Elegant and simple, but in no way simplistic, that is how an 85-year-old abandoned cow barn in rural Illinois, transformed into a sophisticated architectural retreat, is best described. Collaboration between longtime colleagues and friends, Helmut Jahn and Michael Rohde, the project exemplifies the synchronicity between architect and lighting designer born out of a working relationship built on mutual respect and trust.
With Jahn acting as both the client and the architect, the project's purpose was to create a retreat for his office—Murphy/Jahn Architects—in nearby Chicago. A place for the design team to gather for a quiet weekend or to focus on project and competition charrettes, the barn is fully equipped with the technical components of a remote office.
Two primary architectural interventions were made to the existing structure; a new skylight running the length of the main roof, and the addition of a swimming pool in what was once the stalls for manure collection. Jahn wanted the space to retain an “open” feeling and be respectful of the existing architecture with its timber post and beam structure. To that end, spaces like the kitchen area and sleeping quarters with bunk beds (similar to a hostel setup) are kept to one end of the main hall. But it is the role of daylight that makes this spaciousness complete. As Michael Rohde explains, “The whole structure was stripped and simply opened. The building [faces] absolute north, it works like a sun clock. You could actually put lines on the floor, write numbers, and see by the numbers what time it is.” Industrial-style pendants with glass prismatic lenses and tungsten halogen lamps run the center of the hall and side wings. These fixtures provide a supplementary layer of light and were chosen for their excellent color rendering and dimming capabilities. To ensure sufficient illumination at night, a third layer of fluorescent luminaires, located on top of the beams and hidden in a U-shaped aluminum profile to prevent glare, round out the lighting scheme. The use of indirect lighting throughout the project is essential to Jahn's minimal architectural approach and desire that light be seen, not the light fixture. This holds true in the kitchen as well where the beam structure once again serves as the foil for task lighting in the form of track spotlights.
The swimming pool area by day is a light-infused space. Large window openings line the perimeter walls, allowing daylight to provide a cool illumination, while four lines of fluorescent fixtures housed in a perforated metal enclosure highlight the wooden beam structure of the ceiling with a warm glow, and accentuate the length of the pool. At night the atmosphere of the pool area takes on dramatic proportions as the indirect fluorescent ceiling luminaires cast a cool glow on the ceiling structure and recessed low-voltage tungsten halogen fixtures define the volume of the pool itself.
Not a typical residential setting in that it is not a permanent home; nonetheless the attention to detail and consideration of the quality of light throughout the project has a warm and intimate feel. “Every project is individual but the principals of lighting are always the same,” Rohde explains. “You try and understand the language of the building, and you discuss the client's aim.” And in that the design team has succeeded, creating a light-infused and welcoming place that nurtures the creative process.