Elizabeth Donoff

My heart sank when I saw the tweet on Oct. 18. A design journalist I follow on Twitter was lamenting the closing of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Marcel Breuer–designed building on Madison Avenue and East 75th Street in New York. (The museum is relocating and reopening in a new venue downtown along the High Line this spring.) I realized then that I had missed the opportunity to get to the building and take in its wonderful architectural spaces and details, and of course, its lighting.

This pit-in-my-stomach feeling reminded me that there have been all too many examples of modernist buildings and interiors threatened by either the wrecking ball or serious mutation of late. Some examples that come to mind are Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, the removal of the Picasso tapestry at Mies’s Seagram building in New York, and most recently, and also in New York, the Frick Collection’s plan to demolish its Russell Page–designed side garden and build an addition in its place.

But the realization that the Breuer building is now closed hit home particularly hard because of the potential loss of its fantastically illuminated lobby ceiling. Even though the Metropolitan Museum of Art will annex the building for exhibitions and education programs for the next eight years, the building has not obtained landmark status, and there is no guarantee that it is safe from future modifications. This is why I firmly believe that architectural lighting needs its own equivalent of the American Institute of Architects’ Twenty-Five Year Award. Although the award doesn’t confer actual legal protection, it does convey a building’s cultural significance. Without something similar, our lighting design heritage is at risk.

Elizabeth Donoff

The Twenty-Five Year Award, which was started in 1969, recognizes “architectural design of enduring significance, [and] is conferred on a project that has stood the test of time for 25 to 35 years. The project must have been designed by an architect licensed in the United States at the time of the project’s completion.” Other criteria used for the award require it to be “standing” and “in good condition,” as well as still performing its original program.

Modernism can be divisive. With the Whitney, this is especially true, as Brutalism can be difficult for many to appreciate. Personally, I love the Breuer building. Its material palette of wood and stone is so rich and complex. The the handrail design with its wooden cap that receives one’s hand so perfectly, is one of the all-time great architectural details. I purposely made a point of running over to 75th Street when I was in New York at the end of October. Seeing the Whitney again, even if only from the outside, made me feel slightly better.

What I really wanted to see was that lobby ceiling, which Breuer designed with the assistance of Edison Price. It’s a signature feature of the space—a field of fixtures with shallow disc reflectors housing half-silvered lamps. It creates a rich visual that many have tried to emulate. An architectural lighting design moment such as this is important for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it represents a particular design thinking and execution with the lighting technology of the time. Today, such a solution might not even be considered because of available source options and energy code requirements.

If we don’t work to preserve such seminal examples of lighting design, the next generation of lighting designers and the public will both loose out on a rich history. Ergo the idea of starting a lighting version of the AIA’s Twenty-Five Year Award. How would it be administered? The IALD, in my mind, is the perfect candidate for the job. A lighting Twenty-Five Year Award could easily be incorporated into their existing awards program. The IALD didn’t start giving awards until 1983, and a Twenty-Five Year Award would start to fill in the recognition gap of projects completed beforehand.

There’s been a lot of discussion the past several years about ways that architectural lighting design can distinguish itself as a profession. The credentialing discussion is one step, but central to any profession is the documentation of its own body of work. Lighting needs to start celebrating and preserving its past. If we don’t take our own design legacy seriously, then why should anyone else?

Elizabeth Donoff