The Power of Light

The Power of Light

UIC Richard J. Daley Library,
University of Illinois at Chicago
Schuler Shook,
David Woodhouse Architects

Students pulling all-nighters at the University of Illinois Chicago might find the experience considerably less dreary thanks to an inspired lighting redesign of the Richard J. Daley Library.

“Nobody was really pleased with the lighting,” said Emily Klingensmith, Schuler Shook principal and project leader on the Daley Library. Recessed ceiling elements previously swallowed up light. The existing fixtures were marred by overly prominent HVAC diffusers, which blocked the light, leaving only the building’s concrete coffers illuminated. Other areas of the space were offensively bright, in excess of 100 foot-candles.

Though well represented by institutional buildings of government, housing, and higher learning, Brutalism is now popularly reviled. But even scornful observers have to give UIC’s Daley Library a second pass after its lighting redesign. “Brutalist can be beautiful,” Klingensmith said. “We wanted to really respect the rhythm of the architecture and the pattern it creates.” All of the light was previously directed downward. Instead of running from the structure, Klingensmith’s team decided to embrace it. They illuminated the building itself, coaxing balance from formerly harsh contrasts.


They rerouted ductwork from the coffers and tucked HVAC diffusers beyond the end of the ceiling bays, opening up those spaces for parallel lighting elements within and between iterations of the building’s patterns.

“Although the architecture has a very rigid pattern and rhythm,” Klingensmith said, “the spaces below flow through them. There are work stations and collaborative zones that flow throughout the entire space.” Large drum-shaped pendants hang closer to the ground to more intimately light group work areas, which are sometimes demarcated by hanging metal mesh screens. “Through lighting, we wanted to help people better understand how there are different zones within this large space.”


The library’s high ceilings make its many walls prominent planes. Seizing that opportunity, David Woodhouse Architects designed a pattern of custom ideograms. Depending on the strength of the ceramic metal halide lighting that illuminates the circular images, which symbolize different degrees offered at the university, the small icons give way to larger images of campus life like students walking through the library.

Though the lighting redesign’s impact was drastic, its physical presence is not. Schuler Shook took steps to hide fixtures, tucking the ideograms’ lighting tracks above a beam, for example, or cantilevering asymmetric wall fixtures off the walls in the group study areas. The designers were equally concerned with the impact their redesign would have on the maintenance team and the building’s energy budget. The new scheme uses just six lamp types and reduces the energy usage from 2.5 watts per square foot to under one.

“We were always trying to make the space feel more inviting and comfortable,” Klingensmith said. Now students will have one less excuse to not study.

Chris Bentley

Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center,
Cannon Design, Architecture
And Lighting Design

Cannon Design was looking for a fitting symbol for the Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Phoenix, Arizona; one that they could integrate into the healthcare facility’s architecture. It had to be meaningful, of local relevance, and abstract enough to mesh with the building’s desert-contemporary aesthetic. The firm found its answer in the Palo Verde tree, a common fixture of the Arizona desert that is known for its healing abilities. (It’s often called the “nurse plant,” as it provides habitat for other flora and fauna in the desert.) Cannon used the patterning of the tree’s wispy leaves and branches to fashion a four-story, backlit feature corner above the center’s open-air entrance known as the “Lantern of Hope.”

“We thought there should be some marker in the landscape for this building, and this was it,” said Cannon Design Associate Principal David Polzin, designer for the project.


Constructed out of 32 half-inch-thick water-jet cut aluminum panels, the lantern’s intricate pattern of more than 10,000 openings were cut by a company that cuts armor plating for military vehicles. A structural steel framework holds the panels in place. A translucent tensile fabric scrim with 40 percent light transmittance backs the panels, allowing ethereal daylight to trickle into the building’s interior during the day like the dappled shadows created beneath a forest canopy.

At night, color-changing LEDs illuminate the lantern. Cannon Design’s in-house lighting team designed the scheme in AGI, a light modeling program. The designers concealed the LED fixtures on a ledge at the bottom of the lantern from which they uplight the panels. The hues can be coordinated with the specific cancer awareness colors, ranging from pink to blue to orange.


The lantern is capped by a clear glass skylight held in place with a pin-supported structure that allows ample daylight into the interior of the lantern. This natural backlighting helped to mitigate the reflectivity of the panels’ transparent elements—a real concern in perpetually sunny Phoenix. Cannon also bead blasted the aluminum panels, creating a satiny matte finish that softens glare and helps the panels to blend with the building’s other materials: zinc, terracotta, and concrete. “We were concerned about the desert sun, and we didn’t want to use a metal that would be blinding,” explained Polzin.

To complete the Palo Verde reference, Cannon placed a fountain at the base of the lantern. The burbling water cools the shaded air, much as the tree does for the critters that call it home, acting as a “mediator between the desert and the interior,” as Polzin put it.

