By Michele Zimmerman
A historic warehouse and a 20-year-vacant lot in downtown Oklahoma City have been repurposed into an eye-catching landmark, the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center. The facility is all about providing inclusive arts education to community members of all ages, while drawing inspiration from the diverse people and places of Oklahoma. Unlike traditional museums, it does not collect art, but instead focuses on rotating visual and performing arts education experiences. The 4.6-acre campus built to house these experiences opened in March 2020 and includes the multiuse public arts center known as “Folding Light,” art studios and Campbell Art Park. When the client (the non-profit organization Oklahoma Contemporary) challenged local firms Rand Elliott Architects and Alvine Engineering to create the distinctive learning space within “Folding Light,” the designers took on the project with a plan to integrate versatile lighting design with unique architectural concepts.
“Folding Light” is built to capture light. Spanning nearly 54,000 sq ft, the four-story building’s exterior is made from custom, recycled bright-dipped aluminum fins placed at nine angles. These fins capture the natural light at any given moment. Rand Elliott, principal architect on the project, says, “As the sun moves, the fins create shade, shadow and bright light. Moment by moment it is affected by color in the atmosphere. When the sky is deep stormy blue, the building becomes deep stormy blue.”
Attached to the southwest corner of “Folding Light” is the glowing Lantern—a dramatic tower of light marking the campus entry illuminated by warm white LEDs most noticeable in the evening. The 3000K color temperature of the Lantern matches the color temperature of the interior of “Folding Light,” providing a consistent and inviting appearance as the sun goes down.
Once the project became operational, designers were pleasantly surprised by an unforeseen artistic effect the Lantern has on the campus: interior LEDs shine outwards to create a pattern of lines and shadows on the ground that seemingly merge the campus sites together. This pattern reaches to cover adjacent trees, making even the nature on campus an integrated part of the center.
Creating multipurpose interior spaces was the top priority for designers. “In any art space you are trying to create flexibility because every exhibit is different,” explains Elliott. To ensure versatility on the ground-floor lobby and inside the nearly 7,280-sq ft of gallery spaces, designers used Contech Gallery Series line-voltage track lighting with wireless line-voltage dimmers mounted adjacent to the tracks. Samuel Haberman, principal with Alvine Engineering explains they selected the product because it best balanced cost and quality: Its “ease of changing out optics and accessories was a benefit for the exhibitions. If [the center] needed to switch out a track head from a spot-optic to a flood or a medium-optic, or change out the accessories, it was very simple and straightforward for their staff to do.” Two-circuit line-voltage tracks allow for two control zones on each track, while mitered joints were created where two lines of track join, allowing designers to maintain visual continuity within the space. “We used dummy sections of the track so that we didn’t void the track that was electrified, utilizing little filler strips that we were able to customize and miter.”
Natural light also provides inside illumination. Sunlight enters the lobby at the southeast corner of the building through exterior fins open at 50%, connecting visitors to the outside world while they experience the interior of the structure.
The nine classrooms were also built with adaptability in mind. Surprising forms inspired by the folding exterior and dimmable lights that can reach up to 70 footcandles make the classrooms exciting and versatile. “Light in the classrooms is direct/indirect linear lighting. Each classroom has two different zones, with controllability on both zones with 0-10-V dimmable drivers. So, it provides ultimate flexibility for whatever might be going on in that classroom,” says Haberman. Eight classrooms are built to host a myriad of classes, projects, installations and viewings for all ages; the ninth classroom is built to scale for very young children with windows at appropriate heights. Elliott says, “It’s amazing how the atmosphere can affect what’s going on. Why does light just have to be off and on? It’s using light and shape to reimagine what a classroom can really be.”
The Te Ata Theater—a navy blue-painted blackbox theater on the third floor—is equally as distinctive as the rest of the center. Elliott says there is always a practical side and a poetic side to design. “The practical side [for the theater] is that we needed houselights. For a movie, popcorn falls on the floor. We need to be able to turn the lights on to clean it.” Practical lights include perimeter LED lighting tucked underneath ductwork and exterior walls, aisle lights and theatrical lights. Controls for houselights are 0-10 volts, while DMX controls are utilized for theatrical lighting.
However, it is the luminous 25-ft diameter ring mounted to the bottom of the hexagonal catwalk which serves as the theater’s poetic light. “We needed a romantic quality. The circular LED chandelier creates the ambiance needed to host a beautiful wedding ceremony or black-tie event,” says Elliott. The black catwalk disappears when the custom, locally made ring is aglow. The result is an ambient 35-fc light source floating above the space.
Beside the theater on the third floor is a mirror-lined dance rehearsal space, in which performances, exhibitions and events are hosted. The design team specified suspended linear lights with an output of up to 75 fc to “achieve light levels needed given the spacing defined by the structure,” says Haberman.
Visitors take the journey up to the third floor using the Ceremonial Stair, another space where form and function converge. While the stair serves as a safety egress, the lighting makes it an exhibit space unto itself. “Stairs tend to be a place people only move through because they have to. We think stairs are great places for interaction between people,” says Elliott. Haberman adds, “We have found creative ways to light stairs to code-required illuminance levels without just putting wall-mounted lights up the stairs.” Bright, visually appealing vertical illumination is created by individual segments of recessed extrusions with aluminum housing and LED tape with a frosted lens, between stairs.
The ever-changing Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center has a symbiotic relationship with the people of Oklahoma and its beautiful natural resources. Moreover, the accommodating space and its accessible free public exhibitions have “connected to people and that is really satisfying,” says Elliott. Fourteen industry awards offer testament to the success of the design, including the 2021 AIA Central States Region Award and being shortlisted in the Cultural Category of the 2021 Architizer A+ Awards.