The site plan shows the museum's prominent position in red and its proximity to other major landmarks on Independence Mall.
Site plan courtesy Ennead Architects The site plan shows the museum's prominent position in red and its proximity to other major landmarks on Independence Mall.

Since opening in 1976, the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, a Smithsonian Affiliate, has told the story of American Jews since their arrival in North America 350 years ago. To further this mission, the Museum recently commissioned a new 100,000-square-foot, five-story building on a corner lot at 5th and Market streets, directly across from the Liberty Bell and Independence Mall. Designed by James Polshek of Ennead Architects (formerly Polshek Partnership), the structure seeks to embody the freedom that this country has offered the Jewish people—and all immigrant groups—while at the same time remaining discreet and respectful to the many landmarks of American liberty on the mall. “Neither I, nor my client, wanted to make a major architectural statement,” explains James Polshek, “but since this is a corner site we couldn't entirely avoid that. Our goal was to convey the impression not of a fortress but of a place that is approachable. The lighting was fundamental in accomplishing that.”

Polshek's design consists of two principal architectural elements that relate to one another. The first is a narrow glass prism that faces 5th Street. Intended to represent the idea of openness and of American freedom, it affords the museum views of the mall and creates an 85-foot-high atrium within—a breathing space for visitors before entering the exhibition areas. Those spaces are located in a terra-cotta-clad box that is principally opaque with the exception of a few windows. Its solidity serves as a metaphor for the strength of Jewish survival as well as the protection of the freedoms that are fundamental to American Jewish history. It also provides a sheltered environment for the light-sensitive artifacts on display.

The glass prism and the terra-cotta box interlock as one pushes into the other and creates the museum's main circulation space in the form of dramatic glass-tiered staircases that crisscross the atrium. During the day, the building's glass elevation presents a transparent, welcoming face to the mall, while the terra-cotta surface speaks to the Philadelphia Bourse building across Market Street and establishes a sympathetic connection to the city's primarily brick architecture. When the sun goes down, the terra-cotta box recedes into darkness, while the glass prism begins to glow from within, growing brighter until achieving a soft, warm radiance that reveals the interior of the atrium. That gentle palette of light is punctuated in the upper lefthand corner of the elevation by a light sculpture by media artist Ben Rubin.

Achieving an understated quality to the light required carefully controlling light levels within the glass atrium. “The lighting is intended to make the building a friendly neighbor to Independence Hall,” says Scott Matthews, a partner at Brandston Partnership, which designed the electric lighting scheme for the project. “It subtly announces the existence of the museum and brings the eye inside so people want to go in.”

In addition to playing an important role for the museum's exterior nighttime appearance, the electric lighting scheme has important daytime functions. Because the atrium features a skylight, the design team used asymmetric T5 fluorescent reflector fixtures mounted on the walls to uplight the ceiling, to prevent the area around this aperture from appearing too dark. The skylight is actually a frosted glass floor in the building's uppermost level, and it continues to have a luminous effect after nightfall by transmitting that floor's light down into the atrium below. While this provides some general illumination, the bulk of the atrium's ambient lighting is provided by 20W ceramic metal halide tracklights mounted on theatrical pipe. These fixtures ring the space and are aimed down into the void of the atrium.

The stairs that cross the atrium have frosted glass treads and risers—the same material used in the skylight. This allows the light pouring down from above to continue its journey to the bottom of the atrium. The team also installed white LED linear strips into recesses in the edges of the stairs, to add further definition to the treads.

All of these lighting systems integrate into the architecture, illuminating the building's surfaces rather than calling attention to the fixtures themselves. The only other major architectural lighting feature is a cove system, outfitted with T5 and T8 fluorescent fixtures, that separates the floor planes of the circulation spaces from the edge of the terra-cotta box. Compact fluorescent downlights round out the illumination needs of the circulation, while the exhibition spaces are lit with standard halogen PAR fixtures and LEDs in the display cases.

