Let There Be Light: In Defense of Diller Scofidio Renfro's Skylights
Broad Museum's exhibition spaces. Courtesy: Los Angeles Times.
Let there be light—unless contemporary art is present. Then let there be fluorescent bulbs whose dingy pall mimics the atmosphere of today’s typical artist’s garret. That, at least, is the message sent by Christopher Knight, the Los Angeles Times’ art critic. In his critique of the just-unveiled Diller Scofidio + Renfro Broad Museum design on Grand Avenue in Los Angeles, he says that the “building is still upside down” because its main exhibition floor, which encompasses more that 35,000 square feet of completely flexible space, is located at the proposed museum’s top. That to Knight is a waste and wrongheaded, as the idea that art should be seen in natural light went out—I am not making this up—with the invention of incandescent light.
(A quick aside for all those anonymous readers who immediately think I am shilling for a suposed stararchitect: I would be glad to discuss this issue in relation to any high-profile, well-designed building, and welcome suggestions.)
I have to admit the hatred of skylights is one of my pet peeves. My day job is that of an art museum director, and my own curators, as well as many of my colleagues and most consultants art museums use when they plan galleries, have joined the natural light-ist bandwagon. An egregious recent example is the Akron Museum of Art, where Coop Himmelb(l)au went to great lengths to lift the main exhibition space up into the sky under a flying roof, only to have the museum make all the galleries fluorescent-lit.
It is obviously true that much art cannot handle a great deal of natural light. Works on paper and textiles, as well as such materials as wax that have found their way into contemporary artworks, degrade in that light. Video work is best seen in a darkened room. Some works of art are specifically designed for very controlled lighting conditions. But a lot of art looks at its best under natural light, whose complexity and clarity still has not been equalled by anything humans have made. Natural light can bring out depths of color and texture in paintings and sculpture that disappears under glaring spotlights or weak room lighting. I also think that the environment of repose and contemplation skylights provide is particular to how we use art museums as places of refuge, concentration, and reflection upon the complexities of the world we leave when we enter into their confines.
The idea that art should only be seen in the kind of atmosphere in which it was painted is simply too silly for words. By that token, we should look at anything invented before that incandescent appeared by candlelight. Better yet, we should not see it in museums at all, but in churches or palaces. As another aside, I would bet that most artists would prefer skylights or north-facing windows as well; it is just that many can’t afford them.
The reality is that skylights are essential to how we experience much art, and are one of the great things those expensive and cumbersome monuments we call art museums provide us. What’s more, there is a simple truth about such skylights: if you have them, you can cover them up or otherwise temper the light. If you don’t, well, you can’t.
So here’s to skylights, and to the kind of open, grandly scaled, and expansive space Diller, Scofidio + Renfro have designed for Los Angeles. May they survive those who would seek to drive fluorescent tubes through their UV-treated panes, and may those lights cover many more art galleries.