It’s not easy being a lighting designer today. Just ask Francesca Bettridge, principal of New York–based firm Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design (CBBLD), to tell you the story of how the façade illumination for the Daryl Roth Theatre came to be. Like a cat with nine lives, the project, which took more than five years to complete (finished in August 2015), encountered every possible natural and manmade challenge you can think of. Any one of those obstacles—from change of manufacturing partner, to technology evolutions, to catastrophic weather events (Hurricane Sandy, to be exact), to exhaustion of fees, and all that on top of installation and other technical difficulties—would have been reason enough for the project to falter. The fact that it was completed with its intended custom lighting solution is a testament to Bettridge and her team’s tenacity and perseverance. It was a true labor of love, she says, and one that she might not have been able to tackle earlier in her career. Thirty-plus years’ experience gave her the hindsight to know how and when to negotiate with the client and the manufacturer so that the integrity of the lighting design was fully realized.
The project began when Bettridge was approached by Steven Roth on behalf of his wife, the Tony Award winning theater producer, Daryl Roth, to illuminate the off-Broadway theater that bears her name and is housed in the former Union Square Savings Bank building (originally designed by architect Henry Bacon in 1907) at the corner of East 15th Street and Union Square East overlooking Union Square Park in New York City. The theater acquired the building in 1996, and, while it had undergone a few renovations to create the three performance venues inside, the exterior lighting had never been addressed. In fact, the building exterior had never been illuminated at all. Initially, the client only wanted to light the classical-style architectural details, but an early mock-up in July 2011 showed them that it would not achieve the desired effect. As a result, the client decided to light the entire exterior and to have a scheme befitting a theater, one that would welcome theater-goers on performance days. At the same time, the owners wanted the building to serve as a nocturnal anchor in the urban hodgepodge of the neighborhood where commercial, residential, transportation (the Union Square subway station serves three major lines), and green space meet in very close proximity.
To start, Bettridge and her team, Michael Hennes and Jeff Hoenig, made a historical survey, examining the ways in which building façades have traditionally been illuminated. The evolution of façade lighting closely corresponds to the evolution of source technology, as architects have sought to highlight buildings since the early 19th-century monuments and skyscrapers. Early lit buildings outlined the forms using incandescent lamps, and then floodlighting from a building base using high wattage incandescent, and later HID sources, became a common strategy. As zoning guidelines evolved and called for building setbacks, designers began to use parapet locations to position fixtures and highlight building crowns. With the advent of luminous ceilings, common in modernist architecture, exterior lighting drew on the interior and used it to project an outward glow—the Seagram Building in New York being one such example.
Armed with this information, CBBLD embarked on a trio of detailed studies to assess location options and associated costs. But first the firm had to create the base documentation. Research had unearthed only one drawing of the landmarked structure. Using that, plus photos and site measurements, the team constructed the CAD documentation needed for rendering and light modeling that they would need for their presentations to the client and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC).
In their first two studies, the team explored the use of metal halide floodlights mounted on poles across 15th Street and Union Square East, as well as floodlights mounted on the building terrace across 15th Street. Both options lit the building from angles that flattened it. A third study looked at attaching the fixtures directly to the building. Dimmable LED linear wallgrazers would be mounted to the theater’s cornice but none existed that could light the entire façade evenly. The AGI renderings confirmed that this solution not only provided the right amount of illumination, but it put the light where the designers wanted it, achieving enough contrast across the façade while highlighting the architectural details. It also provided minimal light at the sidewalk without any spill light to the surrounding buildings or park.
With the client on board, it was time to get approval from the LPC. Because of the landmarked status, the team had to show that the new lighting scheme could be implemented without changing the existing building or having a visual impact on the architecture. Further adding to the complexity was the fact that there was no architect of record or general contractor on the project. Everything fell to CBBLD to coordinate and present. Bettridge notes that today, lighting designers are faced with a lot of new circumstances to deal with, and often that means the absence of a traditional project team.
At this point, CBBLD began working with a major manufacturer to develop the fixture and obtain pricing. CBBLD recommended to the client to proceed with a full-scale on-site prototype mock-up, which they approved. This took place in December 2012 and was invaluable. It not only confirmed the solidity of the design, but it enabled the LPC approval process to go smoothly. With a project price in hand and the client’s permission to proceed, CBBLD was ready to move forward—which is when disaster struck. “Literally the next day, I got the call from the manufacturer that their head office had shut down the special projects department and were abandoning the work with us,” Bettridge explains. She reached out to the company to see if there was any way they might still proceed. No luck. The local rep agency did what they could do to assist with finding another manufacturing partner, but the bulk of the responsibility fell to CBBLD, along with the duty of explaining what happened to the client.
In the end, CBBLD did find another manufacturer to do the job, but it was not without a new set of complications. In the ensuing time, Hurricane Sandy had hit the East Coast, and the New York City Department of Buildings had changed its guidelines regarding bracing structures. Concerned about uplift, the fixture mounting arms now had to be re-engineered to add weight; this required changing the supports to solid-stock steel rather than hollow-tube steel. Once the fixtures were installed, CBBLD noticed they were backward, and later a series of bright spots on the façade. The fixtures had not been fabricated to the waterproofing specifications, requiring them to be re-made and re-installed. The manufacturer stood by the product and made all of the necessary corrections.
Despite the extreme challenges, the custom luminaire and how it accomplishes the lighting design is remarkable. The perseverance of the lighting design team illustrates what it means to be at the leading edge of lighting design and having the technical prowess that separates the seasoned designer from the novice. This project reveals the complexity of design practice today and what it takes to innovate. •
Project: Daryl Roth Theatre Façade, New York • Client: Daryl Roth Productions, New York • Lighting Designer: Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design, New York • Consultant for Landmarks Process: Rosen Johnson Architects, New York • Project Size: 17,482 square feet (façade) • Project and Lighting Costs: Withheld • Code Compliance: ASHRAE 90.1-2007 (Not exempted because it is a New York City landmark, not a state or national landmark) • Watts per Square Foot: Not applicable due to mix of tradable and non-tradable space types. Total wattage is 4,135W, which meets 0.2 watts per square foot category requirements for a building façade under ASHRAE 90.1-2007
Acolyte LED: All fixtures are dimmable and use 3000K warm-white high output LEDs. Fixture colors and mounting armature selected to blend with building stone and window metalwork. The five fixture types and locations are: Double grazer fixtures cantilevered from the cornice; arm-mounted balustrade uplight, hidden from view from the cornice; windowsill uplight with integral glare shield on 15th Street façade; portico ceiling uplight with integral glare shield, mounted to the top of the window lintel; and arm-mounted double grazer, concealed behind the portico entablature, which washes the back wall.