A quick perusal of the internet and you’ll find a few definitions of architectural lighting out in the ether (most of them cribbed straight from Wikipedia). As defined by the world’s largest online encyclopedia, Architectural Lighting Design is “a field within architecture, interior design and electrical engineering that is concerned with the design of lighting systems, including natural light, electric light, or both, to serve human needs.”

But what, then, are architectural lighting fixtures?

It might be helpful to start with what they are not.

Architectural Lighting, as opposed to functional commercial or residential lighting is concerned with (spoiler alert) architecture, or furthering the design experience of buildings and other physical structures.

Both residential and commercial lighting can also qualify as architectural lighting, though this isn’t always the case. Some lighting is primarily functional and/or exists in a space that no one would call “architectural.”

Lola Romera y Francisco Mansilla. Grupotec.

In order for it to be architectural lighting, there must first be architecture. The fluorescent strip lights illuminating an underground sewer system or an industrial warehouse? Not architectural lighting. The Linear LED suspended pendant fixture hanging in your office? And here’s where it gets tricky: Maybe architectural lighting.

Architectural lighting is the intersection of art and technology—principles of design come into play, as do physics, engineering, and the psychological and physiological effects of light.

We reached out to a real, live architect, Molly Munson of Adam Wheeler design for her definition of architectural lighting. First, she defined the goal of “architecture”: “Architects are trying to transform the experience of a space—good architecture is trying to create a spatial experience.”

Spatial Experience 

Architectural lighting works in conjunction with the architecture to create that spatial experience. Lighting can influence mood, texture, spatial awareness, “exaggerate certain architectural features, provide intimacy, etc.”

“We often look for fixtures that can do the job of illuminating the space without becoming the headliner, [so that it doesn’t] overwhelm what else is going on in the room,” said Munson. “The lighting has to perform in collaboration with the architecture. They can never be at odds aesthetically—they have to complement each other.”

In the end, architectural lighting always works with the architecture, not against it, to create a cohesive spatial experience.

So, to go back to the original question, what is architectural lighting?

Architectural lighting is lighting that enhances, complements, flatters or confirms the experience of a space and/or a structure.

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