Vanke Center
Steven Holl uses light to help defy gravity in China.
Holl's horizontal skyscraper sits on legs of concrete, glass, and light.
Iwan Baan

This project is one section of AN's five-part feature on architectural lighting, "Sharing the Spotlight." Click here to view additional projects.

Vanke Center
Shenzhen, China

Steven Holl Architects
L'Observatoire International

The Vanke Center in Shenzhen, China is a culmination of architect Steven Holl’s long-time pursuit to defy gravity. Although physically elevated above ground on broad concrete pillars, the secret behind this levitation effect is the building’s lighting design. “Steven thinks of light as an integral material, like stone or glass,” said Jason Neches a principal at L’Observatoire International, the New York-based lighting design firm. The firm’s contribution to the design is evident: the solid concrete-core supports, for example, which house the circulation up to the first floors, are wrapped in glass and lit to give the impression that the building floats. “Steven wanted uplighting, which provides a dramatic effect,” said Neches. “But since people are drawn to light, they would have looked down when we wanted them looking up at the building. So it is lit top-down.”

The value of intrinsic lighting design seems obvious, but lighting designers are too often enlisted after a project has already been developed. With complex projects such as Vanke, the solution was to work with the architects from the outset. “Steven brings us in very early on in the design process for most projects, usually just after the concept stage,” said Neches.

Vanke’s complex interior spaces posed a particular challenge for L’Observatoire in spite of the firm’s familiarity with Holl. “Its diverse program meant that different parts of the project were advancing with different schedules,” said Neches. As well, its setting in China meant that traditional practice puts the finishing touches in the hands of local designers “to nurture local industry,” as Neches put it. In the underground auditorium, for example, L’Observatoire only took it through design development before handing it back to Holl’s Beijing office for final specifications of the lighting fixtures.

Left to right: Lobby elevators with the building plan mapped in lights; The "untied bowtie" staircase blending natural and artificial light; the horizontal skyscraper is visible behind a reception desk; Light walls and an illuminated desk in the auditorium lobby.

According to Neches, Holl has a clear vision before the designers even come to the table, and they are asked to provide feedback on the quality of light rather than have vital creative input. “However,” said Neches, “there is always flexibility so we can affect a change if we think it will make the space better.” In the case of the “bowtie” staircase area, which was difficult to read in plan and section, L’Observatoire used a 3-D physical model to test and demonstrate various lighting fixtures and options for the interior. As a result, track lights have been integrated into folds and facets of the bowtie with areas of highlights, while in a cove at the wall, there is an uplight to encourage people to gather.

The Vanke’s relatively monochromatic interior relies heavily on lighting to create different atmospheres. “We have a lot of opportunities with Steven,” said Neches. “These are the benefits of working with an architect who thinks of light as another building material.”

Gwen Webber