The Darwin D. Martin House Complex (1903–1905) in Buffalo, N.Y., stands as one of the early shining examples of the Prairie School, as well as one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most elaborate residential designs. The building's heavy brickwork, strong horizontal lines, hipped roofs, and banded windows typify a style that was replicated in hundreds of other works by Wright and his followers across the United States. It also functioned as a test-bed for many of the ideas that Wright put into practice for his first commercial project, the Larkin Administration Building in downtown Buffalo. (Darwin Martin was the secretary of the Larkin Soap Co. and helped to get Wright the job.)
While both of these works are extremely significant milestones in Wright's development, as well as in all of American architecture, time has not proved too kind to them. After Martin's death in 1935, the residence was neglected, sold by the family and then volleyed by a series of owners who did not attempt to maintain its original integrity. The Larkin Administration Building fared even worse; in 1950 it was demolished. A similar fate may have befallen the Martin House had it not been for the Martin House Restoration Corp., which was founded in 1992 with a mandate to bring the property back to its 1907 condition and turn the site into a museum. In addition to the preservation work, the organization needed a new pavilion, a place to house interpretive displays, to host lectures and cocktail parties, and to provide basic services to visitors. A competition for design services was initiated and Toshiko Mori Architect won the commission.
Designing a contemporary building to sit adjacent to the work of one of the masters is no small task. To find the right balance between respect and confidence, architect Toshiko Mori employed both complementary and contrasting design motifs for the 7,775-square-foot visitor center. This resulted in a long, low pavilion of which the dominant feature is a sculptural ceiling that resembles an inverted hipped roof. In lighting terms this meant opening the interior to ample amounts of controlled daylight and a minimal application of electrical illumination. “The Martin House is one of the early examples of an open-plan interior,” Toshiko Mori explains. “There are no rooms on the ground floor. Subtle manipulations of ceiling height and a modulation of natural light create a sense of openness or privacy. It's appropriate for residential purposes, but my building is public.”
With the exception of the west elevation, which has a concrete-faced core containing the pavilion's only private spaces—public restrooms, a kitchen, and a coatroom—Mori clad the pavilion entirely in floor-to-ceiling glass panels. This floods the interior with daylight, and its direct contrast to the Martin House's solid-brick exterior and low-lit interiors was intentional.
But it is at the inverted hipped roof, where the ceiling plane is transformed into a luminous surface, where architecture and lighting are fused. The sloping planes were carefully calibrated to optimize the amount of natural illumination that enters the building, while the roof's overhang protects the exterior from overheating by shading it from direct exposure to the sun. This allowed Mori to specify the clearest, low-iron glass possible. Triple-glazed to insulate against Buffalo's harsh winters, the 18-foot-high-by-7-foot-7½-inch-wide panels are joined by slim stainless-steel mullions and correspond to the column spacing of the house's pergola. The pavilion's transparent façade puts Wright's architecture on display. Meanwhile, a skylight in the middle of the ceiling delivers direct sunlight to the center of the building, making it the brightest area of the pavilion during the day.
This liberal use of light during the day is turned on its head at night. Mori and Arup Lighting developed an elegant electric lighting scheme that creates an intriguing low-light ambiance ideal for cocktail parties. “I'm quite against over-illumination,” Mori says. “It's vulgar.” The dim light levels also serve another important purpose: They preserve the building's transparency throughout the evening, a time when brightly lit interiors will turn glass walls into inwardly reflecting mirrors. “We tried to keep the lighting really subtle so at night you can look out and see the Martin House,” says lighting designer Matt Franks of Arup Lighting.
“The idea,” Franks continues, “was to illuminate the ceiling to make it a floating plane. The lighting scheme would be very simple, almost like you don't think about it when you're looking at it.” To achieve this, the team relied exclusively on uplighting. “Downlighting,” Mori states, “can be unsightly, and creates bright spots on floor.” Two types of luminaires accomplish the uplighting. The first is a 39W in-grade metal halide fixture imbedded just inside the glazing around the perimeter of the building. The Arup Lighting team went through quite a bit of analysis to get the right level and intensity of light. Although the fixtures are not adjustable, they are equipped with two different lenses—one six degrees and the other 20 degrees—and two different reflectors, wide and medium beam. Once on site, the team mixed and matched the lenses and reflectors to get an even wash of light across the ceiling.
The metal halide fixtures are only used on the pavilion's three glazed elevations. T5 linear fluorescent fixtures, the second luminaire type contributing to uplighting, take over at the west face, which is occupied by the core. Positioned atop the concrete walls and shining onto the ceiling, the T5s fill in with the same even spread of light that the metal halide fixtures deliver from the floor. With all of this uplighting, the designers were able to keep the ceiling pure in form, unadulterated by recesses or other blemishes. The mechanical systems were also kept away from the ceiling. They were placed within the concrete core, from which they could be more discretely threaded through the building.
The only other non-exhibition fixtures in the public areas of the visitor center are MR16s that light an alcove, and more T5 fluorescent fixtures backlighting a donor wall of wooden slabs and translucent acrylic. LED striplights in the casework, which houses the center's interpretive displays, also add to the general illumination, though just enough to dramatically frame someone's face or cause a sweating cocktail glass to glow and sparkle.
But the real triumph of Mori's design is the quiet yet sophisticated way it employs advanced building technologies. Its minimal structure and in-floor radiant heating and cooling systems allow the formal echoing of Wright's motifs to come to the foreground. They also relate to the Martin House's own integration of systems and architecture (the building's wide piers house gas, electrical, and heating elements). And the subdued lighting scheme—which primarily relies on daylight, an essential aspect of the pavilion's sustainable approach—gives full weight to the visitor center's connection to Wright's work. It starts a conversation that plays on the differences between the two structures—glass vs. brick, light vs. dark—as well as their similarities—continuity between interior and exterior spaces, and the use of strong horizontal lines. With every gesture, Mori's design for the new visitor center keeps Wright in mind, while staying true to her own architectural style. If Wright could respond, there's no doubt that he would be very pleased to be engaged in this architectural dialogue across the ages.