The Underground in downtown Oklahoma City is a three-quarter-mile tunnel system that connects 16 city blocks and more than 30 buildings. The space, untouched since the 1970s, featured a brown color scheme and mercury vapor lamps. The new lighting concept was “intended as a navigation tool and to be fun,” says architect Rand Elliott, of Oklahoma City–based firm Elliott + Associates Architects. Architect Michael Hoffner, of the same firm, explains that because maintaining a sense of direction underground can be difficult, the colored light is used as a wayfinding tool to help make the trip through the tunnels more memorable. “The colors allow you to remember how you came along the journey,” he notes.

Originally, the design team considered painting the tunnel walls in color and using white light, but it was decided that the light itself should color the space because it would allow for more flexibility. Illuminated mainly by T8 fluorescent lamps with gels to provide the color variations, the Underground has clear demarcations between tunnels where visitors experience the color transition points.

While the use of color guides people through the system, galleries also are incorporated into the walkways, allowing each tunnel to have its own personality. A 300-foot-long section is the “light gallery,” where on one wall yellow light runs along the floor and blue light runs along the ceiling line. Those complementary colors together create white light on the opposite wall of the space. The other tunnels have themes—for example, yellow is used to represent energy and public utilities—and those themes also correspond with historical photos of downtown Oklahoma City. Needing to stop and start the color to supply appropriate light to view the photographs, 8-foot-long sections of black wall, ceiling, and floor were created with track lighting to provide a transition from the colored light areas.

Hoffner says he's proud of how the team responded to project constraints, such as dealing with the existing electrical power locations. The end result uses light in a smart, interesting, and colorful way, giving each tunnel its own individuality while also guiding people through this public space unique to Oklahoma City.

Jury Comments
Kathy Abernathy: The simplicity of this project makes it phenomenal.

Laura Briggs: Love the way this project worked with the interaction of color and space, and the way the design team was able to give definition to each space with modest means.

Randy Burkett: A visceral use of color and form that makes this journey memorable—color at its primitive best.

Jean Sundin: A surprising project that really uses color via light and materials as a guiding system and generates an experience for the visitor.

David Ziolkowski: Colors are used as an intelligent wayfinding device in a challenging architectural environment.

Location: Oklahoma City
Client: Downtown OKC, Oklahoma City
Architect: Elliott + Associates Architects
Photographer: Hedrich Blessing, Chicago
Project Size: 42,000 square feet
Watts per Square Foot: 1.9
Manufacturers: Columbia Lighting, Lightolier, Lithonia Lighting, Prescolite