Light becomes a metaphor for learning at the New School's recently completed cultural center in New York City.
» If lighting design has particular symbolic relevance to any one building type, it is education: Here it can be more than a functional necessity, but a metaphor for the architecture's fundamental purpose. This opportunity was not lost on Sylvia Smith of Fox & Fowle, project principal for the University Hall Cultural Center at Manhattan's New School. Smith likes to create 'an overlay where I try to find the metaphorical content, the meaning of the program within the organization. The lighting in this case was very pertinent to the metaphor. I equated the evolution of the lighting treatment through the space to the unfolding of learning.'
From a more pragmatic standpoint, the lighting design was challenged to address what Smith calls the only constant in educational settings-change. The democratic, inquisitive nature of the academic community places an emphasis on dialogue and a give and take in the balance of power. 'Even if you think you have worked out a meticulous program regarding how a space will be used, it frequently evolves. The character and kinds of lighting need to take this into account,' says Smith.
Light as a metaphor for knowledge 'determined not just the effects, but the degree and level of the lighting and how it transitioned between spaces,' says Smith.
From the sidewalk, visitors pass briefly under the shade of the building's canopy into a story-and-a-half-high vestibule. The entryway is energetically bright with a panel-evenly illuminated with ceramic metal halide sources positioned 12 inches on center-that features the New School logo. 'I wanted to convey that you are entering a place where the light of learning is burning,' says Smith. Beyond the vestibule, a pattern of semi-recessed downlights uniformly light the heavily trafficked space, kinetic with the comings and goings of people who must check in to pass upstairs. The 8-foot-9-inch floor-to-floor ceiling height of the space did not leave much room for 'something with sparkle that would not be hidden, but also would not project and weigh down the space,' says Smith. Lighting consultant Karen Goldstick specified decorative Louis Poulsen fixtures featuring simple but eye-catching glass phalanges.
On the far side of the lobby is the center's primary architectural feature: a 30-foot-high glass wall (laminated with a frosted interlayer), set aglow with lightpipes vertically arranged in each of the five bays. The ceramic metal halide source that illuminates the lightpipes is easily accessible and maintainable-a primary reason Goldstick chose the remote source solution. This element, which backs the main stairwell, becomes a critical piece in the journey metaphor: the staircase, which both literally and figuratively represents the luminous interior of the school, leads visitors to the Cultural Center's gallery above. 'The stairwell helps create a two-story public space,' says Goldstick.
In a nod to the second-floor gallery, which hosts temporary exhibits, two permanent Sol LeWitt murals decorate the first-floor lobby and the second-floor gallery. The 'wall drawings' were illuminated with ceramic metal halide, a high-output source that provides great clarity and color. 'It brought out and enhanced the bold primary color of the paintings,' says Goldstick. While Smith did not request a specific color temperature, she did want consistency, so the lighting designer kept the sources in the 3000K range, which Goldstick 'prefers for interior spaces.'
A significant requirement of the lighting, says Goldstick, was that it integrate in a 'non-self-conscious way.' This goal is particularly apparent in the gallery, where the architect hoped to preserve a connection between the old space (a classic 1920s department store) and the renovated space. The ceiling is cut away from the large cast-iron columns, enabling recessed track to light the artwork on the walls, while remaining hidden. Disguising the track was important to Smith, who hates what she calls the 'bat' aesthetic: 'Light fixtures hanging from track always make me think of bats hanging from a tree branch.' Low-voltage recessed downlights surround and accent the architectural detail of the column capitals, while compact fluorescent downlights provide general illumination for the nearly 2,000 square-foot room.
The lighting seems to come full circle in the second-floor multipurpose space, adjacent to the gallery. The Main Hall is used for everything from concerts and lectures to multimedia presentations, and the recessed multi-headed incandescent lighting system controlled by an extensive dimmer panel is designed to handle virtually any scene. The real focal point of the space, however, is the large double-hung windows that line the far wall. 'The ceiling plain tips up toward the window wall,' explains Smith. 'The idea here was to put the emphasis back on the natural light'-in essence, returning the visitor's perspective to the outside, as a learning institution would its graduates. Emilie W. Sommerhoff
project University Hall Cultural Center, The New School, New York City
architect Fox & Fowle Architects, New York City
lighting designer Goldstick Lighting Design, White Plains, New York
drawings Courtesy Fox & Fowle Architects
manufacturers At Lite, Columbia, Edison Price, Elliptipar, Kurt Versen, Lamar, Louis Poulsen, Neo-Ray, RSA Lighting, TIR Systems, USA Illumination