The stately and solid Beaux-Arts façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has held court over Manhattan’s “Museum Mile” for more than a century. Designed by Richard Morris Hunt, with wing additions by McKim, Mead & White, the edifice is distinguished by massive Corinthian columns, heavy entablatures, intricately detailed cornices, and monumental arched openings. As impressive as the façade is, for about a generation much of its presence has been lost at night, washed out by powerful pole-mounted, glare-inducing metal halide floodlights on the opposite side of Fifth Avenue that overwhelmed the elaborate texture of the design.
That regime has now changed. A recent redesign of the Met’s plaza by Philadelphia-based landscape architecture firm Olin has transformed the museum’s Fifth Avenue–fronting public space with people-friendly amenities, including new allées of trees, modern water features that replace the old fountains, and permanent and temporary seating options. The lighting design has also been reconceived. New York lighting design firm L’Observatoire International, who also worked with Olin on the recent redesign of Columbus Circle, has introduced a new scheme that illuminates the presence of the museum’s architecture after the sun goes down while discretely providing a safe and easy-to-navigate environment in the plaza.
“The inspiration for our design was going over there at night,” says L’Observatoire founder Hervé Descottes. “The presence of the building in the day and in the city at night were different. Lit as it was from the opposite side of street with very powerful light fixtures, the façade would lose all sense of volume. It looked almost flat. There were not too many shadows. It was a brutal way of lighting such amazing architecture.”
Descottes and his team sought to find a way to better connect the museum’s staggering holdings of classical artworks with its exterior, to bring the almost awe-inspiring experience of being inside, wandering through its treasure-bedecked halls, to the experience of passing by it on the street or relaxing in the plaza. At the same time, the team did not want the lighting to be too garish or to overly accentuate the more ornate moments of the architecture.
The strategy that the team decided on was to focus on lighting only certain relationships in the façade, such as the hierarchy between the colonnade and the entryway, or the wings and the flanking pavilions. They also decided to position the fixtures in such a way that it gives the impression that the stone of the façade itself was glowing from within.
“We have a lot of applied situations,” Descottes says. “I took care first of the pedestrian view. My concern was how would you feel when you are at street level, or in a taxi when you are coming around on 81st Street. What do you see when you look at the building? I didn’t want you to see any fixtures. Now, with LEDs, it’s easier to integrate and hide fixtures, so that’s what we did.”
L’Observatoire used LEDs exclusively to light the façade and the plaza. On the façade, the team placed linear LED fixtures, 7.5W per foot, strategically in reveals up the elevation, at the cornice, and at the base of the columns in order to communicate its volume and depth. The placement of the fixtures and beam distribution were carefully considered to not create hot spots, and glare shields and sandblasted diffusing lenses were used to create a diffuse quality of light. The lighting designers gave the portico extra emphasis with spotlights that flank the entryway, framing it with a precise band of light. A warm-white color temperature range was chosen for the lighting, between 2700K and 3500K depending on luminaire placement. The slight variation in temperature was used to accentuate the hierarchies of the façade. The color was also matched as closely as possible to the building itself, creating continuity in how it appears during the day and at night as well as giving the sense that the stone itself is emitting light. “It’s really a feeling that the building is glowing from inside, giving a sense of, ‘Wow, it’s alive!’ ” Descottes says.
In the plaza, the lighting integrates into the ground plane and focuses light on the primary objects on the hardscape. LED accent fixtures uplight trees and linear LED fixtures highlight benches. Zoom-focus LED projectors uplight the flagpoles and water features. Here again, slight variations in color temperature, between 2700K and 3100K, create a hierarchy across the space.
In addition to the slight variations in color temperature, L’Observatoire set the scheme on a control system that allowed the designers to change light levels in different areas, again to emphasize the hierarchy of the architecture. The system also adjusts light levels according to the time and amount of sunlight available. As day turns to night, the lighting comes on very bright to compete with the remaining ambient natural light. This prevents the building from becoming backlit, since it faces east.
As the sky gets darker, the lighting becomes softer, settling into its modulated, hierarchical display of warmer to cooler, brighter to darker. It remains on until the museum closes, and then it starts its process of shutting down: First, the flanking pavilions go dark; then, the connecting wings shut down; and finally, only the entryway is left lit. The process was designed like this as much to conserve energy (all on the plaza and façade lighting amount to 16,847W) as to cut down on spill light that may shine into the neighbors’ windows. “The neighbors are very sensitive,” says Descottes. “We wanted to make sure our design is elegant and doesn’t offend anybody.”
Project: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue façade and plaza, New York
Client: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Landscape Architect: Olin, Landscape Architecture/Urban Design/Planning, Philadelphia
Lighting Designer: L’Observatoire International, New York
Water Feature Consultant: Fluidity Design Consultants, Los Angeles
Traffic and Transportation Engineer: Sam Schwartz Engineering, New York
Construction Project Manager: Gorton & Partners, New York
Additional Consultant: Spatial Affairs Bureau (formerly Rick Mather USA), Richmond, Va. (site furnishings and architecture)
Project Size: 70,706 square feet (plaza); 1,021 square feet (façade)
Project and Lighting Costs: Not Available
Code Compliance: No energy code was required for the project due to the museum’s status as a Historic Register building. (Note: The South Guard Booth [not part of the lighting scope] was a new structure and had to comply with ASHRAE 90.1-2007.)
Watts per Square Foot: 0.057 (plaza); 13.3 (façade); 0.47 (project total)
Altman Lighting (Outdoor ellipsoidal gobo projector with zoom focus for façade lighting)
Acuity Brands/Winona (Custom glare shields for linear LED fixtures at entry)
Acuity Brands/Winona LED (Linear LED fixtures at façade cornice and at benches)
B-K Lighting (Low-voltage landscape accent light with dimmable, 3100K LEDs at planters)
Felix (inter-lux) (LED ingrade striplight at donor signage)
Lumenpulse (Yoke-mounted 3500K LED spotlight for flagpole illumination)
Lutron (Lighting control dimming system)
Philips (Yoke-mounted 2700K LED spotlights at entrance, stem-mounted version at planters and drives; linear LED fixtures at entry porch)
Q-Tran (Toroidal transformer for linear LED fixtures at benches)
Sylvania (Power supply for LED striplight at donor signage)
Technilume (Extruded aluminum pole to accept light fixture brackets, signage, and accessories at south and north drive planting areas and tree bosques)
We-ef (3500K in-ground LED uplights at tree allées and tree bosques and 2700K ingrade fixtures for façade lighting)