Some projects simply include lighting in their design, others root light in their core. The Bloch Building, the new addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, is one such project. From its inception to its realization, light permeates every aspect of the new building. “The primary building material is light,” states Steven Holl Architects partner-in-charge, Chris McVoy. “Lighting is not seen as separate from the architecture.”

The competition-winning scheme is composed of five “lenses,” glass pavilions that embed themselves along the eastern edge of the museum site. The Bloch Building offers a new paradigm for the museum visitor—a meandering path, a route of one's own choosing, where ever-present but ever-changing natural light creates a dynamic experience. In contrast, the 1933 Atkins Building provides the visitor with a more traditional museum experience with its sequential “black-box” galleries, which rely on electric sources and do not incorporate natural light. As museum director Marc F. Wilson explains, “The Bloch Building presents us with propositions we haven't seen before. Light is everywhere. It's part of the spatial composition. The experience of the space is never finished.”

Lense One, as it is referred to, houses the lobby, café, art library, museum shop, and the director's office. Multiple entry points—whether it be from the main drop off by the Walter De Maria sculpture One Sun / 34 Moons, the parking garage, the Atkins building, or the sculpture garden—are woven together using perspective and permit visitors to move through the space via a series of ramped floors.

The walls of the lenses are composed of 16-inch wide planks of structural self-spanning channel glass. An intricate system of stippling the center glass surface along with a sandblasted translucent insulation, depending on the angle the viewer is looking at the glass, it will appear to have either a satin reflection or a moiré effect. “The surface become pure light and glass,” McVoy says. Inside the glass cavity wall two layers of low-iron laminated sheet glass are applied to maintain the clearest color rendering of daylight as possible. As McVoy explains, “The lenses are instruments of light that play with the qualities of intensity and color.”

Working with the architects, lighting designer Richard Renfro and his team played a fairly technical role on the project because as Renfro explains, “The concept of light was already there.” To understand how light would work in the glass cavities, Renfro built a full-scale mock-up at his home in Brooklyn, New York, and then wheeled it down the street to study the change of light conditions.

Through the center of the glass lenses are a series of T-walls, referred to a “Breathing T's,” which form a structural spine and allow a mix of north and south light into the galleries, creating a volumetric play of light. “They curve out to cup the space and diffuse light into the galleries,” McVoy explains. Renfro and his team also used a fair amount of computer modeling to determine the amount of light in the galleries to devise a passive shading system, at the request of the museum, that would let natural light in without risking damage to the artwork. Renfro devised a three-layer shade system, with 7-, 11-, and 50-percent transmission, so that the daylight light levels in the galleries are no less than a minimum of 7 footcandles and no more than a maximum of 27 footcandles. As Renfro explains, “The multiple shades allow a maximum flexibility.”

The other main gallery lighting element is the “stitch track”—short runs of track that create a zipper-like effect on the ceiling plane and tie the long and short perspectives of the galleries together. Lighting designer Rebecca Malkin explains, “The architects did not want continuous ‘slashes' in the ceiling.” In a demanding exercise, to ensure the exact flow of the dashed stitch track through each gallery in relation to the height of the space and the slope of the ceiling, Renfro and Malkin first laid out each line of track making a paper template before it was installed.

Certainly dynamic by day as light and shadow move across the Bloch Building's surfaces, at night the building become something else altogether—an other-worldly series of glowing glass blocks, which tumble gently down the sloped landscape. Low-mercury 54W T5HL fluorescent lamps, chosen for their color rendering capabilities, are located in the glass cavity walls to achieve the nighttime glowing quality. The light is intense, but not distracting, making the grass greener, and the blue of the night sky deeper. The Bloch Building celebrates light creating a series of formal and experiential moments unrivaled in their expression—an expression that sculpts architecture through light.


Alera, Alexandra Lighting Systems, Bartco Lighting, Bega, Cathode Lighting Systems, C.J. Lighting, Columbia Lighting, C.W. Cole and Company, Edison Price Lighting, Elliptipar, Finelite, Focal Point Lighting, H.E. Williams, Kirlin Company, Lightcontrol Corporation, Nulux, Paramount, Prudential Lighting Industries, Winona Lighting

Parking Garage:

B.K. Lighting, Bega, Canlet, C.W. Cole and Company, Elliptipar, Finelite, Greenlee Lighting, Kim Lighting, Paramount Industries

Sculpture Gallery & Kirkwood Hall Renovation:

Barbican (custom laylight glass), Cathode Lighting Systems, Edison Price Lighting, Elliptipar, Fiber Optic Lighting Solutions, H.E. Williams, Lumenyte, Nulux, Winona Lighting


Custom-designed pendant-mounted fixtures are used to supplement the illumination of the café at the Bloch building entrance. The luminaries use a 150W 150Q T4 frosted lamp and have a clear, textured glass shade.

In the library, custom-designed pendant-mounted 54W T5HO 5-foot-long linear fluorescent fixtures with an integral ballast are located over each reading table. The luminaire's bent glass “shade” is made of 1/4 inch thick glass in a water white finish, sandblasted and sealed at both sides.

Hidden behind the ceiling plane of the Bloch building entry ticket area, a custom-designed fully recessed linear fluorescent T5HO fixture with two lamps in conjunction with an incandescent spotlight provide a secondary layer of light in the daylight space. A 9-inch-wide textured, tempered white water glass lens diffuses the light.

In the galleries of the Bloch building a “stitch track” track lighting system is used. Selected to keep the ceiling plane in the galleries as uninterrupted as possible, several lamp types, including PAR 36, PAR38, AR70, and AR111, and spread lenses ranging from 30-to 70-degrees are used depending on the artwork on display.