Situated next to and slightly under an elevated freeway on the border between San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood and burgeoning Yerba Buena arts district, the RayKo Photo Center is a study in darkness and light. A recognized Bay Area institution, established in 1991, the Center combines gallery space for local artist exhibitions with rentable darkrooms, studios, and digital photography facilities. The Center's new home (its third), a 12,000-square-foot warehouse, has been granted new life as a sleek contemporary arts space.

To fulfill the Center's programmatic requirements, careful attention was paid to the control and modulation of both daylight and electric light while maintaining the architectural character and details of the warehouse. San Francisco-based Schwartz and Architecture, along with Kogod Smiley Architects of New York City, collaborated during the initial design phases of the project. Principal Lauren Kogod, RayKo owner Stuart Kogod's sister, helped to develop the interior footprint and design parti, which clusters the darkrooms in the center of the floor plan. From there, architect Neal Schwartz led the way to realize the project, enlisting the lighting expertise of San Francisco-based lighting design firm H.E. Banks + Associates.

The project's basic organizing principle centers around the idea of a "lightbox/darkbox"--a space-within-a-space--where facilities such as darkrooms and photo labs, which require little or no light, are grouped together and are ringed by areas that require more light like the gallery. The result is a sleek cube, intentionally isolated to efficiently locate mechanical and ventilation systems above each darkroom. The light/dark theme is continued in the actual detailing of the "darkbox" with what Schwartz describes as the parapet--a continuous 200-foot-long, 4-foot-tall band of PVC stretch fabric, normally used in ceiling applications. The seamless, rubberized material is backlit with a total of 46 T5HO cove lamps, which can be dimmed down to one percent. A combination of thirty-nine 54W 4-foot-long and seven 39W 3-foot-long fixtures cover the parapet length. The placement of the 3000K fluorescent fixtures enables the fabric to glow in an uninterrupted band around the "darkroom" island. When the fluorescent luminaires are turned off, the parapet band appears a continuation of the "darkbox's" sheetrock.

The "lightbox," which sits on top of the "darkbox," provides the majority of interior illumination for the facility's main public areas. The band also reflects light onto the warehouse's white-painted ceiling and underside of the roof beams, which in turn bounces light down into the open plan gallery. Another three sets of 54W 8-foot-long T5HO striplights, installed on top of the center roof beam, run the length of the space. Dimmers allow light levels to be adjusted during the day and for evening gallery openings, when more direct light is preferred. Artwork is highlighted with 50W PAR30 halogen tracklights suspended along the exposed-brick gallery walls. Although similar in color temperature--2900K--to the fluorescent fixtures, the quality of light is different, thereby adding another layer of depth to the lighting scheme.

This seemingly simple lighting solution actually took quite a bit of planning and some crafty design work by both the architects and lighting designers. Through extensive coordination, the designers configured a structural support system comprised of a metal frame and a series of metal braces, installed as space permitted, to support the parapet PVC stretch fabric material. The braces are attached to the top of the 4-foot-tall band and are bolted to the roof of the "darkroom" box. Senior lighting designer Jody Pritchard and the H.E. Banks team precisely calculated the location of the brace angles to prevent the casting of shadows onto the parapet sheathing, no easy feat given the extensive and complicated layout of HVAC ductwork that sits on top of the "darkbox."

In addition to its rigorous layout, the lighting design offers a clever interpretation of the role of color in lighting. By providing a neutral "white light" backdrop for the space, the artwork takes center stage. "We made a conscious decision to stick to white light," explains Pritchard, citing black and white photography, which exists on a value scale between the presence and absence of white light, as the designer's reference. "If we had introduced color," she continues, "it would have taken away from the color of the photography. It was our job to highlight the art, not compete with it."

The complete effect is one of effortless simplicity. Through a strong architectural gesture tied to programming--grouping the darkroom facilities together--and the lighting design and fixture selection to support it, the designers' objective was achieved: to maintain the architectural character of the original warehouse space, to enhance it with a freestanding "lightbox" from within, and have the art remain the primary focus.


Project RayKo Photo Center, San Francisco
client Stuart Kogod, San Francisco
Architect Schwartz and Architecture, San Francisco (Phase I and II); Kogod Smiley Architects, New York (Phase I)
Lighting Designer H.E. Banks + Associates Lighting Design, San Francisco
Mechanical Electrical and Plumbing Mechanical Design Studio, Walnut Creek, California
Structural Engineer KPFF Consulting Engineers, San Francisco
Project Size 12,000 square feet
Watts Per Square Foot 1.2
Installation Costs $35,000 (approximate) equipment only
Photographer Monica Nelson, San Francisco (except where noted)

Manufacturers and Applications

Birchwood Lighting: Dimmable cove and striplights at "darkbox" parapet
Cooper Lighting: Halo halogen tracklights in gallery; Corelight fluorescent direct/indirect pendants and wall-mounted luminaries in offices
GE Lighting: PAR30 lamps
Illuminating Experiences: General corridor lighting in "darkbox"
Lutron: Electronic, integral, dimmable ballasts
Osram Sylvania: T5HO lamps