Norwich Cathedral transformed with light

NORWICH Cathedral has been transformed with lighting to a design by top lighting design practice Speirs + Major.

The Presbytery. Speirs + Major says that the light ‘expresses the soaring volumes in a sensitive and unself-conscious manner’ © James Newton

For over 900 years the cathedral has dominated the city’s skyline. Justly famous for its architecture, the building is an important seat of worship and a much-loved part of the community, housing an outstanding collection of art and objects.

The fine Norman and Perpendicular interior is renowned for its ribbed vaulting and ornately painted bosses.

Appointed as lighting designers to Dean and Chapter in 2012, Speirs + Major has created a sustainable interior lighting system to provide flexibility for various cultural activities and tourism, while reducing the energy load.

Crafted with immense attention to detail, the studio has delivered a sensitive scheme with minimal impact on the building fabric.

The Cathedral offers over thirty services a week, hosts numerous activities and events and welcomes thousands of tourists every year.

Speirs + Major’s design included the re-lighting of the all of the interior areas of the cathedral, including six chapels, two ancillary rooms and the historic library.

Speirs + Major principal Mark Major told the Press: ‘Our primary focus for lighting a place of worship is always in support of the liturgical and spiritual aspects of the building.

‘We’re mindful that for centuries these glorious buildings were lit by daylight and candlelight alone.

‘Our aim for Norwich was to develop an ‘unself-conscious’ response. The emphasis is on celebrating objects of liturgical significance while also delivering infrastructure to enable the community events, concerts, and tourist visits that are vital to the successful running of a modern-day cathedral.

‘Revealing the key architectural features is included as an essential part of our interpretation.’

The lighting is built up in layers. The foundation is low-level ‘general light’ designed to facilitate everyday activities such as circulation, cleaning and reading.

The next layer is formed by highlights that draw attention to the elements such as altars, pulpits, lecterns, fonts, the Quire and significant objects such as the Bishop’s Chair.

Next, consideration was given to each entrance and change of level to ensure easy access and improved safety for people of all abilities. A further layer details the infrastructure required for concerts and community events.

The Nave. The focus of the lighting for the Cathedral is primarily in support of the liturgical and spiritual aspects, says Speirs + Major © James Newton

Norwich Cathedral is largely Romanesque in design. Characterised by a clean, pure aesthetic, the soaring volumes are revealed through natural light penetrating at every level to define the experience of the building.

The final layer of electric light has been conceived to express these volumes, from the triple-height vaulting above the nave, crossing and presbytery, to the unique first-floor level triforium gallery and upper-level clerestory, and the single-storey vaulting to the aisles.

Each of the lighting effects is individually controlled and dimmable from 0 to 100 per cent brightness.

The ability to finely control the lit effect enables the Dean and Chapter to shift the focus of worship around the building, creating different atmospheres that suit the many uses of the church. All the lighting is LED which, in addition to being easily controlled, has generated significant savings in energy and maintenance in comparison to the previous tungsten-halogen lighting, and reduced UV emissions to help protect and preserve the sensitive art and artefacts.

One of the critical challenges of the project lay in delivering the many layers of light with minimal impact to the building fabric. To achieve this while maintaining the clean aesthetic, Speirs + Major designed a series of multi-purpose details, honed through multiple tests and mock-ups.

Speirs + Major senior associate and group leader, Philip Rose elaborates:  ’It was essential to restrict the number of places we had to drill into the fabric of the building – yet it was also crucial to have the flexibility to locate and direct light where it was needed.

We determined that within the fluted profile of the thick Romanesque columns, we could locate a simple bespoke modular track system running down the columns, connected only at top and bottom.

From these tracks, we have positioned up to six spotlights, up, down and back, that reveal the volumes, highlight all in all all of the window liturgical elements, light circulation spaces and provide enhanced lighting levels for small concerts.

‘We also mounted them on the eastern face of the columns, hiding them from view when standing in the primary viewing position at the west end of the Cathedral.’

Uplighting from the tracks highlights the springing joints of the ceiling, accentuating the impressive height while drawing attention to the famous and historically significant ornate carved bosses at the intersections of the ribs.

At high level, linear lights express the volume of the clerestory, while further concealed spotlights provide functional light to the north and south transepts and crossing.

In the course of the project, it was agreed to remove the previously installed safety handrails at the triforium level, allowing the simplicity of the architecture to be re-envisaged.

At ground level, indirect light concealed on the column capitals of the aisles and ambulatory crosses into the vaults to reveal their form.’

The lighting for the quire required the development of bespoke stall mounted luminaires. A modern interpretation of a candle, the fixture is designed to improve conditions for reading music while creating a soft sparkle reminiscent of a flame. The canopy of the historic timber screen glows to create a warm backdrop.

Speirs + Major’s scope also included the six chapels and the chancery, each of which could have been considered a project in its own right.

The design ensures that as you enter each chapel, the light is concealed, coming from behind you to emphasise the altar, historic reredos and other items of liturgical significance.

A further important aspect of the lighting project involved rationalising and removing existing cabling to make way for a new, improved electrical infrastructure.

As with all other aspects of the project, this was undertaken with exceptional attention to detail, with all exposed cabling hand-painted in a trompe l’oeil effect so that it would blend seamlessly into the building fabric.

‘Re-lighting the interior of one of the finest cathedrals in the country was both a privilege and an enormous responsibility,’ said Major. ‘Our close working relationship with a supportive and imaginative client enabled us to deliver a new lighting scheme that is not only sympathetic to the architecture but provides an extremely flexible low- energy solution that supports worship and benefits the local community.'