We met with Michel Zayat, a prominent architect and artist, in a cosy art nouveau interior of Cafe Belge in DIFC to talk about architecture and light. Michel lives and works in Dubai, UAE, has an exciting history in his home Damascus, Syria. There together with his wife and a friend of his life, Salma, they run a famous designer store Yabe and Yamo. He taught arts and architecture at Damascus University, worked in Rome, Italy. Geography of Zayat’s projects is as vast as the Middle East: from UAE to Jordan, and to Saudi Arabia, and spread onto Algeria, North Africa. Michel’s father, Elias Zayat, is one of the most famous Syrian artists, and our conversation veers to paintings.
Nikita Che: “Is there a parallel between a light on a canvas, and in the panes of a building?”
Michel Zayat: “A painting emits light. Masterfully schemed onto the canvas, it pours out and captures the observer. He is caught! He is inside the plot. Remember Caravaggio ‘Calling of St. Matthew?’ No visible source of light, yet it penetrates the room and spills beyond the canvas. A candle, a shade on a protagonist’s face, a window, all play their role in shining the light from the painting.
“These elaborate techniques may as well be used in 3D spaces. Habitually we are all about lighting fixtures when we talk about light in architecture. Though arsenal of an architect is as wide as an artist’s. Colour, daylight, geometry and orientation of the room, shadows, you name it! How to get maximum light in a classroom, and decrease heat and glare? Locate it in the North of a building. “It is a pity that many architects and their clients have lost the sense of a daylight. We forgot how to make use of it, and all we do is fighting it.”
NC: “Any good examples?”
MZ: “Index Tower in Dubai is probably one of the few.”
NC: “What makes good artificial light?”
MZ: “Imagine a castle. Its dungeon would be lit with torches fixed on the walls of a passage. Scars dimmed light, barely enough for a poor prisoner to find his surroundings. Now fly up high to the tower where a beautiful princess reads romances, an elaborate chandelier with hundreds of candles lights her pages. Light follows the function of a room, and often creates this very function. Few of us now live in castles, but can easily turn their living room in a disco. A good architect, conscious about lighting matters would always give a client an option to select between layers of light.”
NC: “What is the role of a luminaire in this?”
MZ: “The choice is always dictated by client’s experience, his background, knowledge, vision. Unfortunately often it becomes shopping for clothes, and individual taste comes on the foreground. Like one is choosing a shirt.”
NC: “Can a lighting designer help?”
MZ: “I have never properly worked with a lighting designer. The nature of your projects defines the necessity to employ a designer. A hospital needs lighting designer, a school, a museum does. Hotel lobbies, restaurants are spaces where architects intuition sets the light. Occasionally lighting suppliers come into the picture and offer their scheme. I would not call it a good thing at all. A supplier would bring commercial note into the selection.”
NC: “Have you designed your own luminaires?”
MZ: “I have! Creating a lighting fixture is a sculpture for me. Light then becomes a material, like steel, marble, mother pearl. One object is especially dear for me — Corn. It is from my childhood, when street merchants used to sell corn from an immense wide halleh dara, a shallow pot. Made of thick copper, and sanded and fumed from inside to rid off toxic corrosion, the pot was always heated by fire and kept the water hot. It took one large ball of copper and a patient craftsman with a hammer to make such a flat large object.
“My Corns were not that thick and we painted them pink, white and black from inside. The idea was to bring light in memories. One day you will see them in Dubai.”
NC: “Which materials do you use?”
MZ: “My favorite trinity: wood, metal and plastic. Plastic is a modern boisterous antagonist of the former two. They have been around for centuries, and then came plastic and disrupted.”
NC: “What is the light source you used in your luminaires?”
MZ: “I love that simple bulb in the middle of the a fixture. It becomes a focal point. That bulb and a socket base, a machine that transforms the power of electricity into light. The bulb is a simple and genius invention.”
“A candle lights a room, a bulb lights a room, everything extra is non essential. Nothing could replace an incandescent lamp, and it is such a shame it is banned now. I ask myself: a generation that would grow without the bulb, which symbol would they use when a bright idea strikes them!?” (laughs)