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Lighting the way

Continuing Education | March 1, 2009 | By:

Fabric’s traditional role in architecture has centered on shading, with awnings or other fabric constructions tempering the sun. Yet today, sunlight — the natural light form — has competition.

Writing in the early 1900s, the noted Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier struggled — along with other designers and architects — with the new phenomenon of electric lighting. He described this modern artificial light as “intense, sharp.” A century later, the medium still proves a design challenge. Indoors, the fluorescent lightscape of offices, particularly with deep floor plates, creates a soulless environment. Certainly, winter depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which may affect as many as 11 million people in the United States alone, is not ameliorated in the typical office setting. Outdoors, “light pollution” — the adverse effect of man-made light from poorly designed lighting of streets and parking lots, including sky glow, glare, light trespass, light clutter — negates the simple wonder of the night sky. The safety and security provided by light is critical, but municipalities and other governmental agencies are struggling with the energy waste of indiscriminant lighting, which actually can decrease visibility. (

Challenges remain, yet since Le Corbusier’s time the lighting industry — designers, engineers and manufacturers — have developed more complex and richer lighting methodologies. Fixtures (ranging from the smallest pinpoint diode to large high-wattage lamps), and mediating accessories (such as filters and louvers) have evolved. Moreover, the concept of lighting is much more sophisticated, differentiating for instance between interior and exterior usage, or the scale of the space or object to be lit. Illumination for close environments, such as spas and bedrooms, varies radically from lighting bridges and towers.

As professionals explore electric lighting, fabric is playing a prime role. Many innovative solutions integrate “artificial” lighting with fabric, a material which can admirably alleviate the harshness Le Corbusier associated with electric lighting. Of course banal solutions exist, such as the back lit awnings pervasive in the strip malls of the suburban landscape, but more progressive designs are also possible.

Modeling night light

Consider the Glendale Chess Park. In this vest pocket park — really a passageway linking two Glendale, Calif. streets — safety and security issues, and the simple need to provide adequate light to comfortably play chess, necessitated electric lighting at night. The resolution involved fabricating chess piece lanterns/lamps — in effect 8.5m tall towers — with Ferrari “Soltis” fabric providing the lampshades. Four 100-watt incandescent lamps illuminate each of the five chess pieces, which in combination with the fabric yields enough light to play chess — 9 footcandles. But as the fabric shields the bulbs, the light is a warm glow that does not overpower.

For millennia, fabric has long been affiliated with shading buildings from sunlight or otherwise filtering daylight. In fact, an issue of Fabric Architecture (March/April 2005) was devoted entirely to this theme. However, the integration of fabric with electric lighting, as in the Glendale project is a new concept. In this seemingly simple Chess Park design, what were the prime issues integrating architecture and lighting and how are they resolved? Lighting, after all, is one of the most complex issues of any architecture project. And ironically, though light is the primary sense through which we visually experience architectural space, lighting is often an afterthought in the design phases.

Fabric as a shading material is used primarily to reduce heating loads and air-conditioning costs, with fabric opacity, orientation, and a whole host of other issues critical to factor into any awning or sun-screen design. If tempering sunlight and daylight is the goal with fabric shading, fabric can also shape electric night lighting or interior spaces illuminated by electric light. The contrast between modeling the light of day and shaping the electric lighting for night, or dark interior spaces, could not be more extreme. However, the fabric’s reflectivity or its capacity to diffuse light, be it sunlight or electric light, does not vary.

Perhaps the greatest difference between using fabric to shade the sun versus using it to filter electric light is in the design processes and strategies. In the Glendale project, for instance, the designers toured sites around the city armed with light meters, scouting outdoor spaces where people congregated. The team took light readings at the most populated spaces and strove to create similar light levels within their design. To create those ideal light levels within the sculptural chess pieces, experimentation was required. The design team, fronted by Rios Clementi Hale Studios, interactively collaborated with fabricators and engineers Carlson & Co., who have similarly worked with artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons on sculptural pieces.