Sam Lubell

Barnes Foundation,
Fisher Marantz Stone,
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects

Early in the process of designing its new facility, Barnes Foundation director Derek Gillman toured the museum’s original 1925 Paul Cret–designed building with architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien and lighting designer Paul Marantz of Fisher Marantz Stone. In one of the institution’s famed galleries—the design of which, by a quirk of law, was to be replicated exactly in the new structure down to the placement of the paintings—Gillman walked to a window and pulled back the heavy fabric of the black-out blind that hung there. Daylight flooded the room momentarily, bringing out colors in the impressionist and modernist pictures and a certain luster in the furniture and African sculptures that the electric lighting simply could not render.


Another thing also became apparent with the blind drawn. The wooded landscape of the Marion, Pennsylvania site became part of the display, creating an interplay between art and nature. This is how the Barnes was meant to be experienced—an intention that had taken a serious blow when conservators discovered the deleterious effects of sunlight on artworks. Gillman wanted to bring this back in the museum’s new home on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

“To me one of the great challenges of the Barnes, in terms of the galleries, is that so little could be changed that light became a leading player,” said Marantz. “It’s a leading player in any museum, but especially in one that is known for everything except for the light.”

The 12,000 square feet of the Marion galleries was expanded to 93,000 square feet to add traveling exhibition spaces, art education facilities, and visitor amenities. In order to arrange the new facilities in a way that would not choke out the recreated original galleries, the architects divided the plan into two distinct sections: a bar containing the Marion replica, and an L-shaped element with the new program. Separating the two is an area known as the Light Court, an informal space that can be used for a variety of functions. Capping the court is the Light Canopy, a large clerestory outfitted with acid-etched monolithic glass that filters and diffuses daylight.


Each gallery is tuned to deliver an optimal amount of light—natural and artificial—based upon what is on display, whether drawings, paintings, or sculpture. Sixteen different types of glass were selected for the windows, employing a mixture of tinted and reflective coatings to reduce daylight transmission to 14 percent. Photo sensors in each room measure the footcandles of daylight impacting the wall adjacent to the windows, automatically adjusting the intensity of the artificial lighting. All artificial light is provided by T5 fluorescent fixtures concealed within the picture rail at the tops of the galleries’ walls on the first floor and within clerestories on the second floor. The building’s ventilation ducts were also concealed in these locations, freeing the ceilings to be shaped differently to reflect light in the manner most suited to the room in question. The windows are also equipped with shades, a solar veil shade that reduces light transmission by five percent, and a blackout shade to be deployed when the museum is closed to the public. While the photo sensors in the rooms can trigger these shades, additional sensors on the roof act as regulators, keeping the shades from raising and lowering repeatedly during partly-cloudy days.

Aaron Seward

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital,
University of Michigan
The Lighting Practice,
HKS Architects

Depending on the purpose of their visit, it may be a lofty goal to design a children’s hospital so well that kids actually look forward to receiving treatment. If anything can be done to further that objective by a lighting designer, The Lighting Practice has tried it in the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Mott’s lobby is playfully bathed in LED lighting. Visitors first experience a programmable light wall—usually set to an undulating rainbow pattern, it can turn green and red at Christmas, say, or a sleek white for cocktail receptions. It sets the tone for an interior not lacking in clean white lighting, but defined by its vibrant dollops of saturation.


The elevator lobby is a palate-cleansing white, tucked around the corner from the main lobby’s curving front desk. Jered Widmer, lead designer for The Lighting Practice on the project, said creating “positive distractions” for the hospital’s young patients was important, but so was restraining those same design elements so as not to appear garish or overbearing.

“Architects, interior designers, and lighting designers have much the same thought process in terms of creating destinations,” Widmer said. “You want to have points of interest and create some differences, but if you lit every wall with color-changing panels it could get pretty flat.”

“Each of the disciplines could almost operate in a vacuum in the old days,” he said. “Now we’re finding ourselves working back and forth.” Collaboration and cooperation across design teams are part and parcel with the practice these days, he added.

In some cases toning it down left room for creativity from the architect or client side. Widmer’s team blanched the light at the back of the elevator bay, illuminating a wall that became an elevated exhibition space for art.


Elsewhere architectural restrictions were blessings in disguise for the designers. Second-floor waiting room walls visible from the main lobby were going to bear the same “strong graze of colorful light” seen on the first floor, but code-required sprinklers and other fixtures would have cast deep shadows. Instead, the team bounced light off the ceiling. “It created a more interesting, intense glow of light along the wall,” Widmer said.

Other rooms use colored lighting and complementary interior design palettes to aid wayfinding. Repeating ellipses and oval shapes—an architectural element the design team took to calling “innies” and “outies” depending on their protrusion—provided ceiling bays and coffers for a splash of color. Elsewhere the lighting was more directly therapeutic. In the dialysis room, for example, the programmed rainbow pattern returns. Whether they’re drinking in a shifting spectrum or enjoying the clarity of white light, Widmer said he hopes children at the hospital will be at ease.

“It’s about pulling back a bit and creating a love for the space, so people don’t mind coming to the doctor’s office or the hospital anymore,” Widmer said. “They’re there because they have to take care of something, but at least they’re comfortable.”

Chris Bentley