Conceived as a series of shifting stacked volumes wrapped in aluminum mesh, the New Museum of Contemporary Art is a vertical study in place-making. Its three distinct windowless galleries—18-, 21-, and 24-feet-high, respectively—are at once both part of and separate from the surrounding, rapidly gentrifying Bowery neighborhood. “The volumetric shift is where the interaction with the city takes place—and with light,” explains SANAA project architect Florian Idenburg. Critical to the architects' design was that each gallery should have a different quality of light.
A series of perimeter skylights at each of the building's volumetric shifts allows daylight to enter the galleries, enhancing the lighting system designed by Suzan Tillotson of Tillotson Design Associates. Rather than “step down the daylight infiltration with severe diffusion,” as Tillotson puts it, the lighting team opted “to maintain the character and color of the light and filter it through multiple refractive layers.” The skylights are composed of five layers: an exterior metal grate, an insulated glass unit with UV filtration, a custom-designed fritted glass, automated blackout shades, and a polycarbonate light refraction material. With the blackout shades in the open position at night, interior light washes upward through the skylights, creating an ambient glow on the building's mesh façade.
The electric lighting design also follows the architecture's lead. Tillotson devised a scheme that balances daylight and electric sources, while meeting the bright light levels the architects desired—50 footcandles. “SANAA wanted crisp white boxes of light,” Tillotson explains. The solution is a custom-designed track, which Tillotson describes as “a high-power electrical busway spine.” The track combines two illumination sources, linear fluorescent and quartz halogen PAR lamps. The design's fluorescent component—54W T5HOs with UV sleeves—acts as exhibit and architectural lighting. The track is aligned with the building's structural grid and provides what Tillotson calls a “unified datum” for the lighting throughout the museum. The quartz halogen lamps provide additional accent lighting for individual pieces of art.
As provocative as the institution it houses, the New Museum casts a striking silhouette against the backdrop of downtown New York. Materials such as metal, concrete, and glass, which in the hands of other designers might not fare so well, take on an elegant simplicity, providing the perfect foil for the constant ebb and flow of city life—and light.