Courtesy Nelson Jenkins
Courtesy LTL Architects

"Innovative" is a descriptor bandied about so frequently in the design field these days that it should enjoy a hiatus from the lexicon. But if we consider its literal meaning–to invent and successfully apply a new method–then the lighting design at the AMOA-Arthouse at the Jones Center in Austin, Texas, truly merits the designation. Conceived by New York-based Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis (LTL) Architects, in response to a complicated renovation, the lighting concept–177 laminated glass blocks perforating the building's façade–uses basic materials (glass and light), but employs unique technology to great effect.

Like most innovative outcomes, the $4.3 million renovation and expansion of Arthouse, completed in 2010, succeeded because of collaboration and a willingness to experiment. At the helm, LTL was tasked with transforming a dark and dowdy 1926 building in downtown Austin into dynamic multifunctional galleries, offices, and events spaces. The structure, which Arthouse (originally known as the Texas Fine Arts Association) took over in 1995, had once been a theater and later a department store. "It is a very important civic location–we dubbed it the Corner of Main and Main–but with a very undistinguished building," says Sue Graze, director emeritus of Arthouse.

The building sits at the corner of N. Congress Avenue and 7th Street. A priority for the renovation was to triple the usable space by opening up a previously inaccessible second floor. Rather than denude the interior and start from scratch, LTL scraped away years of alterations to expose and celebrate the history of the space, preserving large stucco murals original to the theater, wood ceilings, and steel trusses. A new sculptural plaster awning at the entrance on N. Congress Avenue gives a nod to the former department store.

The renovated building also needed to speak to the cutting-edge activities taking place inside. Of particular concern was a large, blank wall along 7th Street with no windows, which wasn't an issue for the building's previous iterations as a theater and a department store. "We wanted LTL to enliven the exterior and make the building come alive 24/7," Graze says. "That meant the solution had to be more than just some architectural gesture."

LTL knew that installing large windows along the Seventh Street elevation might flood interior galleries with too much light and fail to achieve a show-stopping result for passersby. "We needed to change the image of the building to have some kind of symbolic registry," says Paul Lewis, principal of LTL.

The architects decided on small blocks of glass–roughly 4 by 16 inches–that puncture the building and bring light to offices and studios, while creating an arresting visual at night. "As a firm, we're interested in light less as an object and fixture, than how it gets embedded in architectural surfaces," Lewis says. The concept had been revealed to the public in 2008 after a multi-year design phase.

LTL turned to New York's LumenArch for help. A young lighting designer named Alejandro Bulaevsky took charge of figuring out how to light the glass blocks, bring electricity to multiple locations, and still adhere to the electrical code. One early idea, according to Nelson Jenkins, principal of LumenArch, was to wash the walls with light, thus lighting the blocks, using power from a solar array. But the urban setting made an unfettered solar source tricky. Instead, Bulaevsky tinkered with Ethernet wires capable of transmitting both electricity and data to circuit boards that would power LEDs. Each glass block would have a circuit board of diodes. It was a novel idea at the time. "At that point, we knew it was possible to run power through Ethernet to all of the LEDs on the boards, but we had never seen this used in a commercial application," Jenkins says. Bulaevsky selected the brightest and most powerful LED available at the time while allowing the circuit board to be the only heat-dissipating device. "Any more powerful [of] an LED would have required heat sinks," Jenkins says.

Bulaevsky created mock-ups of circuit boards and took them to the LTL offices, where the architects were playing with the structure for the glass blocks. "We built mock-ups of glass blocks in the office to test the LED iterations and the ways to fabricate the glass in order to achieve the best refractive qualities," says Jason Dannenbring, associate at LTL. "Did we want to sandblast surfaces of the glass? Would an opaque layer reflect more light? There was a lot of discussion about it not looking like a 1980s glass block installation." Ultimately, the architects settled on multiple sheets of half-inch glass, creating a palimpsest effect up close, but a solid glowing box of green at a distance.

Dannenbring says that the LED circuit board became a pet project for Bulaevsky, and that "he worked on [it] at home and late at night." Bulaevsky even found it necessary to turn his Manhattan apartment into a workshop with special equipment, such as a reflow soldering machine, to conduct research. Fellow LumenArch employees, such as Nelson Downend, were intrigued and wanted to learn from his methods. One Sunday night, Downend tagged along to watch Bulaevsky tinker with the technology, and solder, test, and program the LED boards. Unbeknownst to either of them, it would prove to be a critical moment for the project.

Trial and error made it clear that white light alone didn't transmit through the glass blocks with the desired effect, so Bulaevsky created a circuit board with LEDs capable of being lit in varying combinations. Dannenbring then flew to Austin to test the light combos on site.