» With downtown Detroit experiencing a rebirth, owing to the construction of two new athletic facilities (Tigers Park for baseball and Ford Field for football) and the city's hosting of Major League Baseball's 2005 All-Star Game and the 2006 Super Bowl, the Detroit Athletic Club called on SmithGroup to highlight its Beaux Arts-style building's architectural and historical importance-literally. 'They wanted to enhance the significance of the building as a landmark,' says lighting designer Jeff Gerwing of SmithGroup, by making it more visible. Lacking an exterior lighting scheme, the structure was either swallowed by darkness, or overwhelmed by the stadium lights of its neighbors. The challenge for SmithGroup was to illuminate the detailed façade with 'dignified restraint,' allowing the building to shine, game night or not.

The tripartite organization of the building's classical façade facilitated a similarly defined approach to the lighting solution. SmithGroup divided the lighting into sections corresponding to the architectural expression-base, middle, and top-so that each area could be easily discerned. Simultaneously, the lighting works to unify the exterior, for an effect that clearly establishes the building in its overall context.

Starting with the base-referring to both the bottom portion of the building and an initial layer of lighting-Gerwing and his team blanketed the façade with an ambient wash, provided by asymmetric metal halide fixtures mounted on the surrounding streetlamps. Responding to short setback constraints, the designers were able to reposition the streetlighting to provide appropriate mounting positions for a wallwash approach. They also realized the opportunity to replace the existing cobra heads with historically appropriate pole lights.

To frame the middle section of the façade and accent the fluted pilasters, SmithGroup added T6 metal halides painted to match the limestone at the pilaster bases. 'We wanted to bring out the texture of the Corinthian columns,' says Gerwing. The balustrades are backlit with 3000K LEDs, suggesting a glow from the interior. (To maintain the structure's 'historic feel,' the designers also specified or color-filtered the metal halides to a warm 3000K.)

The bracketed cornice at the top is the building's crowning detail. 'We wanted to accent it, but not lose focus,' says Gerwing. In order to have the building edge pop against the sky, but not disturb patrons on the upper floors, source selection was key. Neon did not provide the right quality of light or color temperature. Instead, 3000K LEDs with controlled beams (to minimize spill light) were chosen, and mounted on the continuous stone ledge located 12 feet below. LEDs provided 'high-intensity light,' explains Gerwing, and met maintenance criteria for this difficult-to-reach location.

The lighting scheme also needed to respect the building's delicate skin. To accommodate the cornice lighting, the designers devised a stainless-steel cable tray, to which they mounted the fixtures; the tray connects at the vertical mortar joints, to minimize stone damage. Most importantly, however, a painted faceplate attachment keeps the equipment hidden: 'During the day, you cannot even tell there is a fixture,' says Gerwing.

The success of this project, from the A|L Design Awards jury's perspective, is how fluid and effortless the solution seems, despite its technical complexity. A|L

The exterior lighting looks so natural, like it was part of the original architectural design. ••• A subtle approach. ••• It's about simplicity; I feel like I could learn something from this. ••• Just beautiful.

Project Location Detroit
Architect Albert Kahn (original building, 1915)
Lighting Designer SmithGroup, Detroit
Photographer Justin Maconochie, Ferndale, MI
Project Size 56,000 square feet of illuminated fa?ade
Watts per Square Foot 0.31
Cost Withheld at client's request
Manufacturers Elliptipar (exterior wallwasher, metal halide); Invue (floodlight, metal halide); io Lighting (linear accent, 3000K LED); Lumi?re Lighting (exterior accent, metal halide)