When Jeff Gerwing, principal in the Detroit office of SmithGroupJJR, walked into the Cranbrook Art Museum in 2008, he had one question: "Why aren't the lights on?" Gerwing, a co-leader of SmithGroupJJR's lighting-design practice, was touring the facility with his colleagues to assess the extent of a much-needed restoration to Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen's iconic brick-and-peristyle building. Built in 1942 on the campus of the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., the museum houses a permanent collection of 6,000 items and plays host to traveling exhibitions of contemporary art and design, but in the mid-2000s, outdated mechanical systems were threatening the museum's accreditation, not to mention the art. SmithGroupJJR was hired to renovate the existing structure and to add a new building for storage of the museum's growing collection. That day in 2008, Gerwing stood in the galleries looking up at the coffered ceiling original to the Saarinen design: the lights were turned off and the coffers were punctured by ad hoc tracklighting. "The galleries, from a lighting standpoint, weren't in good shape," he says.
Gerwing suspected that the coffers were something special and a trip to Cranbrook's archives confirmed his belief. After poring over original blueprints, construction documents, and correspondence between the architect and contractors, Gerwing learned that Saarinen, always ahead of his time, had installed the newest lighting technology for the time—fluorescent tubing, as it was the early 1940s—into a custom-designed ceiling that was equal parts architecture and lighting. "It wasn't just lighting, it was his architectural vision for the space," Gerwing explains. The coffers organized the ceiling overhead, creating a geometric pathway to guide visitors from one gallery to the next. The coffers also provided a unique solution to ambient light through a Modernist play on skylight design used in many 19th-century museums. Saarinen "extrapolated that skylight effect to create a luminous plane on the ceiling," Gerwing says.
Saarinen made the ceiling seem lit from within by using attic space above the ceiling to house the luminaire components, including the ballasts, thereby setting off the sculptural quality of the coffer's recessed angles. "He took the first generation of commercially available fluorescent lamps, and the size of the coffer was built off the length of that tube," Gerwing says. "The coffers are structure, they are lighting, they are architectural form, they are electrical conduit—they are all of that designed into one, and everything was detailed down to the tiniest degree."
Along with the illuminated coffers, Saarinen added a handful of spot luminaires to each gallery and installed fixtures inside the wood casework to illuminate art displayed within. The lighting plan was, at the time, just right. "The initial photographs of what the galleries looked like in the '40s were gorgeous," says Gregory Wittkopp, director of the Cranbrook Art Museum. But over the years, the evolving nature of the collection—with additions of digital media, for example—and the constant movement from traveling and student exhibitions changed the needs of the curatorial staff. "The problem was that it was very inflexible," Wittkopp says. Saarinen's lighting scheme was just too static.
Then, in the 1980s, the original ballasts started to smoke in the attic and the staff worried about the possibility of fire. "We just turned them off and a makeshift tracklighting system was installed, one that literally was tacked onto the ceiling," Wittkopp says.
The mandate to SmithGroupJJR was to update the systems in the building and make it seem as though nothing had changed from Saarinen's original design. Lighting wasn't initially on the list of things to fix, but it soon became evident that the coffers were an important element of the original design, so they were added to the scope of work for the $22 million project. Gerwing and his partner, lighting designer Matthew Alleman, were given the go-ahead on the condition that the new system be flexible and easy to maintain.
Just as Saarinen had used the latest in lighting technology in the early 1940s, so did Gerwing and Alleman as they started the project in 2008 and completed it this past fall. They wanted the coffer system to be dimmable and knew that the varying color temperatures of fluorescents wouldn't work. "When you get to 30 percent output, they [fluorescent lamps] can go purple." Gerwing says.
LEDs were the solution, both for their lumen output and efficacy as well as from a conservation standpoint. At the time, though, an off-the-shelf linear white-light LED solution didn't exist. Gerwing contacted Kevin Dowling, who was then vice president of strategy and technology at Color Kinetics. "If you looked up at that ceiling with the individual coffers, even though you didn't see the fixtures, you would easily see any difference in color temperature," Dowling says. "Getting the binning of the LEDs tight enough so that you didn't get color disparities was important, and it was also important that the light didn't pulse or flicker when dimmed."
The new, linear LED fixture provided a diffuse light that glowed in the galleries. Gerwing and Alleman designed a multilayered system with a secondary layer of track accentlights for texture and focus. They channeled Saarinen in the selection of those fixtures, choosing a cylindrical trackhead with a simple stem and no yoke—a minimalist look that the modernist architect would have liked. They also customized the tracklighting with a PAR38 lamp to provide enough output for the galleries' high ceilings. In some galleries, non-coffered ceiling space could be used to hang the tracklighting, but in several other rooms, the fixtures had to go above the coffers. The lighting designers created electrical access at the corner of the coffers where the PAR38s could be plugged in when needed or covered to camouflage the hole when not in use.
Mark Baker, preparator/assistant registrar at the museum, is now able to control and fine-tune the layers of light in each gallery using a remote-control system. A series of preprogrammed scenes—house cleaning, museum open, and museum closed, for example—make it possible for staff to operate the lighting.
Baker says that the coffers have garnered a lot of attention. "People just love it. The LEDs are excellent lights and they make the cavities within the ceiling look so sculptural and modern. They return them to this life that they once had," he says.
For the new three-story, 28,000-square-foot addition to the museum, Gerwing and Alleman wanted to create a contrast from the gallery-lighting approach. The new space holds storage facilities, offices, and storage vaults where students, academics, and artists may view the museum's collection. The lighting materials are basic. "We wanted it to feel like you were in a crypt, almost like you shouldn't be there, and to make it feel special in a different way," Gerwing says.
For the main corridors, the lighting designers requested a metal-grate system to hang below the ceiling plane so that the fixtures—downlights with fluorescent fill—could create a bit of texture on the walls. In the storage-display areas, the art is showcased behind glass walls and has a feel that is similar to a storefront. Here, the designers installed luminous squares in the ceiling that are reminiscent of the coffers and that alert passersby that something special is happening, that they should pause and take a look.
Wittkopp says that the project more than achieved its goals of updating Saarinen's vision without altering it. "When you're doing a restoration like this, it's a sign of success if people come into the gallery and they look around and say: 'Greg, I thought this was $22 million, what did you do?' Your goal is to make sure you're restoring, not changing,"
Except when it comes to the lighting, he adds: "What people do say is: 'Did you have lights on in the ceiling like that before?' That is what people notice first when they walk into the galleries."