Obituary: Jonathan Speirs FRIAS RIBA, architect

Born: 2 March, 1958, in Ardrishaig. Died: 18 June, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 54.

One of Scotland’s most internationally acclaimed architects and co-founder of the renowned architectural lighting practice, Speirs + Major, Jonathan Speirs, has died from cancer at the age of 54. Over the last quarter of a century, Jonathan Speirs has substantially changed the world of architectural lighting and the appearance and perception, not only of numerous major buildings and structures, but of many international towns and cities.

Born in Ardrishaig on the west coast of Scotland in 1958, son of Robert and Margaret (née Ashworth), Jonathan’s early education was at Bearsden Academy. He subsequently studied architecture at the Scott Sutherland School in Aberdeen and then at Edinburgh College of Art.

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In 1984, along with Andre Tammes, Jonathan co-founded Lighting Design Partnership (LDP) in Edinburgh. LDP grew rapidly to pre-eminence with work on more than 450 projects in 19 countries. Throughout the 1980s and the early 90s the practice worked on major projects throughout Europe and beyond.

Notable endeavours included display lighting for the Hermitage Museum in Moscow, hotels, including the Oslo Sheraton and London’s Langham Hilton and the Edinburgh Lighting Vision, one of the first city-wide lighting masterplans ever produced. The event lighting of London’s Natural History Museum’s dinosaurs for the spectacular after-show party for the 1991 revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph gave Jonathan particular pleasure.

In 1992 Jonathan left LDP to set up Jonathan Speirs Associates in Edinburgh. Relatively soon afterwards, his working association with Mark Major led to the evolution of the company into Speirs + Major Associates. They were subsequently joined by a third director, Keith Bradshaw. It is notable that all three senior directors, of what is now acknowledged as one of the top lighting design consultancies in the world, originally trained as architects. Jonathan, however, was always keen to emphasise that the involvement of specialists in many other fields was also crucial to their output.

The list of iconic structures, whose night-time appearance has been substantially influenced by the collaboration between Jonathan Speirs and their architects is a long one. At Copenhagen Opera House by Henning Larson Architects, the lighting scheme blends seamlessly with the extraordinary architecture of one of the most elegant and sophisticated opera houses ever built. Richard Rogers’ Millennium Dome, Madrid’s Barajas Airport, also by Rogers, the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, Gateshead’s Millennium Bridge by Wilkinson Eyre and Lord Foster’s Gherkin are among the very many examples on a list which covers most of the great world cities and many of the best known names in contemporary world architecture. It is typical of the man that many of these architects became close friends.

In 2010 the IALD Radiance Award was given to the Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nayhan Mosque, the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi where the lunar cycle, of crucial importance within the Islamic calendar, is reflected in gradations of light through a spectrum from white to deep blue. It has been said of this project that St Paul’s Cathedral could fit comfortably within its courtyard. This slightly odd concept has the singular merit that at least the quality of lighting design would be compatible, as St Paul’s recently restored interior benefits from a Speirs + Major lighting scheme.

At $545 million, the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi is a fairly substantial investment. However, Beijing Capital International Airport was also no modest undertaking. Speirs + Major also undertook the building lighting and the light show for the official opening of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the world’s tallest building. This display ensured maximum impact with remarkably low energy consumption. Sustainability in lighting is now a major preoccupation and another area where techniques developed by Speirs + Major lead the way.

In 2005, along with Mark Major, Jonathan produced the book and touring exhibition Made of Light – the Art of Light and Architecture. He was a member of the European Association of Lighting Designers, Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Light and Lighting, a member of the RIBA and a Fellow of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland (RIAS).

Jonathan won the International Architectural Lighting Designer of the Year Award in 1997. In recent years the practice has lit five of the RIBA’s Stirling Prize-winning projects as well as receiving numerous International Association of Lighting Designers’ (IALD) Awards of Excellence. In 2005, Lighting Magazine recognised Jonathan Speirs as the Lighting Designer of the Decade. Since then three successive IALD Radiance Awards in 2008, 2009 and 2010 have consolidated Speirs + Major’s reputation among the brightest stars in the architectural lighting firmament.

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In 2010, Jonathan Speirs was awarded the RIAS’ Lifetime Achievement Award, the highest honour bestowed by Scottish architects upon their peers. He subsequently also took great pleasure in the award of an honorary doctorate from Heriot-Watt University. Jonathan received the Professional Lighting Designers’ Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011. As recently as March this year, Speirs + Major was named Lighting Magazine’s “Design Practice of the Decade”.

Jonathan Speirs achieved more than the vast majority of architects could ever dream of. He worked on projects throughout the world. He innovated and helped to produce images by which some of the world’s totemic structures are promoted and recognised across the globe. He taught in architectural schools and delivered lectures and seminars at international events for audiences of high level professionals and for students of architecture and design willing to learn from an acknowledged international master.

Jonathan won all of the supreme accolades in his field, some of them on several occasions. He was a man of considerable and genuine modesty. Nevertheless, his work declares his genius. As a Scot, he was a superb ambassador for Scotland, enhancing our national esteem in innumerable world forums. His work touched buildings, towns and cities gently, but fundamentally altered the way they are perceived, understood and enjoyed by people. There are very few architects who have achieved quite so much.

Jonathan met Elizabeth (Liz) Wilson in 1980 and they married in 1988. Supporter, mother to his children and his best friend, Liz was the love of his life. Tragically, in 1993 their first child, Calum, died after a long illness; he was only two. Calum’s name was always lovingly included whenever Jonathan talked of his family.

The subsequent births of Lucie and Erin brought great joy and Jonathan took immense pleasure in watching his daughters grow into young women who share his passion for life, creativity and new experience. Friends and family played a huge part in Jonathan’s world. He particularly enjoyed the family’s trips to their lakeside family holiday home in upstate New York. A new house to Jonathan’s design has recently been completed to replace the original on the site.

Jonathan Speirs was invariably quietly spoken, humorous and considerate. He was also a Scottish architect of international repute whose work, quite literally, brought light to the world. He is survived by his father, Robert, brothers Stewart and David, sister Lizanne, his much loved wife Liz and daughters Lucie and Erin.

Neil Baxter