Jean Sundin and Enrique Peiniger (OVI New York)

When architecture is film, lighting design is the film music

By: Jessica Merkens


It intrigued me how you can transform a space without physically changing it

Jean Sundin and Enrique Peiniger met in Washington D.C., about 30 years ago. Enrique came from Germany to the States as a young lighting design intern for Jean. They quickly found a common ground in the way they looked at lighting design. Since then, they created lighting designs for architectural designs around the globe. They are also partners in life. “We were interested in how to really fuse architecture and lighting.”

You're both lighting designers. How did that come about?

Jean: “Actually, I'm an interior designer by training. I discovered lighting as part of the design of showrooms, finishes and materials. It intrigued me how you can transform a space without physically changing it. That was a really big trigger for me in terms of getting into lighting design.

I thought that if I knew about lighting, it would make me a better interior designer. I had always planned to just have it as a compliment. But the more I learned, the more I knew that lighting was the design avenue for me. So I continued my practice of lighting over the last 35 years. The transformation of space by lighting. It’s just amazing what lighting can do.” Enrique: “For me it was a little bit different. I was interested in architecture from a young age. The first intense experience I had with architecture was when I was in my teens. I spent three weeks in a medieval monastery in the southern part of Germany. It was fascinating for me to see how architecture and space were combined with people, how the monks were living. Later on I studied architecture and my fascination with the human component stayed. How space interacts with people and how it reverberates back and forth. Lighting design is unique, I think. It's for a large part artistic. But it’s also technology. And with lighting, you can change so many atmospheres and emotions. I always say that when architecture is film, lighting design is the film music. When you watch a good movie, you never notice the music. It simply transforms you in the way you look at the movie. And that’s what I like about lighting design.”

Photo: Canadese parlement

Photo: OVI NY Unicorn Island

Together you co-founded the Office of Visual Interaction 25 years ago.

Enrique: “It was never the plan to set up an office. We were working together at an office in Washington DC. The designer there was working simply for a ceiling plan, for wall elevation, for drawings, to put lighting on points. We thought no. There is much more we can do. We were interested in how to really fuse architecture and lighting. Not only putting light on a ceiling or wall.” Jean: “Every building tells a story and we are the explorers. What is the building trying to say? There's a whole exploratory process that happens. You get inspired from the architecture or the interiors itself. Or by the materials you think they're going to use. We also discovered we had complementary skills. And so for that reason, we set out by ourselves and founded OVI.” Enrique: “Exactly. A dull light, a linear light, a suspended light or recessed light is not a story, right? The story is the soul of a building. And that's what we are after. The lighting design should be a very soft story. One that is part of the architecture.”

That's interesting. So how do you find the soul of a building or a project?

Enrique: “You have to listen. You get clues before you start. Where is the project located? Is it in Scotland, or somewhere in the desert? What are the environmental conditions? What is the cultural context? How is the project in line with the architect’s other projects?” Jean: “How would it be if the architect did it themselves? We don't want it to look like we had an intervention there with lighting design.”

While we’re on it. One of the big projects you worked on was the Canadian Parliament. What was that like?

Jean: “In the past we already did the Scottish Parliament. We started on that project in 1997 and completed it in early 2000. And then the Canadian Parliament was underway for quite some time. It's a historic building. They wanted to put a glass roof over the courtyard and make that into the Chamber of Commons and a TV broadcast space.” Enrique: “Transforming an exterior space into the interior courtyard, to serve as a debating chamber.” Jean: “I mean, that was a big order to fill. In terms of TV broadcast lighting, it's very specific on what has to be done for it to be successful.”

Photo: OVI NY Unicorn Island


A linear, suspended or recessed light is not a story. The story is the soul of the building

How did you create the lighting design?

Enrique: “We like integrated solutions. Based on the knowledge of TV broadcasting, we knew that we needed specific aiming angles. In a nutshell: we reverse engineered where the lights had to be in the debating chamber, if we wanted to create the perfect lighting conditions for broadcasting. We then advised the structural engineer where to put the columns. Our lights were embedded into the columns. That way you don't have to hang the lights on a gantry system in the middle of the space. The next step was to organise with the manufacturer the exact light levels, beam angles, light colour temperature, etcetera.” Jean: “The design of the chamber is one that has a row of structural trees on each side holding the glass roof. And the branches, so to speak, of these trees were tilted at a specific angle that we agreed on with the structural engineer. In this way we could optimise the aiming angles of the light. We were able to do that because of course this glass roof was new construction. Even though it was an old historic building. We had optimal setting out points.” Enrique: “When you walk in, it looks very natural with the daylight coming in. You should experience the space not as if it's actually a TV studio. That's what we really like. And for the common rooms, we placed big glowing star elements. These are diffuse elements. The design is a metaphor for the Canadian Maple leaf.”

It sounds like a lot of elements to take into consideration. How do you keep an overview?

Jean: “It’s experience that comes with time. Think about it like in a tennis court, not one ball is coming. There are twenty, thirty balls coming at the same time. You have to pick the important balls to keep in the play. You have to strategise. And that is simply experience, there is no recipe. Because people, clients, are so different. One pitfall is to follow one path because it worked last time. It doesn't. We did the Scottish Parliament before the Canadian Parliament. But it wasn’t a format for the next project. We've always been mindful about that.”

What part of the creative process do you like most?

Jean: “Hmm.. There's always a magic moment at the beginning where you get this catalyst of an idea. Where you’re starting to fit together all the pieces. The cultural context, the architect and the vision all start to gel into this idea. That's always a great moment. And then from there, your idea just kind of evolves and transforms. By the time you're at the end, it's wonderful to see it implemented.”

Curious about Jean and Enrique's complete story? Lighting designers Jean Sundin & Enrique Peiniger (OVI New York) on the art of lighting design

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