In fall 2007, the New York University Department of Philosophy moved into its new home on the corner of Washington Place and Mercer Street. Selected by the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science and a group of philosophy professors at the university, the internationally recognized firm Steven Holl Architects (SHA) transformed the interior of the 30,000-square-foot landmark building—originally built as a warehouse in 1890—into a cohesive space that the department could call its own. The department previously occupied space in the Silver Center, a mixed-use facility housing the university's College of Arts and Science.

The main staircase was designed to encourage social interaction among students and staff in the philosophy department and is made up of white, porous screens that interact with light and shadow. Andy Ryan, New York

New York–based Renfro Design Group (RDG) worked with SHA to develop a lighting concept that includes the main stair and circulation spaces in the building, as well as faculty and graduate student offices, seminar rooms, a periodicals library, lounge, and a 120-seat auditorium. To counter concerns expressed by professors and graduate students that their sense of community would be lost when spread throughout an entire six-story building, SHA designed a dynamic staircase to encourage social interaction. Envisioned as a “tower of light,” the white, porous screens that make up the staircase walls engage interplay between form, light, and shadow. Daylight filtering through the screens from exterior windows creates shifting light and shadow patterns across both the floor and wall surfaces. Diffused vertical channel strips with 3500K T5 fluorescent lamps are concealed in the perforated core walls separating the stairwell and lounges, while fiber optics featuring 150W metal halide illuminators and a color wheel to match the color temperature of the adjacent fluorescent fixtures provide additional stair lighting.

The building features numerous windows, allowing occupants to take advantage of the natural light that is filtered through screens during the day. Andy Ryan, New York

Continuing the theme of porosity, indirect light from 3500K T5 fluorescent strips placed in architectural coves serves as the primary source of illumination throughout the building. In the seminar rooms, which required a direct lighting solution, RDG refined a standard downlight product constructed with glass fiber reinforced gypsum composite material to hide two 26W triple tube compact fluorescent lamps with 10 percent dimming ballasts deep into the recessed housing. Eileen Pierce, project manager at RDG, explains that this detail allowed for “perforated punches of light, without the appearance of a typical downlight product.”

According to architect Steven Holl of SHA, the original design concept for the building was inspired by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his text, Remarks on Colour. Holl notes that he and his team “decided to develop all surfaces in different shades and textures of black and white, but with the implication of color through reflection and refraction.” At no time is this more visible than in the fleeting moments when sunlight strikes the diffraction grating film laminated between sheets of tempered window glass, throwing bursts of prismatic color onto the monochromatic staircase. Through its phenomenal interaction with form and material, light truly is the physical and philosophical backbone to this building.

Location New York
Client New York University Department of Philosophy
Design Team Steven Holl Architects, New York (architect); Renfro Design Group, New York (lighting designer)
Photographer Andy Ryan, New York
Project Size 30,000 square feet
Manufacturers Alkco, Bartco Lighting, Engineered Lighting Products, Kurt Versen, Lighting Services Inc., Martin Architectural Lighting, Nulux