2017 / 5月
文‧劉嫈楓 圖‧莊坤儒 翻譯‧Robert Green
Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by Robert Green
From the distant Statue of Liberty in the United States and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, all the way to sites in Taiwan such as the old city wall in Hengchun, Tainan’s century-old Fengshen Temple, Beigang’s Chaotian Temple, or the Chimei Museum, the magical creations of world-renowned lighting designer Chou Lien are found the world over.
On arriving at Chou Lien’s home, visitors might think it is decorated in a rather ordinary fashion. But within the commonplace lurk the extraordinary principles of his work. When he turns up the lights, small spotlights above the kitchen island begin to shine softly, then circular hanging lamps above the kitchen table start to glow. When the hour is late, Chou dims the lights and savors the night’s solitude enveloped in the gentle glow. When he flicks on the lights beneath the table, the interplay of light and dark lends the surface an even more three-dimensional appearance.
The plaudits of admiring visitors bring a hint of pride to Chou Lien’s confident, elegant smile, and he continues his playful tour of the house’s lighting with all the more vigor.
The importance of perception
When he describes light, 74-year-old Chou Lien doesn’t need a torrent of words or technical terminology; he simply emphasizes the term “perception.” For him, the presence of light is not about wattage, lumens, and color temperature, or any of the professional argot of the field.
This unique outlook is perhaps tied to Chou Lien’s lifelong inclination toward art and design. Compared to his older brother and sister, who attended the prestigious National Taiwan University, Chou Lien was a lackluster student from his earliest days at school. In junior and senior high school, his textbooks were covered with doodles and drawings. When his mother fretted over her younger son’s schoolwork, his father consoled her in their native Ningbo dialect. “Don’t worry,” he said. “He just hasn’t found his life’s path yet.”
Chou Lien grew up in the liberating environment of an unconventional family and was unconstrained by traditional norms of others. A half-century ago, he enrolled in the National Taiwan Academy of Arts (now National Taiwan University of Arts) where he studied sculpture. In the 1970s he traveled to the US, where he earned an advanced degree in sculpture. He also minored in film studies and later took advanced courses in environmental design at the Pratt Institute, New York. His interests led him down this interdisciplinary path, and while he might not have expected these eclectic courses to lead anywhere, they became a rich source of inspiration after he became a lighting designer.
In 1978, Chou again went to the US to study. During the summer break, he accepted a classmate’s invitation to work part time as a designer at Brandston Partnership Inc., a leading architectural lighting design firm. After a single day as a part-timer, Chou impressed BPI executives, and soon he was making a better salary than regular employees. Before long he was invited to join the firm full time, and he became the sole designer of presentation schematics for all of BPI’s project managers. Chou’s exceptional performance allowed him to leapfrog from BPI’s most junior employee to design director in four short years. He was later made a partner in the firm and eventually became its president.
Lighting with people in mind
For the past 30-plus years, Chou Lien’s role at BPI has largely played out on an international stage. But in recent years he has accepted commissions to rework the lighting at Tainan’s Fengshen Temple and the old city wall in Hengchun, Pingtung County, which allowed him to spend more time in Taiwan and become better known locally.
Many people believe Chou’s lighting style is characterized chiefly by the reduction of light. But Chou is quick to disagree. In his view, lighting design is not bound by inviolable, immutable principles. The low light of his designs for Fengshen Temple and the Hengchun city wall might be entirely discarded in future projects.
If we look at the lighting design Chou created this year for Chaotian Temple in Beigang, Yunlin County, we find that it is indeed the case. “Isn’t it bright?” he says. “It’s bright enough, surely!”
Chou and his design team installed 300 4000K LED lamps around the temple. The exquisite carvings of the temple’s roof used to be obscured when night fell, but following the redesign the roof’s craftsmanship is clearly visible from the street or from higher elevations even at night. The 300-year-old temple has come more fully to life.
Light is manipulated in Chou Lien’s hands with easy skill. But with each commission, he still starts with the premise of “setting out with people in mind and responding to the environment.” Chou explains that many people think lighting design is the same as lighting. But for people to sense the qualities of light, it must possess humanistic qualities. One night during his childhood, he lit a candle during a typhoon, and as he moved it about his mother’s shadow grew larger or smaller. To this day that chance encounter with light is seared into his memory and his mother’s appearance in those moments lives in his heart. “Light was no longer just light,” he says; “It also contained memories of the past.” This is what he means by “the perception of light.”
He also used this concept as the starting point for his approach to lighting both the exterior and interior of the Chimei Museum in Tainan. For this project, Chou concentrated on highlighting the best of the architectural structure. But just what is meant by “the best”? “It was not enough to just highlight the beauty of the building,” he says. “I wanted to incorporate cultural and social aspects into the design.”
He therefore attempted to use communal pride as a guiding principle in the lighting design, so that local people would swell with pride when they caught sight of the Chimei Museum as they approached along Provincial Highway 86 at night.
When Chou Lien took on the Hengchun city wall project, he encountered a whole series of questions that he had to sort out before he could start the design: Did the old wall still function as a wall? If the wall was intended to defend the town but the gates were meant to both repel and welcome, what significance did they have in the daily lives of people today? Moreover, the architecture had its own unique characteristics.
Chou therefore opted for a reserved, minimalist approach to the lighting. At the West Gate, he first installed lights in the passage beneath the gate to contrast with the public square outside, creating a visual sense of interior brightness against the darker exterior, to give people a sense of returning home as they pass through. Later at night, Chou’s design allows the gate to rest in darkness, with a few lights illuminating only the Chinese characters reading “West Gate.”
Chou Lien has been invited to create lighting designs in cities and counties stretching from southern to northern Taiwan—Pingtung, Tainan and Yunlin to Taipei, where he designed illuminations for the North Gate and for the streets to the west of Taipei Railway Station. He has even been asked to use his skills for the 2018 Taichung World Flora Exposition. He is said to have influenced all of Taiwan’s younger lighting designers in one way or another. After stepping down as BPI president, Chou, far from retiring, has been returning to Taiwan even more often to teach and lecture—unselfishly sharing a lifetime of lighting design experience with students in Taiwan.
Sometimes when he says “light,” however, it seems as if he is speaking of the “path.” In his youth, the now-grizzled Chou Lian liked reading above all Laozi’s Tao Te Ching, Sunzi’s strategic masterpiece The Art of War, and The Book of Five Rings by the Japanese author Miyamoto Musashi, which describes the way of the sword. In youth he took to heart these works and their implications for the actions and concepts of life. As he grew older, they became an integral part of his own life and allow him to intuit the fundamental properties of light.