Decades ago, Cambridge, Mass.–based Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A) revolutionized aquarium design. Starting with the New England Aquarium in Boston, built in 1969, the firm pioneered a new kind of immersive aquarium experience, one that eschewed small tanks and staid taxonomy that had been common in the past in favor of the massive, awe-inducing displays of live sea creatures that we’ve grown accustomed to since. Recently, C7A renovated two of these first-generation buildings—the New England Aquarium and 1981’s National Aquarium in Baltimore, which they also designed. Where the original buildings had been trailblazers when it came to the presentation of marine life, these latest projects are a marvel in how to retrofit cutting-edge architecture and lighting design into existing spaces in order to transform the visitor experience.
“The thing that was originally groundbreaking in these two aquariums was that there were living animals and they relied on the idea that we would take you into a deep-sea dive,” says Peter Kuttner, president of C7A. “The new trend [today] in aquariums is to bring the habitat out and to engage the visitor in the habitat even more. Rockwork is starting to leave the tanks and come out [in]to the visitor space. Advances in acrylic technology mean you can walk under a tank and see a shark swimming. It’s that sense of immersion, that you’re in there with the animals.”
Lighting design is pivotal in creating that fantasy, of being underwater with the fish and other sea life. Establishing an atmosphere that mimics a deep-sea dive—capturing the coral, the fish, and the undulation of light and shadow—requires a complex lighting scheme that illuminates the subaqueous world while simultaneously fostering the health of the animals and the illusion of immersion for the general public. “This is as close to the experience of a deep-sea dive as you can get,” Kuttner says.
The New England Aquarium, Giant Ocean Tank and Penguin Tray
Original building completed in 1969
Renovation completed in 2013
In Boston, C7A was tasked with renovating the New England Aquarium’s Giant Ocean Tank, which is a replica of a Caribbean coral reef. When that four-story, 40-foot-diameter, 200,000 gallon tank was first conceived in the 1960s, the technology that existed dictated that the fixtures be set up to rim the perimeter at the top of the tank in order to create the desired effect of an underwater deep-sea dive. The lamps at the time simply weren’t powerful enough to filter through the volume of salt water without being positioned directly above the surface.
One of the biggest gains for the New England Aquarium in renovating the tank now is the ability to reposition the luminaires above the water and into a dome, thus transforming the top of the tank from an industrial space with visible hardware into a public-friendly spot where visitors can stand and look down into the water (see above). “The Giant Ocean Tank is the heart of why this particular aquarium is as successful as it is,” says Steven Imrich, principal of C7A. “Both the firm and the aquarium staff always felt that there could be an enhancement to the top of the tank where that environment could become a nice place for programs.”
Figuring out how to retrofit a massive dome above the tank and into the center of the building—while keeping the aquarium open to visitors—required extensive planning, according to Matt Zelkowitz, principal of Salem, Mass.–based lighting design firm Available Light. First, there was the question of what lamp type to use. An important dictate from the aquarium staff was that the exhibit should feel as real as possible by highlighting the colors of the coral and the fish, but that it also should prevent the growth of algae. “The first color test compared [400W] metal-halide to LED, and we came away convinced that LED was the right way to go,” Zelkowitz says. “We did extensive mock-ups about color temperature and found that the warmer color temps [3000K] tended to promote algae growth. So we showed everyone spectrum charts for LEDs and we used a higher color temperature [of 5700K].”
Available Light mixed white LEDs with some green and some blue LEDs, in fixtures outfitted with narrow 10-degree spots and medium 20-degree spots with deep snoots to minimize glare, to add depth to the exhibit by piercing through the water and creating the effect of sunlight streaming in from above. The lighting designers also creatively washed the walls of the tank to give the illusion of an unending horizon, and with a DMX system gave the LEDs dynamic control so that the color temperature constantly shifts and animates the space, the way real sunlight would. The firm even added a timed program every half hour that makes it appear as though a cloud is passing overhead.
Another dictate from the aquarium was that the lighting hardware should be hidden, but easy to maintain. “We did a lot of sight line studies and sections to set the width of the dome, getting it so that the fixtures hang at just the right height and angle but don’t protrude past the dome,” Zelkowitz says. Walkways now allow maintenance staff to access the fixtures from above. The complexity of placing the luminaires and other infrastructure in the dome was like “making a Swiss watch,” according to Imrich.
The color and finish of the dome also went through several iterations in the planning phase. The initial thought was that the dome should be highly reflective, with a mirrored surface to support reflections off the water. But after Available Light created mock-ups over water, it became clear that the mirroring effect didn’t work—it just competed with the amount of light that was absorbed in the water. The final dome is a blue color with an eggshell finish that creates a similar effect, Imrich says, to the way the bottom of a bridge over a river gently reflects the light off of the water below.
