Illuminating Berlin: Birgit Zander, founder of the Festival of Lights
Every autumn since 2005, Berlin becomes a stage for a spectacle unlike any other. As the sun sets, storied squares, streets and monuments burst into life, cutting through the darkness in a mesmerising display of vivid light installations. The brainchild of founder, producer and artistic director Birgit Zander, the Festival of Lights has drawn visitors from around the world since its inception. In the wake of a very special edition for 2020, we spoke to Birgit about the Festival’s past, present and future.
When and how did the idea for the Festival of Lights first come to you?
“It was over 15 years ago that my desire to support and promote my hometown began to grow and take shape. At the time, I held several honorary offices, some in close cooperation with tourism agency visitBerlin. In 2005, together with Citystiftung Berlin, we decided to make our capital shine using light. Light is a magical medium, which I had used in the events business for many years. I decided to combine my profession and passion to turn the city into a stage and its famous squares, buildings and monuments into stars. The Festival of Lights developed over the years to become a great spectacle of light, art, music and events, which now brings millions of people onto the streets and inspires them.”
How hard was it to bring your plans to life?
“Obviously, financing was the biggest hurdle. Traditionally, events have a budget and from this budget you develop a production. With us it was the other way around. It is and remains a project of the heart for Berlin! Each year we look for people who share our vision and motivate companies and institutions to support the festival. To realize a festival of this size with this artistic quality every year means an enormous effort. We are very happy that many partners and sponsors participate annually.”
What did you intend to achieve through the festival and what do you see in its future?
“We wanted to enchant our capital and add a special dimension to it. Each year, we do that, through artistic productions on buildings and squares, elaborate façade projections and spectacular video mappings that tell stories and present topics close to our hearts. Varied tours and events round off the program.
My big dream is to stage many more cities internationally, to carry the light further around the world, to create positive and emotional moments worldwide that inspire people to dream.”
How does the planning process actually work?
“I usually choose the places and buildings that I personally like best and that inspire me. First and foremost, of course, is Bebelplatz. The entire ensemble at Bebelplatz offers a grandiose backdrop for our panorama productions and, of course, the beautiful and venerable Hotel de Rome right in the middle. In this respect, it is both a pleasure and an honour for me to use these beautiful buildings for our light art.”
The Festival of Light has taken place annually for over 15 years now. Is there a particular year that stood out for you?
“Every single production is still fresh in my mind, but there are several which give me goosebumps to this day. The first was the first 3D video mapping on the Brandenburg Gate, which we called ‘Living in the Brandenburg Gate’. Created together with Berlin’s housing cooperatives, we turned one of the world’s most famous landmarks into a residential building using light. It was both elaborate and overwhelmingly successful.
Then there was ‘The cathedral is wearing new clothes’, in which designer Wolfgang Joop dressed the Berlin Cathedral in his more playful creations, which included leopard and floral prints. The result was a unique digital fashion show that fascinated even the designer and his team.”
This year’s festival took place under unprecedented circumstances. What challenges and opportunities did this present?
“We slightly changed the concept of this year's Festival of Lights, hence the ‘Special Edition’. We worked for months to find solutions to avoid crowds and maximise distance between visitors; naturally, the size of Berlin benefited us. In addition to the traditional illuminations in the city centre, we involved outer districts in this Festival, inviting guests to rediscover these neighbourhoods on foot. This year, we also focused on atmospheric light pictures and avoided long shows, meaning we could introduce an app for all Festival of Light fans who couldn’t travel, but still wanted to enjoy the spectacle.
We are proud and happy that the 16th Festival of Lights took place. It was a real priority for us to prove that cultural experiences are possible even in such times. This year's motto, "Together we shine", set a shining example: to celebrate cohesion, unity, confidence and mindfulness, as well as the diversity and joy of life in Berlin.”
What were the highlights for you personally?
The involvement of the Schloss Charlottenburg palace and the Stüler buildings opposite it was really unique. I very much enjoyed the 13 shining train stations which took the Festival of Lights on tour, from Potsdamer Platz to the Siegessäule and the Oberbaumbrücke. This program saw many buildings in the neighbourhoods shine as temporary works of art on individual evenings. My personal highlight, however, remains the Bebelplatz with the Hotel de Rome!”
See Berlin’s landmarks illuminated at night throughout the year or experience the full Festival of Lights in autumn 2021 with a stay at Hotel de Rome. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to book your room or suite at the heart of the capital.