Apr 15, 2021

State-of-the-art lighting is the International Spy Museum’s very own secret weapon

By Samantha Schwirck

With any spy story, there’s something thrilling about people sneaking around and getting away with it—but the best spy stories are the ones that really keep you on the edge of your seat. Fittingly, that’s exactly what the design team for the new International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. did, as the architects (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Hickok Cole) and the exhibit designers (Gallagher & Associates) began working on the project separately, leaving each to wonder how their work would ultimately come together.

So, like any good double agent, Available Light got cozy with both. “Serving two masters—architect and exhibit designer demands its fair share of creative engagement,” says Steven Rosen, president and creative director of Available Light. “In these situations, we have learned that assigning discrete lead designer/project managers to each client is our best course of action.” In this case, Matt Zelkowitz, managing principal of Available Light’s Boston Studio, was charged with the architectural lighting while Ted Mather, managing principal of the firm’s New York Studio, ran the exhibit lighting team. “Ted and Matt were in constant communication,” Rosen adds. “In fact, the team writ large would oftentimes check in with us on coordination details because we were ‘in bed’ with both teams.”

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Lighting design as unofficial liaison was crucial for a project of this size and complexity, which opened in 2019 after a three-year design and construction timeline. Dedicated to the tradecraft, history and contemporary role of espionage, the new 120,000-sq ft museum houses the largest collection of international espionage artifacts currently on public display. While the building replaces and doubles the footprint of the original spy museum, its core themes of deception, immersion, isolation, mystery and peril were carried over to inspire “visual metaphors” within the new design. “During daylight hours the museum is hidden in plain sight,” Rosen explains. “After dark, light becomes a metaphor for mystery and intrigue as the building—accentuated by dramatic red lines of the exoskeletal skin—cannot contain the thrilling stories revealed inside.”

The building’s louvered metal façade, rendered in vivid red light, provides the first example. “We filled the volume created by an angular façade screen hung in front of a vertical building face with light, and the subsequent effect is light oozing out of the louvers,” Rosen explains. “This effect visually supports the notion of intrigue, suspense and drama occurring within the walls.”

To achieve the aesthetic, RGBW, DMX programmable luminaires (Acclaim Lighting) indirectly illuminate a surface behind the louvers. “The fixtures were mounted to a catwalk handrail and pointed at the back of the [mostly hidden] vertical wall of the building,” Rosen says. “The resultant indirect light filled the negative space and exited between the louver blades.”

Meanwhile, an exterior-rated red strip fixture (also by Acclaim Lighting)—composed of LED tape in an aluminum enclosure with a diffusion lens—illuminates the interior of each red sloping truss beam of the façade. “These ‘slopers,’ as they were nicknamed, have become a signature look for the museum—especially at night as the framework can be seen from great distances away,” Rosen says.

A special control algorithm was developed to meet strict façade energy codes. “We determined that running a DMX controlled RGBW luminaire to 100% of all four colors was going to blow past the energy code,” Zelkowitz explains. “However, for maximum impact, we wanted the ability to run one or two colors up to full intensity, so simply using a lower wattage fixture was not desirable. We worked with Acclaim to develop an algorithm that dynamically throttles overall energy consumption while maximizing color output, so, for instance, the red channel can be run at 100% intensity, but when mixing color, the algorithm will sense if the system is approaching LPD limits and automatically and proportionately reduce output of each color channel.”

Once inside, the lighting “walks a thin line between entertainment/immersive experience and scholarly museum,” Rosen says. “A balance of delicate artifacts [lit to conservation guidelines], graphic panels, video content and interactive exhibits creates a compelling journey.”

Guiding the journey is a monumental hanging staircase, outlined by continuous handrail lighting and visible upon entry. “Due to the difficulty of accessing fixtures hanging high up inside the curtain-wall circulation space, it became clear that lighting positions were best suited to architectural integration,” Rosen explains. “Consequently, the handrail of the iconic and sinuous hanging stair doubled as an asymmetric distribution lighting fixture that was created with a design-assist with the stair contractor.”

As guests ascend to the three floors of gallery space, general lighting with a wide contrast ratio, as well as an emphasis on shadows, underscores a sense of elusiveness, while also enhancing a color palette that varies from poetic realism to pop-culture fantasy. Pipe-mounted spotlights provide accent lighting, with hardware integrated in architectural details, display cases and 3D exhibits to ensure a sophisticated presentation. “When working on the light fixture aiming near the very end of the process, the exhibit lighting design team decided that a traditional track lighting system might not afford the flexibility required to successfully light everything in the exhibit,” Mather says. “Clamp-mounted fixtures, affixed to a system of steel pipes and powered by a distributed electrical outlet system, was the installed solution. In this way, fixtures could be rotated 360 deg around the host pipe, affording many more options for achieving the perfect geometry for each lighting shot.”

Above the galleries, a point-of-light LED chandelier (Studio 1 Thousand) marks the entry to two set-back floors of cantilevered multipurpose conference/event space as well as the rooftop terrace. “ ‘You have arrived’ is the statement we wanted to make as the elevator doors slid open,” Rosen says. “With spectacular views of Washington D.C. in all directions, setting the tone of the gathering was critical.”

While the fixture is static, “the very act of moving through the space creates a kinetic effect that is remarkable, dynamic and exciting,” Rosen says. “The chandelier is semi-custom designed in that the proportion of the volume, the number of shapes and the resolution of the dot pattern can be modified to be embraced by the space.”

Step lights integrated into the perimeter railing of the roof deck illuminate the walking surface. “Our brief for the roof deck was to protect the view at night while making guests feel comfortable,” Rosen says. “We worked with the architect to integrate a small low-voltage LED step light into the handrailing’s vertical support posts. Small but powerful, the lights provide enough warning to guests when they have reached their travel limit.”

Networked architectural and theatrical lighting control systems assure a dynamic and exciting visitor experience without wasted energy, with architectural LPD beating IES/ASHRAE 90.1 (2010) allowances by more than 20%, and exhibit lighting clocking in at just 1.98 watts per sq ft. “An ETC Paradigm control system [commissioned by Barbizon] has been scheduled so that on ‘normal’ days, the building lighting takes care of itself with no staff intervention,” Rosen says, “but on special days, programming of general and accent lighting can be manually overridden using a handheld device with customized menu screens for ease of use.” An ETC Unison Mosaic system controls the exhibit gallery experience and presentation theater.

Additional control is in the hands of the visitor, as each guest is given a radio-frequency identification (RFID) card that provides personalized participation and learning opportunities throughout the journey. “At a few key moments, the lighting system is programmed to respond to the RFID communication signal, adding to an already action-packed day in a museum,” Rosen says.

A bit of espionage might just be lighting design’s new secret weapon.


Samantha Schwirck

Samantha Schwirck is Managing Editor for... More info »