How to Celebrate New Architecture: Shaping Identity with Spectacular Opening Ceremonies

After finishing a building, the client is faced with an important question: How do they celebrate the new architecture? This moment offers an essential opportunity to inform the public about the existence and mission of the building. Therefore, the designs of opening ceremonies are often loaded with symbolic imagery to construct a new identity. Fireworks and light shows are an especially common part of the powerful repertoire used to magnify the aura of architecture. This luminous storytelling can underline the client’s uniqueness and superiority on both a local level and an international stage. I spoke with two leading designers to get their insights on how opening ceremonies have changed in recent years: Christophe Berthonneau, Creative Director at Groupe F, who introduced the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and Fred Thompson, Creative Director at Laservision Mega Media, who worked on the opening of the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore.

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The storytelling component of inaugurations serves as an important ritual to inform the public about the motivation and function of the new building. While reports about the design competition mainly stay within the architecture community, the opening often signifies the first visible step towards the public. With nocturnal fireworks, even small structures can benefit from a large show, and size, distinctive design and the incorporation of the latest technology can all demonstrate the client’s pride in their achievements and vision. With video mapping, creative designers have added a more naturalistic form of storytelling, linking the past, present, and future of the architecture. Therefore, light shows during opening ceremonies have turned into a ritual to construct a new identity—either with a cultural focus for museums or with a national political strategy for public buildings.

Grand opening of Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, 2011. Design: Laservision Mega Media. Image © Laservision Mega Media

The Trilogy of Enchantment, Memories, and Revelation

In some ways, building openings are like a secular version of birth rituals in religion. Owners festively introduce the new addition to the community and try to maximize viewership with photogenic designs for unforgettable memories. But in contrast to babies who bring their own energy to the ceremony, architecture stays static. Fireworks and video mapping have therefore taken over the role of animating the building. For Berthonneau, successfully creating unique experiences requires three elements: “Clients request the right balance between live, broadcast, and photos. It is necessary to mark time, broadcast information and create memory. The precondition for any event of this type is to work on these three axes at the same time: Enchantment of the public, memorable movement, and revelation of the object in its environment. If the image is successful, it is the aesthetic shock that will take over everything else.”

Strategies Beyond Size

With increasingly spectacular opening shows it has become a challenge for designers to find alternatives to the quantitative aspirations to enter the Guinness World Records, which clients are tempted to do for widespread media coverage. For Berthonneau one strategy lies in studying the respective context and to find the right balance between enchantment and relevance. For Thompson, the development of new technologies, custom specifications, and improved design are essential in order to provide, for example, larger color palettes and solutions in smaller sizes.

Lasers, water-screen projections and video mapping projection for IMAGINE at Dubai Festival City, Dubai / UAE, 2017. Design: Laservision Mega Media. Image © Laservision Mega Media

When the Expectations of Clients and Audience Rise

Innovative visualization technology, powerful lighting tools, and communication behavior have played a crucial role in changes to contemporary outdoor light shows in the last 20 years. Spoiled by striking coverage of international events, audiences and clients have demanded more spectacular and sophisticated entertainment. This led unconsciously to a new position for imagery, states Berthonneau: “The 3D environment, the drone shots and the immediacy of social networks allow us to adopt more abstract and poetic strategies because the image takes precedence over the narrative.” Software tools have also sparked the imagination, explains the French designer: “There are now also very powerful, very responsive and affordable multimedia design tools available that are incredibly conducive to artistic creation.” The option to preview a show beforehand is an important benefit of visualization advances, assures Thompson, because clients can see the proposed design in a real 3D environment--long before the technical rehearsal, as was required in earlier times: “(We) are able to provide off-site programming and visualizations to our clients from front of house, audience perspectives, camera rigs or media pit that will be at the venue. We’re also able to account for how it will impact cityscapes, airports, and military facilities and properly address these potential issues in our programming.” This technological step has improved time management and communication, but this affects only the internal organizational view.

Lasers, water-screen projections and video mapping projection for IMAGINE at Dubai Festival City, Dubai / UAE, 2017. Design: Laservision Mega Media. Image © Laservision Mega Media

Innovation as a Symbolic of Identity

For the audience, the symbolic power of using the latest technologies during the event in connection with new communication opportunities are much more important. Considering fancy light equipment in shows conveys the client’s sense of the future and a creates a cutting-edge identity. Thompson summarizes the most relevant changes: “Lighting is brighter, faster, more responsive. Integration of Projection mapping onto iconic buildings and surroundings allow for more creative theming and storytelling. Laser color spectrums and intensity have grown larger and more efficient.” In addition, the social relation between stage and audience embodies the desire for contemporary communication and digital leadership. Changing the perspective and opening new opportunities for interaction are essential, as Thompson explains: “The industry is trying to do away with the classical fourth wall that separates the audience from the show and instead is focusing in making entertainment even more immersive. Laservision is harnessing the power of social media to drive relevant theming in video and lighting, making the audience a part of the production with images, tweets and video live-streaming across projection mapped surfaces.”

