May 3, 2022

Franklin & Marshall College’s new visual arts center echoes the form of the centuries-old trees surrounding it

By Samantha Schwirck

A new building has sprouted up on the historic grounds of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, with a design inspired by the campus’s oldest element— its trees. Housing F&M’s art, art history and film departments, the Susan and Benjamin Winter Visual Arts Center appears as a raised pavilion, with foundation walls reminiscent of tree roots and trunks, and suspended upper floors reaching outward like branches. The building’s curves also conform to the placement of surrounding foliage, carving out an intimate setting for the 33,000-sq ft structure designed by Steven Holl Architects.

To create a lighting concept that celebrates the building’s distinctive geometry and establishes the center as a thoughtful addition to the campus, the architect called upon L’Observatoire International (New York City), which first established a working relationship with Steven Holl Architects back in 1995. “Together we’ve done a lot of beautiful projects,” says Hervé Descottes, principal at L’Observatoire. “We have a shared emotional feeling about lighting and architecture, and we understand each other’s visions very well on how we build light and architecture.”

For both interior and exterior spaces, the lighting is designed to be as multifunctional and effective as possible, ensuring the overall concept follows the building’s intent: to serve as both an inspiring new structure on the campus and a cost-effective building that optimizes its spaces through simple design decisions. “The goal was to combine the function and space with an awareness of efficiency and energy, and respect cost,” Descottes adds. “The lighting was designed to light every single studio and reveal the beauty of the building. Every light we used was a light which was not only functional, but also beautiful.”

Inside the center—where art studios, exhibition galleries and seminar rooms are accessible for students and faculty at all hours of the day—the designers focused on striking a balance between using artificial illumination to provide ideal conditions for creating and appreciating art, and elevating the natural light made available by the building’s architectural design.

Access to daylight was indeed a critical component of the architectural vision, beginning with the porous ground level, which is open to the campus and an adjacent park. Further, the building’s façade—composed of a two-layer U-plank system, with translucent insulation filling the cavity between the two U-plank extrusions—allows light transmission into interior spaces, where operable windows and skylights enhance the effect. In spaces such as studios, linear fixtures (Ecosense Trov) are integrated into the skylights to facilitate an even cast of light in the absence of sufficient daylight. Track lighting (Edison Price Maxima) is used for supplemental light in exhibition galleries, while light planes (ALW) illuminate seminar rooms.

Glow and the idea of movement were two defining characteristics of the lighting design. In common spaces such as the ground-floor forum, monopoints and additional track systems (Edison Price Maxima) offer adjustable lighting for exhibitions and events, while integrated lighting—such as LED tiles and illuminated panels (Cooledge) between the entrance and circulation stairway—transform walls and edges into glowing surfaces, shaping the overall atmosphere.

At the center of the forum, an illuminated staircase supports movement through the building. “Lighting the interior handrail was a great challenge of how to not expose the light source, but also make the handrail glow and provide a sufficient light level which would pass code,” Descottes says. Ultimately, the team landed on linear fixtures (Ecosense) that emit soft white light through translucent glass at both the handrails and stairs, subtly emphasizing the center’s vertical circulation.

Just as the façade system enables light to enter the building, it also allows interior light to spill outward and provide low-level site lighting in the evening. Supplemental exterior lighting further amplifies the building’s curving forms and elevated structure. For example, the same in-ground uplights that softly wash the façade also highlight the blue underside of the cantilevered upper levels, creating the impression of a floating volume.

A Lutron Quantum system is responsible for lighting controls, with an additional ETC system in the theater. “Lutron was the most suitable to meet the programming needs—to have control of all interior and exterior lighting and set up preset scenes on timeclock for daily and seasonal cycles,” says Wei Jien, project director for L’Observatoire, adding that the ETC system is used for coordination with A/V requirements.

Synchronizing the controls was just one part of a larger task for the project team. “A lot of coordination of fixture positions and wiring was required to integrate the architectural lighting into the building with a limited budget,” Jien adds. “The project was due for completion at the start of the pandemic, which made the final adjustments on-site very difficult.” While the work was completed by early 2020—about three-and-a-half years after the team began—the building opened in August 2020.

Ultimately, it was worth the wait, as those finishing touches ensure the center’s subdued daytime character seamlessly transforms into a glowing beacon in the woods at night. All the while, the building remains deeply connected to the verdant surroundings that define F&M’s historic campus— no matter the time of day.


Hervé Descottes is principal for L’Observatoire International in New York City.
Wei Jien is project director for L’Observatoire International.
Wen Lin (senior designer), Thomas Mnich (lighting designer) and June Park (designer) were also members of the L’Observatoire project team.


Samantha Schwirck

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