It was a high-wire act of a commission: small in budget, lofty in ambition, and vague in program. After a period of decline, the Museum of the City of New York was attempting a heroic comeback with a $90-million restoration and expansion of its landmark building. Yet the space still lacked a certain je ne sais quoi, or what the British designer and author Christopher Alexander called the “quality without a name.”
The museum directors turned to Wendy Evans Joseph, FAIA, and Chris Cooper, AIA, of Manhattan-based Cooper Joseph Studio, who observed that most visitors entering the museum shot straight for the elevators, ignoring what was arguably the best architectural feature: a marble rotunda and sweeping circular staircase that leads to a reception hall overlooking Central Park’s Conservatory Garden. The grand staircase and the negative space it frames should become the heart of the museum, they decided. What was missing was a focal point.
To help the Colonial Revival building engage a digital-age audience, Cooper Joseph envisioned Starlight, a celestial array of 10,486 brilliant LEDs suspended from the dome ceiling of the rotunda that appears to shoot star bursts in all directions for viewers spiraling the staircase. The optical illusion foregoes flashy colors or high-tech gadgetry for something simpler: the moiré effect.
For the illusion to succeed, the three-dimensional grid of lights “had to be detailed within an inch of its life,” Joseph says. “We quickly realized the goal was the phenomenon,” Cooper adds. “Our agenda was to minimize, minimize, minimize, to try to remove the appearance of design from the different pieces until all that was left was a profound moment.”
On the whole, the mass of 219 suspended wires—which the designers called “vines”—forms a rectangular box, 22 feet 6 inches tall, 14 feet 9 inches wide, and 3 feet deep. The LEDs are arranged on the vines in the shape of a horizontal cylinder with a width (or diameter) and depth equal to those of the rectangle. Visitors looking straight on at Starlight see a circle of lights. From other vantage points, the circle melts into an abstract mass of lights brought to life by the moiré effect.
Achieving that degree of precision was painstaking. Working in Rhino and Autodesk 3ds Max, the designers created computer simulations—lots of them—and hand-built scale models out of three-sided boxes. They collaborated with lighting designer Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn of Studio 1Thousand, in New York, to design clear, plastic circuit boards resembling guitar picks. LEDs mounted on both the boards’ top and bottom surfaces merge visually to form one pixel of light. Each corner of these triangular chips is connected to a low-voltage, stainless-steel wire, three per board. A fabrication crew from Rush Designs in Brooklyn soldered the points one by one, using a jig to maintain 5-3/4-inch vertical spacing between each chip along a strand. Despite making more than 15,000 solder joints on 3 miles of wire, the crew met the chip’s stringent spacing tolerance of 0.012 inch.
Installing the completed vines took four days. The crew removed an existing Colonial Revival chandelier and mounted a rectangular frame made from 1-inch-square tubular steel to the building’s steel frame with Lindapter clamps. Three subframes, each faced with plywood panels, are hinged side by side to the steel frame. The vines feed through a grid of CNC-routed holes in the plywood. Silver cylindrical counterweights hold each vine taut and stop 8 feet 8 inches above the floor, allowing visitors to circulate freely below.
Since its completion in April, Cooper says that Starlight has exceeded the expectations of the museum director, who calls the installation “the miracle on Fifth Avenue.” Visitors now head straight for the rotunda to marvel at the installation, often lying on benches, gazing upward, and snapping pictures with their smartphones. They ascend the staircase to hang out at a new café, whose design and placement support the firm’s strategy for activating the core of the museum.
The sculpture also engages the public beyond the museum’s red-brick walls. “You can see the light from down the street,” Cooper says. “It draws people inside and up the stairs, since the only way to understand it is through exploration.”