New York's 42nd Street is no stranger to interesting lighting. The pulsating honky-tonk of Times Square has been fascinating visitors and natives seemingly since the creation of the incandescent bulb. But a new lobby space in a Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) building just two blocks east at 505 Fifth Avenue is a decidedly more high-brow use of light's ethereal effects. Artist James Turrell collaborated with the design team at KPF to transform two narrow lobby spaces into environments more typically found in a museum.

The speculative office building was planned with its elevator core at the ground floor's north end— necessitating a lobby configuration that traversed the full width of the site. The client wanted the space to be a collaborative effort between the New York–based architects and an artist. During a meeting, KPF design principal Douglas Hocking made an offhanded comment that the lighting in a particular rendering reminded him of a James Turrell art piece. The client immediately picked up on the thought, and with the help of a KPF colleague who knew Turrell's London-based representative, the team was set to design the lobby as one of the artist's light spaces.

Turrell has two veins of work: his “commodity” art and his “art” art. “This is his commodity art,” says Hocking, “the stuff that he does that people tend to like.” The layout of the lobby was unchanged by Turrell. Each of his interventions was inserted within KPF's initial design—an L-shaped space with the visitor lobby and reception desk segueing into a narrow elevator lobby. In the entrance space that leads to the elevator lobby, a light trough and ceiling cove separate the floor, walls, and ceilings. Two light hoops—2 1/4-inch-wide linear fixtures set flush with the walls, ceiling, and floor—create a threshold at the north and south ends of the entrance space. The east-west elevator lobby is anchored at either end by Turrell's light cabinets.

“They look like Rothko paintings,” says Hocking. These large, vertically oriented rectangles are set off from the surrounding surfaces by ordinary recessed coves. Each “canvas” is a single sheet of a translucent resin product. “Inside the cabinet is just a bank of LEDs that are staggered to get a uniform light,” says Hocking. The lights within each cabinet are programmed to constantly change over a 24-hour cycle, with various color patterns and combinations. Sometimes the light starts as a rectangle. Sometimes it grows out or recedes. “It's really beautiful and it's subtle,” says Hocking of the final animated piece.

While Turrell has done similar pieces before, these are almost twice as large as previous works, a leap in scale that created some challenges for the architects. They considered glass for the exterior surface but found that the weight of a single sheet would have been prohibitive. Hinging such a piece was also too high a hurdle. The much lighter resin material was manufactured by 3form and met both the artist's aesthetic and the architect's technical needs.

Where most New York lobbies tend to be wood and stone (in a word, expensive), the lobby finishes at 505 Fifth Avenue are simple in both color and material: white-painted plaster and gypsum board for the walls and ceilings, a dark granite for the floors. “Turrell just wanted the stucco and plaster to be the canvas the light hits,” says Hocking. But the artist was quite specific in his requirements for white paint—the walls are decorator white, while the ceiling is two f-stops darker. “That grounds the whole composition in terms of optics,” explains Hocking, who notes that it wasn't the most difficult of requests to fulfill. “You go to Benjamin Moore and pick an off-white,” he says. “It's not like picking some exotic stone.”

Hocking describes the process as a collaboration between four distinct players. James Turrell was the head honcho, but KPF did the details and material specification; London-based Isometrix, a lighting design firm, picked the fixtures; and programmer Benjamin Pearcy digitized the complex ballet of lighting changes within the light cabinets. After construction was complete, Turrell and Pearcy spent two days on site tuning the combinations. Only after that process was completed did the artist give the result his blessing as a James Turrell artwork. Satisfied with his interventions in the 505 Fifth Avenue lobby, Turrell dubbed it “Plain Dress 2006.”

ARCHITECT Kohn Pedersen Fox, New York—(Douglas Hocking, design principal; Paul Katz, managing partner; Christopher Stoddard, project manager; Theordore Carpinelli, Li Min Ching, Miranti Gumayana, Wendy Hanes, John Lucas, Lloyd Sigal, project team)
ARTIST James Turrell
PROGRAMMER Benjamin Pearcy