In Polshek's initial design for the museum, the light sculpture at the top corner of the atrium was to be a gas-fed flame. This presented certain technical difficulties—the fire would smudge the glass, for one—as well as the environmental concern of consuming fossil fuels. A new idea emerged from a note sent by David Thurm, a former executive of the New York Times Co., to Polshek, who in turn relayed it to artist Ben Rubin. It recounted the story of Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion, read as part of the martyrology service during Yom Kippur. During Roman rule over Jerusalem, teaching of Torah was forbidden. Rabbi Hanina ben Teradion continued teaching the Torah despite the Roman decree, and was burned at the stake because of it. As he was dying, his students asked for his last vision. The Rabbi said that as the parchment was burning, the words of the Torah were leaping to heaven.

That image inspired Rubin. “It gave me the idea of words, which are central to Judaism, as being a source of light,” Rubin says. “That led to the notion of using the Talmud to drive the shape and animation of the sculpture.” The Talmud is a record of rabbinic discussions that pertains to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, custom, and history. “It has a very interesting shape on the page,” Rubin continues. “A central text, surrounded by layers of commentary. This project was about abstracting those layouts.”

The sculpture consists of seven wire-grid panels, each containing 384 programmable white LEDs—2,688 nodes in all. The panels are 100 inches high by 60 inches wide. They are held together by an open flexible cable-mesh system that spaces the nodes 4 inches on center, forming a rectangular volume. Seen from outside at night, the sculpture flickers and undulates in a manner reminiscent of fire, representing both the Statue of Liberty's torch, as well as the eternal flame (the Ner Tamid) that hangs over the Torah Ark in every synagogue—a fitting symbol for the story of one of America's most enduring cultures.

Details Project: The National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia
Client: National Museum of American Jewish History (Owner's Representative—Becker & Frondorf)
Architect: Ennead Architects, New York
Lighting Designer: Brandston Partnership, New York
Media Artist: Ben Rubin, Ear Studio, New York
Structural Engineer: Leslie E. Robertson Associates, New York
MEP Engineer: AKF Engineers, Philadelphia
Exterior Wall Consultant: R.A. Heintges & Associates, New York
Graphics/Signage: Poulin + Morris, New York
Landscape: Lager Raabe Skafte Landscape Architects, Philadelphia
Acoustics, A/V, Telecomm: JaffeHolden, New York
Exhibit Design: Gallagher & Associates, Silver Spring, Md.
Project Cost: $65 million (total construction cost, excluding exhibits)
Lighting Cost: $25 per square foot for base building fixture and installation cost
Project Size: 100,000 gross square feet
Watts Per Square Foot: 0.89W per square foot (does not include exhibit lighting)
Energy-Code Compliance: IBC 2003 and IECC 2003 (International Energy Conservation Code)

Manufacturers / Applications: Amerlux: 20W ceramic metal halide downlights at the terra-cotta soffits in the primary circulation areas
Cooper io Lighting: LED symmetric and asymmetric distributions for in-case lighting at exhibits, LED cove for stair illumination in the atrium, and LED wall grazer at auditorium
Edison Price Lighting: Tracklighting with a mixture of halogen PAR and MR lamps at exhibits, halogen PAR accent/downlights at auditorium, and compact fluorescent downlights at primary circulation areas
Engineered Lighting Products: Asymmetric T5HO in-wall uplight in atrium
Erco: Ceramic metal halide T6 downlights at building exterior
Focal Point: T5 direct/indirect pendants at administrative and curatorial offices
Litecontrol: T5 wall slot at elevator lobbies and T8 and T5 asymmetric reflector wall slots for primary circulation areas
Lighting Services Inc.: Pipe-mounted 20W MR ceramic metal halide lamps in atrium
Philips Lightolier: Rectangular MR16 halogen accent lights at museum store
We-ef: Ceramic metal halide floodlights at building exterior