At the completion of the Museum of the City of New York’s (MCNY) recent $90 million renovation, museum director Susan Henshaw Jones sensed that something was missing. It lacked, she felt, the right amount of “spirit” in its public space. To get to the heart of the problem and find a solution, she called on architects Chris Cooper and Wendy Evans Joseph of New York–based Cooper Joseph Studio, who had previously designed a pop-up site for the museum at the South Street Seaport.
When the architects visited the museum’s landmarked Colonial Revival building on the Upper East Side, they found that, while the recent work had indeed provided fine gallery spaces for the institution, it had neglected to take advantage of the historic building’s primary asset: a sweeping, semi-circular marble staircase that ascends from the lobby to the second floor in a soaring rotunda decked with fluted columns and pilasters, ornamental wrought-iron railings, and topped by a 19th century chandelier.
This is where Cooper and Joseph decided to make their mark. “We said, ‘Let’s take the historic chandelier out and replace it with a two-story dynamic sculpture that animates the space and pulls you up the stairs,’ ” Cooper says. “We decided to paint the rotunda all white to neutralize the historic detail and then put seating under the installation and a café on the second floor. Those simple moves changed the whole core of the museum.”
In deciding what the dynamic sculpture should be, Cooper and Joseph were constrained by a tight budget. “We were enamored with the concept of a precise matrix of points of white light that would create a 3D moiré effect,” Cooper says, but “we had a limited budget for our ambitions. That helped us edit it down from programmability and changeability; it also took out the idea of color and kept it simplistic.”
With that design brief in hand, the two designers went in search of a fabricator. A reference from Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects led them to Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn of Studio 1Thousand, an LED-based lighting design consultancy based in New York. Tsutakawa-Chinn intrigued Cooper and Joseph because he was interested in seeing the project through from engineering to installation. “That’s very unique,” Cooper says. “There are not many people who are interested in design and installation. He’s also interested in the optical effects of light, not just the mechanics, so he was able to talk to us about that as well as the fabrication.”
Cooper Joseph and Studio 1Thousand worked back and forth over the course of three months on the design of what became known as Starlight. The $100,000 budget determined the number of LEDs possible, and the architects used that number to refine a 3D grid pattern, circular in elevation, of 10,486 LEDs. They used Rhino to model the geometry and Autodesk 3ds Max for renderings and animations. The result fills an area 22 feet tall by 15 feet wide by 3 feet deep, and is composed of 219 “vines”—seven deep by 31 wide—or groups of three cables, atop each of which is suspended, in a precise 53/4-inch geometry, a series of triangular circuit boards with LEDs on the top and bottom. Two of the cables in each vine bring power down to alternating circuits, reducing the amount of drag on the 12V DC coming down the line. The third handles the return current. Stainless steel counterweights, 4 ounces each, hold the vines in tension. Overall, the light sculpture uses 1,131W and puts out 71,304 lumens of 2700K white light.
In the early stages, the team played with the idea of using diffusers around the LED circuit boards, but the strategy was soon discarded. “Chris was concerned that we were going to see all this construction, the little triangles,” Tsutakawa-Chinn says. “My point was that once you see the light, you’re not going to see anything around it for 3 or 4 inches,” and Studio 1Thousand constructed a prototype to prove that point. It was then determined that the most important aspect of the piece was to ensure that the geometry of the matrix was rigidly adhered to in the final installation, so the team set a tolerance of 0.007 inches.
Starlight’s LED strands were assembled by Rush Design, Studio1Thousand’s fabrication partner, in Rush Design’s Portland, Maine, and Brooklyn, N.Y. workshops. The team built a series of motherboards, each containing 220 of the triangular LED circuits, and ran them at 100 percent for two weeks, tossing out the ones that failed. LEDs from different bins were used on the motherboards so that any variation in color that did exist would not be noticeable. “When you see a field of lights that big, if there’s any variation you would see it from one region to the next, even [if it’s only] a five to seven percent change in color,” Tsutakawa-Chinn says. “If it’s mixed, you won’t notice it. The eye is a magnificent tool that [can] handle many variations.” The circuits were then soldered onto the vines.
VIDEO: The assembly process for the LED vines.
Installation of the sculpture occurred in two phases: first the supporting structure and then the chandelier elements. The structural engineers called for suspending the chandelier’s supporting frame from Lindapter clamps affixed to the wide-flange, steel sections in the ceiling. Originally constructed in 1932, the building’s structural members were encased in concrete as a form of fire protection. That meant that a certain amount of concrete had to be chipped away to make room for the clamps. Once this was done, the frame was attached to the clamps and a second frame, which hinges down to the ceiling, was attached to it.
The team then drilled holes in the second frame to suspend the sculpture. According to Tsutakawa-Chinn, the installer drilled a first set of holes, but then, after scrutinizing them from the ground, didn’t like where they fell. He then drilled another set of holes about 1.25 inches to the left. “He puts the whole thing back and says, ‘We’re good,’ ” Tsutakawa-Chinn says. “It took us about a week and was pretty straightforward: just attached it to the base plate, let the whole thing drop, and then attached the weights to the bottom.”
Technical exactness mixed with a dose of on-site intuitive installation methods, provided one of the most rewarding moments during the install. “We’re in the café space at 11:30 at night, bleary eyed, crazy from installing and not sleeping, when we notice that the center line of the chandelier lines up with the center line of windows behind it. It also lines up with the wrought-iron railings and with a seam in the floor tiles. All four of those things were lining up perfectly,” Tsutakawa-Chinn says. “The guy installing [the chandelier] had no idea. He had kind of drawn the theoretical center [of the piece]. [It’s] one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.”
Project Starlight, Museum of the City of New York, New York
Client Museum of the City of New York, New York
Architect Cooper Joseph Studio, New York
Lighting Designer Studio 1Thousand, New York
Additional Consultants Rush Design, Westbrook, Me. (Starlight fabricator)
Installation Size 22 feet tall by 15 feet wide by 3 feet deep, and 15 feet in diameter
Project Cost $100,000
Code Compliance Not applicable
Watts 1,130W (total)