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Jonathan Speirs

Architect who lit some of the world's most striking modern buildings

When, in 2005, he was asked to propose a long-term lighting strategy for the city of Durham, the architect Jonathan Speirs, who has died of stomach cancer aged 54, insisted that what the council really needed was a light and darkness strategy.

One of the world's finest lighting designers, Speirs worked creatively and prodigiously to show how artificial light can be a truly subtle counterpart, even in the biggest architectural projects, to the texture, variety, feel and ever-changing beauty of daylight. "Architecture," said Le Corbusier, "is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light." In half-light and shadows too, Speirs believed. He loved dark skies, bright stars and natural beauty.

Speirs liked to quote Tadao Ando, the Japanese disciple of Le Corbusier, saying "light displays its brilliance only against a backdrop of darkness". This might sound simple, and only natural, yet when Speirs co-founded the Lighting Design Partnership in Edinburgh in 1984 with the Dutch architect Andre Tammes, all too many homes, places of work and public buildings were lit as if with a battery of anti-aircraft lights. Even today, it would be a kindness if sunglasses were issued to those using airports, supermarkets and the majority of offices. Encouraging his clients to understand that light was as much about emotion and delight as well as lux levels proved to be a lifelong mission for the Scotsman.

Charming, self-deprecating and highly intelligent, Speirs could also be very funny about his love of subtle lighting. "Many a man," he liked to quote from Maurice Chevalier, "has fallen in love with a girl in a light so dim he would not have chosen a suit by it." He did not make that mistake himself.

With Tammes, Speirs worked on 450 projects in 19 countries. After founding Speirs + Major in 1993 with a fellow architect, Mark Major, he lit some of the world's most striking modern buildings, from Norman Foster's sleek 30 St Mary Axe (aka the Gherkin) in the City of London and Richard Rogers's colourful Terminal 5 at Barajas airport, Madrid, to the new Copenhagen opera house by Henning Larsen and SOM's sky-piercing Burj Khalifa, Dubai.

The Burj Khalifa is the world's tallest building. On feast days and festivals, it can be lit up like some giant architectural firework. With a student background in fashioning pyrotechnic light shows for rock bands in the 1970s, Speirs – a master of aesthetic subtlety – knew just when to allow lighting full theatrical blast.

He was born in Ardrishaig, a village on the shores of Loch Fyne, Argyll. His father, Robert, was a hotelier who brought his son up north and south of the border, including at Morecambe, Lancashire, where he managed the celebrated Midland hotel, a jazz-moderne delight designed by the brilliantly eclectic Oliver Hill with sculpture by Eric Gill and glorious sunsets over the Irish sea. Years later, Speirs returned to the resort to light the Eric Morecambe memorial, one of his smallest projects.

Educated at Bearsden academy, Glasgow, the Scott Sutherland School of Architecture, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh College of Art, Speirs set up in practice with Tammes in Edinburgh soon after qualifying as an architect.

Speirs + Major became, and remains, one of the world's most successful architectural lighting firms, staffed with talent drawn from the worlds of theatre, cinema, illustration, lighting technology and graphic design as well as from architecture and interior design. Speirs received the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland's lifetime achievement award in 2010.

Working with many of the world's most ambitious architects was always rewarding, yet perhaps Speirs's greatest professional challenge was to light the recently completed Sheikh Zayed mosque complex in Abu Dhabi. With its 82 domes, four 350ft (107m) minarets and the world's largest carpet, the concrete and marble mosque is certainly impressive in scale, yet it is the lighting that has done so much to breathe life into it. "Our idea," said Speirs, "was to have a building that, by full moon, is lit pristinely with white light, but with a textural quality evocative of clouds slowly drifting in front of a full white moon. As the moon wanes, the lighting grows gradually bluer to signify darkness. On the 14th night, the mosque is lit in the darkest blue." The faithful – Hollywood directors, too – have looked on with awe.

Speirs is survived by his wife, Elizabeth, whom he married in 1988, and their daughters, Lucie and Erin. Their son, Calum, died in 1993. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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