After construction was paused during the Arab Spring, a luxury North African hotel made the switch to LED, while the country’s political climate continued to simmer
By Katie Nale
In late 2010 images of smoke, sand and passionate protestors began appearing on international TV screens. Slowly at first, and then suddenly, the Arab Spring began, filling the whole of Northern Africa with the fire of political unrest. The spark that lit the flame eventually causing civil wars to start and governments to be overthrown began in Tunisia, where Andy Lang’s work on the Four Seasons hotel in the capital city Tunis came to a screeching halt. For two years, construction shut down, and the president of Lang Lighting Design of Dallas moved on until one day when he got a call saying the project had resumed. By that time, a significant change had occurred in the lighting industry—LED had gone mainstream and the original design had become dated.
Still unproven as a reliable source when Lang’s work on the Four Seasons began in 2007, LED was pushed aside in favor of halogen, a more widely accepted standard for the high-end resort. However, when work began again in 2013, the lighting world had moved on and design changes were in order. “We almost ended up redesigning the whole project. And this project is very large,” recalls Lang. Starting back on the project was no easy task. The country was still on edge and the cost of quality LEDs—now the product of choice—was still higher than the client wanted. Compromise was needed, but hard to reach from a distance of 5,700 miles. Language barriers and a complex building layout also provided obstacles in implementing a new lighting strategy. Finally, in December 2017, thanks to the perseverance and willingness to negotiate of everyone involved, the resort opened, and Lang’s work went on to win a 2018 IES Illumination Award of Merit.
When the project kicked back into gear, the client was inclined to approve LED across the entire project. “We had to inform them that there wasa cost increase,” says Lang. “We wanted the best LED—something that would match the warmness, the color rendition, the light output, everything that would make the project look the way it would have looked when it was halogen.” After both parties agreed on the switch, Lang received submittal pages indicating substitutions for almost the entire project. “We went back and forth, and one morning I woke up thinking about how to approach this differently,” recalls Lang. “I went to them and said, ‘Let’s categorize this project from most important to least important.’ ” The most important ended up being the common spaces, the connected main areas of the hotel anchored by the main lobby. By explaining the importance of spending money in these locations, Lang was able to strike a deal allowing the client to spend the money for higherend LEDs in the more populated areas, while less expensive lighting was allotted to the guest rooms. “The client was happy we took that approach. That was a really big win for us,” recalls Lang.
Another factor in the pursuit of higher-end LEDs was the firm’s reputation. Lang did not want his team’s image to suffer if the fixtures performed poorly. Lang attributes much of the project’s success to the seven days and nights he and his team spent on the ground in Tunis focusing targeted light fixtures and setting a timeclock-operated lighting control system for the hotel’s front-of-house spaces. The Lutron control system allowed for spaces like the hotel’s restaurants to use dimmable groups of fixtures to take on different characteristics throughout the day.
While Lang and his team flew to Tunis for the final installation and a few key design meetings, the majority of the work was done back in Dallas. The distance between the cities was evident during various conference calls that could be equated with the biblical Tower of Babel. “That was stressful because we would normally have intense design meetings where we go over every detail. We’d get on the phone call with the local interior designer and the electrical engineers and they’d all be speaking in their native tongue. Our main client would act as a translator and we’d go back and forth through him. Doing that over the phone was a challenge,” recalls Lang. “The documents weren’t all in English, either. It was interesting, but we pulled it off.”
The language barrier, political upheaval and the LED push weren’t the only challenges in lighting the hotel. The six floor, 384,000-sq ft building has a complex layout that made design and installation harder than Lang’s previous seaside resort projects. Sandwiched into the side of a hill, the hotel spans multiple elevations. “You enter somewhere in the center and you branch off to the left and the right, going down a series of terraces and floors. Even after a week I would get lost,” recalls Lang. The enormity of the building created the need for an intricate file management system. “The spa was spread out over three levels. It was a complex project.”
Further, the project required layered lighting to accent locally sourced artifacts and geometric Tunisian patterns. To light the artifact displays, LED fixtures flush in the ground illuminate columns flanked by the displays, creating a museum-like feeling. Each artifact is lit by a 10-deg LED MR16 accent fixture set for a higher intensity at night, while pendants provide 2700K warm LED ambient lighting throughout the space.
In the lobby lounge, custom pendants blend hidden linear 2700K LEDs with carefully aimed accent fixtures. Hallways reveal punched metal pendants that create ceiling patterns emphasized by accent lighting, while other locally-made decorative fixtures emit light in rhythmic patterns in areas with heavy foot-traffic. Years were spent working with local artisans, fine-tuning the quality of light, the lumens and the controllability of the fixtures, while also making sure they kept their original Tunisian character.
The lighting design and the architectural patterns throughout the hotel were heavily influenced by the historic city of Carthage, located just under 10 miles from the resort. Despite using the site as inspiration, Lang and his team decided not to venture out to visit it as a precautionary measure after three terrorist attacks occurred in 2015. “The political turmoil was major here and there is really no precedent for it anywhere else in my career or anything similar,” recalls Lang. “In the end, driving away, I said, ‘Can you believe what we accomplished here under these circumstances? With the language barriers and the distance and the sophistication level of Tunisia?’ It was a heck of an accomplishment.”