“Vives réflexions, museum reflections,” multimedia and pyrotechnic show for the grand opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi 2017. Artistic direction: Christophe Berthonneau, Groupe F. Image © N. Chavance, Groupe F

Opening Spaces with Projection Mapping

Whereas the graphical patterns of pyrotechnics have dominated the imagery of festive evening events for decades, recently a new visual element has rapidly spread: Projection mapping. High-resolution images and sequences enable more naturalistic figures and thereby more nuanced narratives. Early projections on tall buildings go back to the 1990s, such as in the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution with the Jean Michel Jarre’s concert at La Defense in Paris. Berthonneau is very pleased that the technology is much more widely available today: “The tools of projection are now very powerful, they favor the creation of content referring to contexts, the light is alive, fragile and always symbolizes a time of exception. A great mastery of pyrotechnics is needed to combine light densities and produce balanced images.” The major advantage of projection mapping lies in the spatial dimension, explains Thompson: “With projection mapping we’re able to use a lot more of the “dead-space” that was previously found in crowded venues. As more and more events are competing for usable creative space, we’ve found projection mapping to be very useful in opening up the space. While classic lighting, lasers, flames, and fireworks cover a large portion of the main audience view, we are able to spread that creative space onto tall buildings, columns, retail and restaurants—using every bit of space available to wow the audience and give a truly 360-degree experience.”

Multimedia show for the inauguration of the Museum of Islamic Art, Qatar, 2008. Design: Groupe F. Image © T. Nava, Groupe F

Spotting Trends for Mega-Buildings

Rituals are bound, per se, to tradition. Therefore, even the secular act of opening buildings will not abandon a link to conventions and history. But the emergence of new structures also requires novel perspectives with careful action, clarifies Berthonneau: “It will always be a mixture between tradition and surprise. It is necessary to ‘baptize,’ reveal, celebrate and open up... the topics are always important. It is therefore necessary to mix known techniques and to explore the possibilities without ever forgetting that failure is not allowed.” Next to fascinating technologies, the point of reference should certainly be the building itself, underlines Thompson when he envisions future trends: “Projection-mapping and intricate LED surfaces are definitely the big focus for Laservision. In addition to world-class fountain shows and productions in the space around these mega-structures, incorporating the structure itself into the production is not only a big wow factor, but it can add an entirely new dimension to the celebrations. What better way to celebrate the grand opening of such a large-scale project and achievement than with the monument or structure itself as the centerpiece?”

The recent opening ceremony for the Winter Olympic Games in Seoul indicates another trend. Luminous storytelling will no longer limit itself to controlled digital pixels on building surfaces but will take possession of another sphere: the sky, using flying light pixels. LED pixels combined with drone swarm technology amaze the audience with the impression of smart controlled stars.

Empower the Audience in Real-Time

In order to close the gap between the audience and architecture, which meet for the first time in these opening ceremonies, the idea of participation is crucial. This means not only seeing and “liking” posts on official media channels, but also the promotion of the personal perspective, through uploaded photos and videos that allow the audience to proudly inform their followers that they attend the ceremony live. These subjective views can also be integrated into the performance to create the impression of a dialog. This change from passive reaction to empowering the audience increases communication, finds Thompson: “It used to be, not long ago, that lighting design was just to look amazing and capture as many shares, likes, tweets and links from the videos and photos generated at the event from Social Media. Today, we are engaging social media audiences and allowing them to contribute to the experience and take ownership of the production. Comments, Video, Photos can be streamed real-time into the performance. This ownership not only adds to the enjoyment of the show, but also boosts social media metrics as audiences and their friend networks are more likely to share your creation with the world if they are involved with it.”

Light matters, a column on light and space, is written by Dr. Thomas Schielke. Based in Germany, he is fascinated by architectural lighting and works as an editor for the lighting company ERCO. He has published numerous articles and co-authored the books “Light Perspectives” and “SuperLux”. For more information check, or follow him @arcspaces.

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Cite: Thomas Schielke. "How to Celebrate New Architecture: Shaping Identity with Spectacular Opening Ceremonies" 15 Mar 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

“Vives réflexions, museum reflections,” multimedia and pyrotechnic show for the grand opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi 2017. Artistic direction: Christophe Berthonneau, Groupe F. Image © N. Chavance, Groupe F


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