Situated on the corner of Wilshire and Westwood Boulevards, the Hammer Museum has always functioned as a gateway between the city of Los Angles and the UCLA campus. But for years this threshold remained unfinished as the completion of the museum's master plan was delayed due to budgetary shortfalls. After a generous $5 million gift from Audrey Wilder, wife of the late film director and writer Billy Wilder, for whom the theater is named, the museum was able to hire Michael Maltzan Architecture and Cambridge, Massachusetts-based lighting design firm Lam Partners to create the new 295-seat theater—a screening room capable of projecting everything in the university's extensive film and television archive, from the earliest nitrate films to the latest in digital video.

Aside from transforming a blank concrete shell into one of the world's most sophisticated cinematheques, the architects were asked to design a distinct destination within the museum that also functions as a link in the larger narrative between city and campus. Since the technological components of the projection booth gobbled up a large portion of the budget, the challenge was to create a strong space with minimal financial resources.

Lighting became the answer. “From the beginning,” says Michael Maltzan, “we looked at light and pattern of light as one of the ways to create an iconography in the building and help to direct people coming to the museum.” As a first step, the designers opened the building to views from the street and museum's courtyard by inserting full-height glass walls at both entrances of the long, narrow lobby. Similar glass walls separate the lobby from the screening room, tying the city, museum, and theater together in a series of unbroken sight lines.

To induce the excitement and anticipation of a movie-going experience without falling into movie house clichés, the designers used lines of light as a metaphor for film. “Cinema is painting with light—light passing through film,” explains Lam Partners principal Paul Zaferiou. “Our challenge was how to give this physical form.” This idea begins in the lobby, which features a 50-foot-long mural of images from Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, where the designers placed 31W linear T6 fluorescent lamps in a uniform pattern across the ceiling. The fixtures, which light seamlessly from end-to-end, are recessed just enough to leave the curve of the bulbs exposed, like rungs in a ladder of light.

The theme continues in the dark volume of the theater, where a randomized pattern of white 3500K linear LED strips hang from the ceiling and walls. To maintain the light strips' thin profile and give the impression that they are floating in space, the fixtures are wired to remote transformers, concealed above and behind accessible ceiling and wall panels. The effect resembles the beginning of a jump to warp speed, which is right in line with the designers' intentions. “You come in through the length of the lobby, moving from a regular pattern to one that begins to accelerate in space,” says Maltzan.

This sense of movement is reinforced by the lighting scheme's dimming system. As a movie is about to start, the LED strips, which are wired to 12 dimmers, dramatically fade from front to back of the auditorium space, transitioning the audience to what is about to take place on screen. “It's as though the light is being pulled back into the projector,” says Zaferiou. The reverse effect occurs at the end of the movie. The dimming system also helps the theater adapt to different uses, such as lectures and musical performances. Lam Partners programmed 16 presets to meet any of the space's functional needs. The lobby itself has four presets, which adjust to different times of day, and communicates when a screening is in progress by dimming down to a minimal amount of light.

As in the best examples of architecture, the Billy Wilder Theater proves that lighting can be expressive and functional at the same time. Starting with a closed and unapparent building, the designers used lighting to create transparency and a sense of motion that act as a form of architectural signage, attracting visitors. The project's patterned lines of light may reference film, but their net effect is greater than a metaphor: They help to mend a piece of the urban fabric linking the city, the museum, and the UCLA campus.


PROJECT| Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, UCLA, Los Angeles

DESIGN TEAM| Michael Maltzan Architecture, Los Angeles (architect); Lam Partners, Cambridge, Massachusetts (lighting designers)

PHOTOGRAPHER| Wil Carson, Michael Maltzan Architecture, Los Angeles

PROJECT SIZE| 11,500 square feet

PROJECT COST| $7.5 million

WATTS| 2.7 watts per square foot

MANUFACTURERS| Cole, Columbia, Delray, Edison Price, Focal Point, GE, iLight, Kurt Versen, Ledalite, Lighting Service Inc, Litecontrol, Lithonia, Nippo, Osram Sylvania, Prudential, Robe, Selux