Before finalizing the lighting design, Available Light ordered sample fixtures, set up theatrical pipe with boom bases around the perimeter of the tank, and performed an on-site mock-up. “They did some testing of the color temperature and the punch and the effects of the new lighting layout,” Imrich says. “That mock-up was really valuable to everybody’s level of comfort and how the light would be transformative.”
And, amazingly, that mock-up happened in just one evening, a fact owed to the timing and complex nature of this renovation. “We were literally taking the center part of the aquarium out, and the amount of logistics and coordination needed to get the old tank environment demolished and taken away, to get the animals out of the tank, was extraordinary,” Imrich says. “If we had had our druthers, we would have prefabricated the dome off-site to be lowered into the building with a crane. But because we didn’t have that luxury, we had to bring it in in pieces.”
It wasn’t just the top of the tank that saw a big change in lighting design. Available Light also had to renovate the penguin tray located at the base of the Giant Ocean Tank. In addition to replacing old halogen lighting with 4000K LED fixtures—some with narrow spots (10-degree) and others with flood spots (40-degree)—the designers had to understand the biology of penguins.
“When we started, they gave us this big scientific paper on penguins and I read through it and learned that it wasn’t just the amount of light, but the amount of time the penguins [were exposed to light],” Zelkowitz says. “The aquarium wanted to increase the light on the penguins, but what’s critical to their health is the period of daylight. The aquarium has a very complex spreadsheet that shows how much daylight the penguins get each day. They had to balance that biological rhythm with the needs of visitors.”
Last but not least, there were the requirements of the events staff, who needed to host parties after-hours. In the original design, there had only been one light level for the Giant Ocean Tank. Available Light developed a two-tiered solution, one in the penguin tray itself where the luminaires dim slowly over a 45-minute period when the penguins’ day “ends” and the other, a dimmer, evening “event” setting for the Giant Ocean exhibit so that the light from the tank won’t disturb the animals. Now that the exhibit has opened, the aquarium staff called to say that the changes are working. “The birds look great,” Zelkowitz says. “We got a call that they just finished their first molt and are doing well.”
The National Aquarium, Blacktip Reef Exhibit
Original building completed in 1981
Blacktip Reef exhibit renovation completed in 2013
At the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the exhibit displays move from the Caribbean to the Great Barrier Reef with the transformation of a massive, five-story space at the core of the museum’s structure. The building has been open since 1981, so the existing tank was due for an overhaul. “We had an exhibit that was aging and we were having structural problems with the tank,” says Jack Cover, the general curator at Baltimore’s aquarium.
The aquarium decided this would be an ideal opportunity to replace the existing exhibit—which consisted primarily of stingrays, a few sharks, and a sea turtle—with a more dynamic and multifaceted display that took visitors into a replica of the Great Barrier Reef. “We decided to go with a re-creation of an Indo-Pacific reef, to feature the blacktip reef shark,” Cover says. “We wanted to duplicate the reef with the apex predator but also with all of the smaller fish and the coral.” Cover says that they also had the goal of making the water “gin clear” and as vibrant as possible, which meant investing in filtration and life-support systems for the marine life.
The existing fixtures and illumination presented a challenge. “The lighting was much more general and it washed out a lot of the features of the tank,” says Adam Mitchell, partner with C7A. “A starting goal was to make the lighting much more dramatic and theatrical. The design mantra became: How do we get more surprise into what we’re doing?”
The architects turned to lighting designer Glenn Shrum, founder of Baltimore-based Flux Studio, to create that surprise. The experience for visitors now begins right off of the lobby, as guests come into a dim blue entryway with bubbling towers of water. This entryway leads to a soaring five-story space that is effectively an atrium at the heart of the building. Here, visitors are presented with a bird’s-eye view of the tank, with the reef sharks and rays swimming in shallow water below. The path then winds up and over the reef, traveling through the aquarium’s various exhibitions, before winding back down a platform that takes people down through the various depths of the sea. This means that guests experience the reef from multiple vantage points, creating a complex lighting plan.
“It’s a five-story interior space, so it was always going to be a challenging experience to light,” Shrum says. He and his team were limited by the existing conditions and the location options for the fixtures, so they “did a fair amount of color study.”
