As the crescent moon hung in the night sky heralding the start of Ramadan, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque glowed a dark blue. And what seemed like wispy clouds gently passed across the mosque's domes, minarets and arcade.
More than a decade on from the opening of Abu Dhabi’s grandest mosque, the enigmatic lighting scheme remains one of the most striking elements of its design. During the holy month it takes on an even greater significance.
The lighting is the brainchild of specialists Speirs and Major, and from the beginning it was clear that a simple floodlighting scheme wouldn’t work – it needed a narrative.
Construction of the mosque began in 1996. It took 11 years to build and involved engineers, artisans, workers, architects, design firms and construction companies from across the world. It was the passion project of the late President Sheikh Zayed, who died in 2004.
About this time, work on the exterior and interior ramped up and Speirs was asked to light the building. Keith Bradshaw of Speirs and Major was project director.
'Something quite amazing about this project'
More than a decade on, he recalls the initial visit to the site, months of fraught testing, and a project that pushed the boundaries of what lighting could achieve.
“When we went there, it was still a concrete shell. It was huge and the spaces were vast,” he says of his first visit in 2004. “We thought there was something quite amazing about this project. And it felt we had to do something amazing in response to it.”
Ideas about how to light such a structure swirled in the weeks that followed. The mosque has 82 domes, four minarets and more than 1,000 columns. One concept was to have each major dome as a separate moon, but this was cast aside because it felt too cosmic. Another was to trace arcs and orbits of stars across the building, but this was too complicated and thus rejected.
Present all along was the idea of lunar light because of its significance in Islam. The team then agreed the whole building should have a unified lunar feel. Under a full moon the building would be bathed in bright white light. Then the mosque turns blue as the moon wanes, before switching back to white as it waxes with 14 shades of blue and white in between, while the changes are subtle, never perceptible to someone watching.
Blue was used to represent darkness because it is traditionally used in theatre and film for this purpose.
"It's a lit version of the dark. We also made sure the local imams were cool with that and it was appropriate for a mosque," Bradshaw says.
The challenges faced
Then came the hard part – translating an idea into a lighting reality. "How would it manifest without it looking too Disneyfied, too silly, too theme park?" Bradshaw says.
Computer simulations started the process, but onsite tests in 2005 and 2007 were also conducted. A 25-metre scaffold was built to hold the fixtures, which were tested on the concrete shell. The team swiftly realised that they could use temporary theatrical lighting to achieve the effect, but these did not exist in the architectural world.
Theatrical lighting is normally used for opera, film and rock 'n' roll stadium shows and never for longer than a month. Delivering this type of effect permanently and in the unforgiving climate of the UAE was a tough challenge and not easily overcome – the lights needed to handle extreme temperatures, rain and those occasions when it would be blasted by sand. With temperatures reaching more than 40°C in August, every lighting fixture had to be able to withstand temperatures of 60°C.
“The minarets are tall, so a lot of lights point upwards and need to be kept clean,” Bradshaw notes.
Speirs worked with lighting manufacturer Martin to convert theatrical lights into permanent fixtures. Then came the tests. One was placed on top of a building in Las Vegas, while another was submerged in water in Denmark to make sure they could withstand the extremes that Abu Dhabi demanded of them.
"They were very particular in what they needed the kit to do in terms of dealing with the heat," Bradshaw says. Martin specialises in this type of theatrical light, which is referred to as "architainment" lighting. Their experience lighting the Fairmont in Dubai in 1998, for example, also stood them in good stead for this project.
Bilal Assidi is sales manager at Martin Professional Middle East and has been involved with the project since the start.
“[Jonathan] Speirs gave us the concept he wanted to achieve. At the time, these types of products were not available in the market. We worked on the technology to achieve this,” Assidi says.
“The most important was the marine test because if you survive the salt, humidity and heat then it means you can survive any weather conditions in the world.”
Putting it all together
There are 19,225 lighting fixtures on the mosque. Around the exterior are 600 individual lights. Some of these are huge – as large as a refrigerator – and are self-contained in air-conditioned units.
Surrounding the mosque are 22 lighting towers, or totems, which are each 22 metres in height, have 15 fixtures and are dressed in marble to blend in with the mosque. Each tower is designed to let the light out in a specific direction, and all fixtures are individually focused. Disarming any concerns about the visual impact of these towers, the team was able to show they were also used in Makkah. Each tower also had to have a vent at the top because of the huge amount of heat generated.
One of the most complex elements of the lighting system is the projection of clouds on to the building’s surface. They appear to drift and fall back on each other as they pass from the west to east. It was crucial to achieve this without it looking too literal.
Speirs did it by projecting light through a type of mask that breaks up the beam to create a dappled effect. Then you rotate the light in one direction, add another lens in front of this and rotate this in the opposite direction.
“Clouds follow the wind but break and change, and that’s the key,” Bradshaw says. “It took us a long time to get that right. [It took] a huge amount of testing and adjustment because you are not just doing it with one fixture – you are doing it with 500 fixtures.”
Before the lighting system was ready, Speirs created four programming stations in each corner of the building and ran the show from all directions. Some staff members even got in a car to check what it looked like from several kilometres away.
Because it was similar to a stadium show, rock ’n’ roll roadies were even brought in from abroad in to make sure everything looked just as it should.
Speirs and Major were also behind lighting systems on the Burj Al Arab and Burj Khalifa.
'I’ve never seen anything quite like it … since'
Jonathan Speirs passed away in 2012 and Mark Major, who formed the company with him recalled at the time of his death how he viewed the project.
“Jonathan did an awful lot of other projects, here in the UK and elsewhere around the world, but I think it is fair to say that the Burj Al Arab and the Grand Mosque were the ones he was most proud of.”
Even today, considering the huge advancements made in lighting and areas such as video projection, the mosque project stands apart. For Assidi at Martin, involvement was an honour. “This is the Grand Mosque project, which any company in the world would want to be part of.”
The lighting became fully operational by 2010 and is run by a computer system with a lunar clock and is all set for the next 300 years. Most of the lights have now been converted to energy-efficient LEDs.
“This has a level of sophistication… which no-one would be surprised to see on a stage or rock ’n’ roll show. But you don’t expect to see it on a permanent huge civic building, so it was almost the most extraordinary thing you could do. But at the same time respectful,” Bradshaw says.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like it … since. This kind of narrative-led lighting, which tells a story and is very beautiful, you don’t see elsewhere apart from colour-changing schemes on the Empire State Building, which goes pink for Valentine’s Day. But that’s nothing compared with this. Because it doesn’t tell a story. For us, it is by far one of the best.”