Lighting a Masterwork

From its commanding view atop Fairmount on the Schuylkill River, the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been a symbol of the city’s cultural status and proud historical heritage since its completion in 1928. Its main physical drawback is that there are no open adjoining surfaces to adapt for expansion. With expansion possibilities limited, the decision was made to go beneath the sprawling landmark and simultaneously open previously hidden spaces to make room for more public and exhibit space. The $233-million Core Project was projected to open nearly 90,000 sq. ft. to public access.

For the project, an architectural firm headed by Frank Gehry was selected, even though he is better known for his exuberant designs of above-ground museums, performance halls and other public structures. He is reported to have said, “I’m ready to take on the project,” when he accepted at the age of 77.

On the creative team Gehry assembled was the lighting design firm of L’Observatoire International, headed by Hervé Descottes, who had directed an impressive list of interior and exterior installations for various exhibit and performance venues. “The lighting design modernizes the building for the twenty-first century with illumination that supports the most innovative modes of exhibiting its renowned collection,” said Descottes. “New lighting is in tandem with existing natural lighting to create a memorable experience for the visitor, balancing the grand scale of the museum through layers of light.”

The firm’s scope for the Philadelphia Museum’s Core Project included the building façade and entrances, new and renovated public spaces, and circulation and exhibition spaces. While improvements were made throughout the museum, this article will focus on four major areas—the Vaulted Walkway, Williams Forum, Forum Gallery and Lenfest Hall. 

WILLIAMS FORUM: Connected to the Vaulted Walkway is a grand triple height space suitable for large scale works. Embedded into the double-sided curved ceiling are pinhole downlights and power points allowing for the attachment of temporary art accent lighting. The area is designed to accommodate a range of installation types, while maintaining a clean ceiling surface. The curved ceiling is up lit by fixtures that have been integrated into the Forum Gallery columns below. 

VAULTED WALKWAY: Opened to the public after a half-century of being closed off for operational functions, the 24-ft.-high tile-covered North/South Vaulted Walkway made its dramatic debut. Clad in a system of terracotta tiles invented by Catalan architect Rafael Guastavino in 1885, the self-supporting arches are comprised of a layer of tiles in a herringbone pattern set in Portland cement. It extends the full width of the building or 640 ft., more than twice the length of two football fields.

Suspended from the arched ceilings is a custom Light Bar. Descottes describes it as a linear element which integrates all lighting for the space. Uplights accentuate the singular overhead expanse of the tiled vaults, while downlights guide visitors along the remarkable corridor. Between the downlights, track lights can be inserted for highlighting of art exhibits. 

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