Using scrims

The novel integration of fabric and electric lighting, one that led to a unique visual solution in Glendale, is also manifest in the design of the metal scrims on Seattle’s McCaw Hall, for an outdoor promenade for the ballet, opera and other theatrical productions housed inside. Artist and lighting designer Leni Schwendinger, principal with Light Projects Ltd., worked with LMN Architects and owners, Seattle Center, to accomplish their goal — to allow theatrical drama to percolate to the outside of the Hall. The architect’s original solution involved projecting video onto the scrims, but Schwendinger came up with a simpler, more dramatic concept — projecting swaths of light onto the scrims in changing colors like a musical score. The final design called for nine, 9m-tall metal scrims, up to 18m in length, staggered at 6m and 12m apart and hanging 4m above the walkway.

A vibrant, virtual ceiling is implied by different hues of projected lighting upon the metal fabric. The scrims were constructed with a delicate intertwined cork-screw design, similar to the coil drapes originally invented for fireplace screens, held in place by tensioned cables that secure top and bottom to arrest movement from heavy winds. Schwendinger collaborated with the design team in specifying all materials in the promenade — from the steel gauge and scrim weave density, to the brightness, hue and matte of the promenade paving — to achieve an optimum affect of light between the vertical scrim planes and the horizontal path plane below.

At McCaw Hall, the lighting and scrim had to yield 5–10 footcandles at the walkway level to provide enough light for theatre visitors. To achieve this goal, Light Project’s design tools included traditional lighting calculations, as well as the intuition and experimentation necessary in any innovative project. Insight into the constructability and maintenance concerns are also critical. For instance, relamping can be a major expense, making it important to minimize fixtures and bulbs, while still achieving the dramatic effects desired. A standard approach to lighting the McCaw scrims would have required hundreds of fixtures — a maintenance nightmare. Instead Schwendinger came up with a manageable scheme whereby two panoramic fixtures light each scrim.

Fabric texture, reflectivity

Schwendinger notes that unlike brick or stone, materials which most commonly absorb light, fabric is a more light sensitive material. Certainly, there are reflective bricks — think a light colored, glazed unit — but “fabric is by its very nature transmissive and reflective. A fabric’s weave, its texture and porosity, contributes to these characteristics, which make it material amenable and conducive to integration with electric lighting.” It is no wonder that simple lampshades are fabric; the material diffuses electric light. Projects like McCaw Hall’s promenade pick up on these same principles in its lighting design, elevating it to an art form with a “parallel development of technique, concept and vision.”

The lighting panache of McCaw Hall is also evident in two recent Light Projects interiors, both with Meta Brunzema Architects. For a temporary exhibition project at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, Light Projects created a luminous fabric membrane, a floating ceiling that anchors the entry of the Museum’s main exhibit hall. Entitled “The Shimmering Biomorphic Membrane of Light,” the piece utilizes the reflectivity of a tightly woven translucent vinyl fabric — in contrast to the loose metal weave of McCaw’s metal scrim. Multiple lighting and projection techniques, create the theatrical effects of the installation. Similar strategies were utilized in the North Lobby of the Metropolitan Pavilion — a major New York City events space. Opaque fabric “clouds” hover above the lobby. And, by changing light levels and color, the space mood can shift from warm and inviting to cool, elegant blue, effects accentuated by the fabric’s moiré pattern.


All these projects, each visually striking, illustrate the potential of fabric used in conjunction with electric lighting — whether in interior or exterior applications. As Schwendinger notes, “light provides orientation, produces atmospheres, enhances and creates visual textures and underscores the lyricism of time.” Yet, “light must be integrated with materials to affect space,” the interrelation of space, material and light are critical. The wealth of fabric weaves, opacity, transparency, and other characteristics makes it an ideal medium with which to explore, mold and shape electric light.

Todd Willmert is a contributing editor of Fabric Architecture who specializes in writing about architectural technology and design.

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