"Bellingham is famous for being a city that craves daylight," says architect Jim Olson, half jokingly, of the small Washington city located on the Pacific coast between Seattle and the Canadian border. As principal of the Seattle-based Olson Kundig Architects, Olson knows first-hand the vagaries of Pacific Northwest weather—the rain, the pea soup fog, and the low winter sun. The cool, gray climate proves a challenge for contemporary architectural designs that feature glassy expanses and bright spaces. So, maximizing sunlight was Olson's first priority when the firm submitted a proposal to the design competition in 2004 held by the City of Bellingham and the Whatcom Museum for a new museum building.
The museum staff and city leaders selected Olson Kundig's project from a number of international entries. The committee was looking for a design that would stand tall alongside two other civic landmarks: the red-brick Old City Hall, built in 1892, and the Art Deco Mount Baker Theatre, built in 1927. Because each features a tower, Olson wanted to create a contrasting structure. "They wanted this building to be a third icon," he explains. "Both of those structures stuck up into the air. But rather than create an object, we wanted a building that surrounded a public space." The outcome is the Lightcatcher, a 37-foot-tall, 180-footlong translucent wall that curves around a public plaza, and creates the entry point to the new two-story, LEED Silver museum. The building houses Whatcom's expansive collection of art, which focuses on the Pacific Northwest and its artists. (This becomes the third building in the museum's campus, along with the Old City Hall and the Syre Education Center.) It is a design that is both suitable for postcards and ready to foster community participation in the museum's activities.
During the day, the west-facing Lightcatcher filters sunlight into the museum's lobby and circulation spaces, an area the designers call the Light Gallery. Composed of an 18-inch-wide metal frame clad with translucent glass on the outside and the inside, it is designed with sustainability in mind. In addition to directing light to the interior, the double-skinned glass wall also naturally ventilates the museum when the weather is warm. When it's cool outside, as it often is in Bellingham, the double wall helps insulate the interior. Yet, the Lightcatcher is most dramatic in low light and at night; that is when its wall glows like a giant lantern. Kundig worked with Seattle lighting design firm, Candela, to create the desired effect. The scheme positions more than two dozen fixtures equipped with two 32W T8 fluorescent lamps and a narrow specular reflector in the glass-wall cavity at its base. The luminaire's tight distribution keeps the light directed into the void between the panes.
The two-ballast fixture is connected to daylight sensors (the lights turn off when there is enough natural light) and can be individually switched to control the intensity of the light. The upper portion of the Lightcatcher wall is backlit by ceramic metal halide floodlights with 150W lamps mounted on the museum roof. Color is critical in giving the wall its welcoming feel and its vibrancy. The architect and the lighting designer experimented with a number of ideas—including LEDs—as a way to paint the Lightcatcher in an array of hues, but soon zeroed in on fluorescents. They allowed the architect and the museum staff to incorporate two colors they felt were representative of the Pacific Northwest's palette—salmon and canary yellow. In fact, Olson had a precise golden-yellow hue in mind—the shade of agates, quartz stones that are found on the Pacific coast. "When you hold agates up to the sun, they just glow," he explains. "I am more inspired by nature than anything else."
The team constructed a series of full-size mock-ups, experimenting with glass, color, and texture to arrive at a solution that combines materials: yellow and pink gel sleeves over the fluorescent lamps, fritted glass (three different amber-colored densities—dot variations from tight to open—are used across the wall) and a yellow-painted finish for the interior of the wall's support structure. "The sandwich wall is so unique that no one knew how light was going to react with it," recalls Mary Claire Frazier, (now-retired) principal for Candela. "Once built, it was full of surprises. In the courtyard at night what you see is a soft glow from interior lights, but also different pieces of the structure pick up the amber and salmon light. Up close, it creates a depth, which makes for interesting patterns. But when you pull away from the wall you see the blended shade. During the day, the interior space changes dramatically if a cloud goes across the sun. The transformation is magical—all brightness and color."
Olson Kundig's and Candela's love of nature and attention to detail are echoed throughout the museum where each material choice references the region. Concrete floors are stained dark and polished to evoke reflections on a watery surface, while the wood-slat ceiling in the Light Gallery is stained to resemble driftwood that washes up on the beach. The Candela team carefully fit recessed linear 62W T5HO fluorescent fixtures in between the slats for general lighting, and low-voltage track with adjustable accent fixtures equipped with 75W AR111 lamps highlight the temporary artworks in the Light Gallery. The Whatcom galleries exhibit a wide range of art and natural-history artifacts, as well as archival photographs and documents, so it was important to limit the amount of natural light in those rooms. Candela outfitted the galleries with the same low-voltage track used in the lobby (this time surfacemounted on the concrete ceiling) and surface-mounted 32W compact fluorescent cylinders as worklights for cleaning and installation. The beauty of the Lightcatcher is that it manages to simultaneously illuminate the interior and the exterior of the Whatcom Museum, bringing warmth to the lobby while shaping an outdoor community space. The glass wall is designed so that films can be projected onto its surface and so that artists can use it for light shows, bringing Bellingham residents together for events. "Most museums are cold; most museums could go in any city," Olson says. "For me, glowing light is as iconic as anything in the Northwest."
Project The Lightcatcher at the Whatcom Museum, Bellingham, Wash.
Architect Olson Kundig Architects, Seattle
Lighting Designer Candela, Seattle
Structural Engineer Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Seattle
Mechanical Engineer TAC Engineers, Seattle
Electrical Engineer Sparling, Seattle
Civil Engineer Wilson Engineering, Bellingham, Wash.
Landscape Architect Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, Seattle and Scottsdale, Ariz.
LEED Consultant David Nelson & Associates, Littleton, Colo.
Photographer Benjamin Benschneider Photography, Seattle
Project Size 42,000 square feet (overall); 5,000 square feet (courtyard); 3,000 square foot (green roof learning exhibit)
Project Cost $11.6 million
Lighting Cost $40,000 (approximately) (Lightcatcher only)
Watts Per Square Foot 0.2 (Lightcatcher only)