France no longer has kings, but presidents. The country now has an elected President, and is not ruled by courtly absolutism, but by modern democracy. The pompous presence of the Sun King and his grand court culture have given way to a more liberal way of thinking and acting. Today the Palace of Versailles is a museum, a tourist attraction, an event venue and much more – as remarkable and impressive as ever. There are still many thousands of lights burning throughout the entire palace complex and, as is befitting for a palace and its typical goings- on, not on a small scale.
Not at all. In the meantime, and in comparison to former eras, that is no longer necessary or adequate. Where candles and oil lamps spread over an area of more than eight square kilometres initially had to be lit by hand, only to burn down in next to no time, today we can take advantage of state-of-the-art lighting technology to set the scene. Some years ago, work was begun on an expensive project that involved the comprehensive renovation of the Palace and gardens. This included updating and redesigning the lighting for the entire complex as well as the event lighting. Under the auspices of the Palace’s cultural association, Château de Versailles Spectacles (CVS), who continue to strive to maintain the staging of the traditional musical show that takes place around the fountains and pools in the gardens every year, Laurent Fachard and his team from Les Éclairagistes Associés were commissioned to design the lighting. The task was to develop a good technical and appropriate design solution, "appropriate" in this context meaning aesthetic and elegant. Even before the master plan was drawn up, the goal was clear: the new lighting scheme was to remind visitors of the glorious time in the 17th century under Louis XIV.
By engaging Laurent Fachard as a lighting aesthete, the Versailles team had gained a designer who made his breakthrough as an architectural lighting designer with landscape lighting. With his background in stage lighting and technology, one of his most well-known projects back in the nineties was Parc de Gerland in Lyon. It is not as if there are any comparisons or parallels between the park in Lyon and the gardens at Versailles. On the contrary. It would not have been "appropriate" to draw parallels when designing the Versailles site. With the Versailles project, Laurent Fachard has proven that lighting design is not something that can be followed like a knitting pattern, but a process linked with the individual quality of the site and its history, and a design task as part of the future. In short: the Gardens of Versailles is a masterpiece, one more for Laurent Fachard to add to his list of references. A wonderful interpretation of lighting aesthetics that would have made the Sun King himself turn green with envy, had he had the chance to see the result.
The first new lighting interventions were already being undertaken in the year 2014 in the central section of the park known as La Grande Perspective, and on the westside of the complex facing the main park. The building facade was to receive a high-quality lighting design to enable it to stand out in the dark; the new lighting scheme was to underscore the existing typical landscape elements and the special quality and nature of this French showcase garden. In the first stage of the project 900 luminaires of two different types, both with a colour temperature of 2700 K, were applied for the illumination of the Palace. The next task was to design the lighting and sound for the seasonal festivities in and around the water features. From June to September, hordes of visitors flock to the Gardens of Versailles every Saturday to watch the impressive show comprising a series of acts, which closes with a firework display. Besides working on that job, the lighting designers proceeded to design and realise lighting solutions for other parts of the extensive gardens. In 2015, for example, the permanent scheme for the west side of the Palace was installed; in the same year, and in the two pots and large vases, or focussed on the building have a colour temperature of 2700 K. The warm white light gives rise to a pleasant play of shadow on all the surfaces and structures. The lighting is purposefully designed to flicker gently. This approach has been adopted throughout the expansive park for all its landscaped sections and architectural diversity. It is designed to simulate the candles and old lanterns used in the times when Louis XIV invited guests to his festivities and the royal household celebrated exuberantly. This design is a clear demonstration of how the initial idea of the master plan mentioned above has been realised.
The lighting implemented remains nonetheless faithful to the main contract in that it is designed to align with the atmosphere of the light and water show events entitled Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes that take place over the summer. Moreover, it was important when applying state-of-the-art lighting technology over an area of up to now 100,000 square metres that the historic, mythological spirit of the location be maintained and underscored. This meant revealing the clear forms of the statues and flowerpots, the quality of these elements, the design features of the gardens, the plants or the monumental architecture.
The greatest challenge for the lighting designers was the architecture of the exquisite French gardens. This style of landscape had a huge influence in Europe, although it does differ from English and Italian landscaped gardens. The French formal garden is based on symmetry and the principle of imposing order on nature, even when it comes to decorative details. The palace, parterre, groves and wooded areas – every part of the site is special in its own way. French formal gardens such as the Gardens of Versailles are often extremely large-scale and feature intricate landscape design and a network of paths branching off in all directions. The many details are, of course, a challenge, and the fundamentally symmetrical layout can also be dispersed with asymmetrical elements. In this case, the team have nevertheless succeeded in designing project while respecting light-related environmental issues: thanks to their high-precision photometry and advanced lighting control, the state-of-the-art light sources applied make for a sustainable solution. They feature a significantly reduced power rating, which means that energy consumption can also be reduced. The sections where the lighting has alsready been realised lend the gardens an intimate and befitting atmosphere – aligned to the historic significance and the present use of the site.
However critical one may be with regard to absolutism as a politically defined social structure, there are certain aspects to the architectural legacies that we are grateful for and can enjoy in our own way in this day and age. With the lighting designed by Laurent Fachard, and thanks to advanced technology, the Gardens of Versailles have gained in aesthetic quality in a way that was not possible before. The interplay of colour when the day comes to a close – the blue hour, the golden architectural elements and the lighting for the water show is a sheer delight that one cannot help but like. The contrasts achieved are perfect, the way the light defines the spatial qualities of the park is spectacular, the care and attention incorporated into the lighting design exemplary and stunning. As an onlooker, one can only be impressed.
In short: a brilliant piece of work that places this site at the centre of park lighting globally.
Client: Château de Versailles Spectacles (CVS)
Lighting design: Laurent Fachard – Les Éclairagistes Associés Lighting and electrical engineering:
Laurent Fachard & Joseph Frey – Les Éclairagistes Associés Electrical installation: Citéos
Lighting manufacturers: Eldoled, Mike Stoane Lighting, Crystal Fountains, Bega, Xicato, Cree, Citizen