Hirohito Totsune proudly stands in front of West Kowloon's ICC Tower, the afternoon sun bouncing off the glass, giving his sharp suit a shiny gloss. He has good reason to be happy, for behind him looms the canvas for his latest project - a canvas that covers a whopping 50,000 square metres. You can't see it now but on Thursday the work of one of Japan's top lighting architects will unfold on two sides of the ICC building, breaking the Guinness World Record for the biggest light and music show on the side of a building.
"It's a delicate and sophisticated show and one that has to be in synch with the images and the music so the story flows … What I want the audience to take away from the show is the messages of happiness and fortune. I'm very proud of this project," Totsune, 38, says through an interpreter.
The story that will light up the city's tallest building twice a night will follow themes according to the four seasons. Thursday's show will start with spring, and will feature white images of birds and trees, and a message to love Hong Kong. But with the current debate raging about light pollution, many may find that message a hard one to swallow. A University of Hong Kong study released last month found the city to be more than 1,000 times brighter than international norms, making it the most light polluted city in the world.
"The issue of light pollution is a difficult one, but what's important is that my projects strike a happy balance: something that will make people happy, but not interfere too much with the natural environment. Every designer involved in this field follows - or should follow - the same mantra: how can we utilise minimum lighting for maximum pleasure? That's a big challenge," says Totsune.
In Japan, this philosophy is one that Totsune's projects follow. His works exude a soft, subtle look - an aesthetic the Japanese are famous for. His designs do not aim to dazzle or distract, but have an almost calming influence. "I lived in Belgium for some time when I was young, and I loved the subtle use of light in some of the projects," Totsune says. "I knew I wanted to incorporate this into the landscape of Tokyo when I returned to Japan. I wanted to help beautify the city."
For his first project in Hong Kong, as with all his jobs, Totsune considered the location and feel of the place.
"The location and culture of a place … it's very important that the light design reflects this. For Hong Kong, it was vital to capture and reflect the city's great energy," he says. He was so impressed that he set up his first overseas office here and visits every month. "I love Hong Kong. It's a unique city."
And like any artistic endeavour, the ICC project served up its share of torturous moments. "This is a very special project, but one that had many challenges because of the long, thin shape of the building, which made it quite limiting," Totsune says. "I had to take into account the fact that the top of the building is at times obscured by clouds, fog or pollution, so most of the design is concentrated at the bottom and then tapers off. It was also difficult because it was the first time I had incorporated animation and words into a display."
Totsune's fascination with lighting stems from a love affair with the night sky that he's had since he was a child. (It comes as no surprise, therefore, that his company is called Sirius, the name of the brightest star in the night sky.) When asked about inspiration for the ICC project, he hands over three books with all the care one would reserve for handling the Dead Sea Scrolls or carvings of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. The books are crammed with detailed diagrams, images of constellations, comets and other solar displays. The great Italian astronomer Galileo would be impressed. "Nature is my biggest influence," he says.
Totsune is unknown in Hong Kong, but in Japan he is building a cult following. His work on the Uniqlo flagship store in Osaka, where images change every 15 minutes, has gained almost tourist attraction status. "For the Uniqlo project, I wanted to create the effect of balloons floating," he says.
At the Hotel Nikko Tokyo, his blue-lit chapel with a water feature under the floor that glows with fairy lights is also popular. "More and more people ask to get married there because they love the design, colour and view from the chapel - it's very romantic," he says.
But perhaps the best example of his work is the soaring Tokyo Sky Tree, which opened in May and, at 634 metres, is Japan's tallest tower. "I'm very proud of this," he says.
Looking out across the hazy Hong Kong harbour from the 100th floor of the ICC Tower, Totsune talks of the complicated relationship between humans and nature and how both have the ability to put on spectacular shows. "I have not yet seen the Northern Lights," he says. "But I'll get there one day."