Mar 19, 2020

Vintage buildings in the Motor City are making a comeback—both outside and inside—and architectural lighting is a key driver of the urban renaissance. Two projects from a local design firm illustrate this holistic approach

By Paul Tarricone

Just a few short years ago, the city of Detroit seemed to take a dim view of the importance of lighting. In 2013, with the city in financial straits, 40% of the streetlights did not work, and the ones that did were dependent on outdated or unreliable technology. All told, 80% of the street lighting infrastructure was either decayed or obsolete.

No more.

Step one was the creation of the Public Lighting Authority, which installed 36,000 LED streetlights in its first year alone and 65,000 to date. Along with that came building façade illumination in key downtown locations, helping the Motor City roar back to life.

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Robert White, director of local lighting design firm Illuminart, Troy, MI, describes how city planners came to view lighting as a tool for revitalization. “We did early work directly with the city to temporarily light select derelict buildings along the vacant Woodward corridor in downtown Detroit, as well as in adjacent neighborhoods,” he says. “These early examples helped prove how lighting can transform a neglected building. They helped stimulate potential developers’ imaginations with visions of what could be if the buildings were purchased and renovated. Within six months upon completion of the lighting, these buildings were all purchased and were at the forefront of what has grown into a multibillion-dollar reinvestment in downtown Detroit.”

As it happens, exterior lighting was just the half of it—the lure, if you will. Behind these façades are new hotels, restaurants, residences and retail establishments, each lighted to further promote urban renewal.

What follows is a look at two projects that illustrate how Illuminart played the outside/inside game in their hometown of Detroit.

Detroit Foundation Hotel

You don’t need to venture very far into the Detroit Foundation Hotel to know its history. In fact, simply walking up to the front door will do the trick. A new boutique hotel opened in 2017 was once the Fire Department Headquarters—a fact made obvious by the massive red doors that remain in place today. Other repurposed materials include original marble, wall tile, flooring and salvaged wood. As another gesture to the Detroit connection, custom wallpaper with printed photographs of historic Detroit architecture line the guest rooms. The refurbished building was named one of Time magazine’s “World’s Greatest Places 2018.”

It’s quite the comeback story, and the lighting, which earned White a 2018 IES Illumination Award of Merit, was a key player. “We used lighting as a tool to celebrate the building and enhance its unique features,” he says. “We also had to be bold with design and introduce a quality of glamour which Detroit has not experienced for decades.”

The main element of the building was a massive garage now repurposed as hospitality space. The firetruck bays with their 25-ft ceilings, fire poles and utilitarian—yet attractive—glazed brick walls held great potential for the new hotel, White explains. “The challenge was to enhance these elements along with new features like the bar with lighting techniques that were dramatic but not distracting.”

Illuminart’s exterior and interior lighting plan work in unison. At the entrance, easily accessible up/downlight cylinders with internal tilt adjustable optics scallop the stone and brick and provide lighting for the sidewalks. The ambient 2200K light spills from the interior and illuminates the open red doors and arched openings without the need for accents that could damage the structure.

A bar/restaurant provides the most dramatic complement to the exterior lighting. A massive chandelier (dimmable) of art-glass globes and exposed-filament lamps encircles the bar. Larger golden globes provide additional sparkle. All are LED.

Side bending LED tape (2700K) provides a glow beneath bar counters to light the marble cladding. Wooden modified pendant lights provide splashes of 2700K LED light, augmenting texture on wooden tables and lowering the scale of the space for intimate dining.

Even the old fire poles in the restaurant are put to work. They are uplit to graze the curved glazed brick. To finish the space, petite coves with 3-W per linear ft LED tape trace the perimeter of the voluminous ceiling and the reclaimed tin panels.

Vinton Building

Architect Albert Kahn’s Vinton Building was another obvious candidate for renewal. Completed in 1917, the 12-story neo classical-style building sits at the corner of two of downtown’s busiest streets and was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1982 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. “The owner saw lighting as a major tool to signal the building’s rebirth and we were tasked to light the entire façade to accentuate its unique detailing,” says White.

The irony was that the owner wanted to leverage the power of façade lighting, but do it discreetly. “An early challenge was trying to hide the light fixtures,” White adds. “We explored linear LED wash lights but the lower cornice was too shallow to mask or conceal the lighting in a meaningful way. The linears would have been too close to the façade and a mock-up produced harsh scallops directly above the lights.” This approach was abandoned in favor of round LED uplights with a mounting bracket that offsets the lights 12 in. from the building. A mock-up indicated that with the correct optics (12 deg), the uplight would spread enough to evenly light the upper cornice. Early concerns about the fixtures being too visible in the daytime proved unfounded.

The entire façade is lit with 11 28-W, 2700K uplights. White calls the result “maximum effect with minimal lighting.”

Inside the Vinton Building at ground level is the new restaurant Besa, which opened last October. The 5,500-sq ft restaurant spans two floors. The first floor features a bar area with stools and tables facing toward the street. The kitchen is located on the lower level alongside a lounge area and 12-seat chefs table and private dining area.

Illuminart designed the lighting for Besa, but came to the project independently of the exterior lighting for the Vinton Building. Senior Associate Brienne Willcock explains: “It’s funny that Bob did the façade with the owner and then I got contacted via another avenue—the architect—to do the restaurant later. It was the first time we’ve ‘bumped’ into each other’s design. It was kind of nice how it came around full circle.”

Willcock, however, took a different approach to the interiors vis-a-vis the façade. “We weren’t grazing a beautiful material, like we did on the façade. We relied on materials to transmit and diffuse light, and the textures in the space are simple—painted gyp, wood—but the lighting is far from simple. There’s a lot of texture and decoration in the fixtures themselves, which is the complete opposite of the exterior façade lighting, with its minimal form factor. Also, the lighting is on wireless lighting controls, which was super new to Detroit, especially for a restaurant. And it’s complex; the scenes were carefully choreographed to make it look occupied, but not ‘open’ which is tricky for a streetscape restaurant that’s all windows.”

Bucking the trend, the design team “steered clear of the ever-popular filament-bulb look,” says Willcock. “The intrigue of the lighting throughout the restaurant is that it’s wrapped in glass, under a milky white lens, diffused through a material. The LED sources, with the exception of the downlights, have been intentionally obscured. The light fixtures also serve as the playful intersection of materials. In the faceted stair, the hanging canopies, or even the seemingly basic sconces, they all have a purpose to outline, emphasize or intersect warm, unfussy textures.”


Paul Tarricone

Paul Tarricone

Paul Tarricone has more 25 years of experience in association and business-to-business publishing, specializing in the engineering, design, construction and facilities management markets. Mr. Tarricone currently serves as Editor and Publisher of Lighting Design + Application,... More info »