Christopher Wren’s domes at Old Royal Naval College become dynamic centerpiece

July 18, 2023
Light Perceptions, Pharos Architectural Controls, and Experience Lighting collaborated on the development of the customizable lighting scheme at the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The classic architecture at Old Royal Naval College has served many purposes since the campus opened in the London borough of Greenwich, England, in the early 1700s. Designed by architect Sir Christopher Wren, who died 300 years ago this year, the buildings originally operated as the Greenwich Hospital to serve seamen who were disabled in battle, as well as their widows and children. When the hospital closed in 1869, the site became the Royal Naval College and provided advanced training for naval officers until 1998.

Now the former college is the heart of Maritime Greenwich, recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, along with the Queen’s House, National Maritime Museum, Royal Observatory, the Royal Park, and other surrounding buildings. And its most iconic features—the two domes above the chapel—are the stars of a new dynamic lighting scheme.

Known as “Wren’s domes,” these vaults have been immortalized in many works of art, with perhaps the most famous being the Canaletto painting A View of Greenwich from the River (c. 1750-1752). A lighting review conducted several years ago resulted in a plan to enhance the architecture of the former college and offer new opportunities to introduce dynamic experiences for visitors.

As the Wren domes are the prominent architectural features seen from the river, as well as from the north bank of the Thames and the nearby Greenwich Park, the team first focused on lighting the domes. To enhance these structures and breathe new life into them, Light Perceptions, a High Wycombe, England–based specialist lighting consultant for historic buildings (now a part of CBG Consultants), was commissioned to develop a new lighting scheme. The firm partnered with London-based Pharos Architectural Controls to develop the controls. Experience Lighting, in Aylesbury, England, supplied and commissioned the control system design.

In a press release by Pharos, Light Perceptions director Bruce Kirk said, “The Old Royal Naval College has great historic significance and sits within the boundaries of a UNESCO-recognised site. It needed a careful approach to enhance the buildings without detracting from the beauty of the architecture.”

The control element of the lighting scheme is delivered through Pharos Designer Touch Panel Controller and Extension (TPC & EXT). The project uses Pharos Cloud for the secure remote control and management of the lighting. The customizable 4.3-inch TPC touchscreen offers a fully integrated user interface and 512 channels of eDMX output; it utilizes a single Power over Ethernet (PoE) network connection. The Pharos Designer TPC and EXT solutions formed a standalone, mains-powered lighting controller with versatile output and show control options.

In the same release, Ray Faithful, head of facilities and operations, at the Old Royal Naval College, said: “The capability we now have to illuminate the Wren domes and use this great effect is a wonderful addition to our historic site. The system is easy to use yet incredibly effective; we are all delighted with the results.”

The lighting scheme for the domes was completed in late 2021, in time for the 2022 New Year celebration in London. See the dynamic fireworks show featuring the domes’ color-changing illumination capabilities below.

Project Credits

Lighting consultant: Light Perceptions
Lighting control solution: Pharos Architectural Controls
Light fixtures: Studio Due
Control system design: Experience Lighting (Maria Jenkins)
Photography: Munson and Munson

About the Author

Architectural SSL staff

In January 2024, Architectural SSL evolved to LightSPEC. While the name changed, the editorial focus -- writing and developing audience-first content about architectural lighting in the built environment for architects, interior designers, lighting designers and manufacturers, and specifiers of commercial and residential lighting and controls -- remains the same.

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