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Monday, August 08, 2011

Book Review: The Structure of Light

The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture edited by Dietrich Neumann
Yale University Press, 2010
Hardcover, 224 pages

In the world of architecture, lighting design Richard Kelly is probably more well known for who he worked with -- Mies van der Rohe, Louis I. Kahn, Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen -- than who he was or what he did. Such is the focus of architects, where consultants are seen as secondary to the architects (apparently) wielding the most creative control, where consultants serve to realize the architects' visions. Of course the reality is that the best consultants -- lighting designers, engineers, landscape architects, what have you -- can be highly influential in influencing the design process and therefore in directing the shape of a building. In this sense it is odd that Kelly, so well respected in the middle of the 20th century, is not as common a name as his architect clients. (The Kimbell Art Museum would not be the masterpiece it is without Kelly's ingenious metal reflectors, but his name is nowhere to be found in a book in my library on the architecture of the museum.) Of course the same can be said about lighting designers in general, even though they determine to a great degree how buildings are seen and experienced, especially at night. This book (the first on Kelly, I believe), and the 2010 exhibition of the same name at the Yale School of Architecture, serve to remedy this deficiency while illuminating (no pun intended) the approach and impact of Kelly's lighting designs.

The book catalogs Kelly's important projects from 1939 to 1954 and features essays by Sandy Isenstadt, Margaret Maile Petty, Phyllis Lambert, D. Michelle Addington, Matthew Tanteri, and editor Neumann, whose introduction articulates two approaches in Kelly's designs: adding theatricality to modern architecture and hiding the light source. The first is rooted in Kelly's love of the theater and living in New York City, where stage lighting happened inside and signs lit up Times Square outside. His experience with the fountain shows in the 1939 World's Fair built upon this interest, yet it might be difficult to connect the dots between pure performance and the nighttime theatrics of the Seagram Building, Mies van der Rohe's masterpiece that sits on the cover. This photo makes Kelly's contribution in two areas clear: the glowing lobby (achieved with downlights and cove lighting raking down the travertine walls -- not Mies's first stone choice, but one preferred by Kelly) and the office floors (a luminous ceiling traces the perimeter to evenly illuminate the floors across the "tower of light"). Naturally Phyllis Lambert's essay on Kelly's contributions to the building, which also included the Four Seasons with Philip Johnson, is an especially good source of information.

The other essays look at lighting in residential interiors, the "luminous environment" of corporate America, the evolving technology of lighting, and the natural lighting of two Kahn projects, but the project that pops up the most throughout the book is the Seagram Building, particularly in an iconic photo of the lobby by Ezra Stoller. Here the invisibility of lighting comes to the fore, an effect Jacques Tati seems to be playing with in the above photo, when he was researching for his masterpiece -- and favorite to architects -- Playtime. Hiding the source of lighting is only one aspect of Kelly's influence, but it's an important one, one which I'm particularly fond of. To give light presence while simultaneously making it disappear -- something he does at the Kimbell as well, since the reflectors illuminate the concrete vaults while blocking sight of the sun -- is a poetic response to Modernism's abstraction of space and surface; traditional sconces or pendants just wouldn't work in these spaces. Ironically this influence isn't just directed to architects and other professionals who appreciate the effects; it's the millions who watch Mad Men and witness the mid-20th-century change in lighting, architecture, and life, all over again.

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