One study looked at the angle of the light and the position of the fixtures as it related to the water’s surface. The light needed to highlight the tank without bleeding into the public space and washing out the theatrical effect. “In terms of the light penetrating the water, the lighting angles were never more than 20 degrees off of vertical,” Shrum says. “We did many studies on aiming angle, where we had access to the fixtures. In the end, there are more than 50 fixtures lighting the surface of the water, in six different locations throughout the five stories. Some are 10 feet above the water, some are 60 feet up.” There were also several mock-ups done to check color, with the final choice being a cooler temperature—4000K—that simulated daylight at noon. Another consideration that went into choosing the color temperature of the light was how the beam would pass through the water depth and make the exhibit elements ring true. The in-house exhibition team at the aquarium fabricated all of the coral in the tank and Shrum worked closely with them to finalize the paint colors in the habitat. “We did a smaller-scale mock-up to look at the color appearance of the coral and we looked at how the color rendering was changing as the water got deeper,” Shrum says. “We found that the red spectrum (620–700 nm) was being absorbed more quickly than the blue (455–492 nm).”
This meant that in shallow water the coral looked fine, but at 12 feet it wasn’t registering. In the end, the coral was painted incredibly vibrant hues. “Before the water went in, the habitat looked totally garish,” Shrum says. “But once the water went in and the light was absorbed by the water depth, it looked natural. Sometimes there is only so much that you can do with the light, so you have to work with the pigment of the habitat.”
To make the experience feel natural for visitors, Shrum also considered the lighting of the public space. “The design direction from the beginning was to support the spatial reading of this architectural space and one of the things that was quite successful was the introduction of shadows,” he says. “By having the light be limited to the water, we have these caustic reflections of light all over the space that become incredibly theatrical.”
C7A’s Mitchell also says that Shrum’s choice of a deep blue wayfinding light helps maintain that illusion of a deep-sea adventure. “The sense of immersion has been increased,” he says.
The exhibit opened in August, and attracted more than 380,000 visitors in the first six months. Cover says it has been a major success: “The most common thing that I hear people say is, ‘Wow.’ ”
Drawings for the New England Aquarium
Drawings for the National Aquarium
Details for the New England Aquarium
Giant Ocean Tank and Penguin Tray
Project The New England Aquarium Giant Ocean Tank Renovation, Boston
Client/Owner The New England Aquarium, Boston
Architect Cambridge Seven Associates, Cambridge, Mass.
Lighting Designer Available Light, Salem, Mass.
Structural Engineer Weidlinger Associates, New York
M/E/P Engineer R.W. Sullivan Engineering, Boston
Project Size 8,000 square feet
Project Cost $17.8 million
Lighting Cost $400,000 (for hardware)
Code Compliance Fell under exhibit lighting category of IECC 2009 and was exempt
Watts per Square Foot 2 (for exhibit lighting)
Acuity Brands/Winona steplights at new exhibit annex bridge
Acolyte LED LED tape at wave and shark wall displays
Interactive Technologies cueserver for DMX control
Lumenpulse LED luminaires at Giant Ocean Tank and penguin tray
Pathway Connectivity DMX networking
Philips Lightolier tracklighting at perimeter exhibit areas
Prolume illuminated handrails at annex bridge
Details for the National Aquarium,
Blacktip Reef Exhibit
Project Blacktip Reef Exhibit, The National Aquarium, Baltimore, Md.
Client/Owner The National Aquarium, Baltimore, Md.
Architect Cambridge Seven Associates, Cambridge, Mass.
Lighting Designer Flux Studio, Baltimore, Md.
Structural Engineer McLaren Engineering Group, Baltimore, Md.
M/E/P Engineer Kovacs Whitney & Associates, Baltimore, Md.
Additional Consultants (tank lighting) Barbizon Lighting, Washington, D.C.
Artist (acrylic entry feature) Adam Nelson, Baltimore, Md.
Project Size 13,500 square feet
Project Cost $12.5 million
Lighting Cost Not available
Code Compliance ASHRAE 90.1-2010
Watts per Square Foot 1.1
Cooper Lighting by Eaton/Iris P3LED fixture for exhibit graphics accent lighting
Dasal Architectural Lighting general lighting and emergency lighting
ETC Source Four HID Ellipsoidal Series with different beam spreads—14 degrees, 26 degrees, and zoom (25 to 50 degrees)—to light water surface
Insight Lighting backlit acrylic panels
Lighting Services Inc lighting for exhibit graphics and bench area at underwater viewing area
Lumenpulse Lumenfacade static white and static blue grazing fixtures at textured walls and 6500K Lumenbeam fixture at bubble tubes
Lutron existing building lighting control system
Philips 75W and 150W MasterColor ceramic metal halide lamps for ETC fixtures
Rosco color filters for general lighting
Xicato LED modules for Lighting Services Inc fixtures and custom blue LED module for Dasal fixtures