Pier 17’s color-changing glass-clad façade symbolizes the revival of a historic neighborhood
By Samantha Schwirck
Situated along the East River with front-row views of the Brooklyn Bridge and city skyline, the Seaport District in lower Manhattan is New York City’s oldest waterfront neighborhood. Historic buildings lining charming cobblestone streets culminate at the water in Pier 17, a 19th-century hub for international shipping and maritime activities.
Stories of the Seaport’s revitalization, however, are just as common as those of its success. Restoration efforts date back to 1835, when most of its buildings burned to the ground in a fire covering 17 blocks. The port was recovered, but faced misfortune again in the early 1900s, as depleted resources and shallow waters rendered most of the docks non-functional and many spaces, including Pier 17, were ultimately left vacant.
Tourism and preservation prompted the Seaport’s second major redevelopment. In the 1980s, modern shopping pavilions moved in alongside historic sites such as the Seaport Museum. Alas, disaster struck once more in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy heavily damaged the entire district.
Today, a revitalized Pier 17 has docked once again. Developed by the Howard Hughes Corporation, the new 300,000-sq ft structure, which opened in 2018 after six years of design and construction, is just one part of the company’s broader redevelopment plan for the Seaport neighborhood.
While retail has a presence in the new complex, Pier 17 is no traditional shopping mall. Designed by SHoP Architects, the four-story glass-clad building also contains restaurants, bars, fashion and art exhibits, a 17,000-sq ft ESPN studio, and a 1.5-acre rooftop that can be used by the public or as an events venue for concerts and seasonal programming.
Pier 17’s position on the waterfront guaranteed the new building would already stand out. However, color-changing lighting integrated into the reinforced glass façade completes the building’s transformation into a prominent symbol for the revamped destination. “Historically, South Street served as an urban node within the city,” says Carlos Garcia, senior designer with L’Observatoire International, New York City, which worked with SHoP on lighting for Pier 17’s façade, roof, and public interior and exterior spaces. Hervé Descottes, principal of L’Observatoire International, wanted to recapture this notion of an urban node within a changed New York City. “Our goal was that at night the floating glass box, glowing softly, would be seen as a new kind of beacon or lighthouse on the Manhattan waterfront,” Garcia adds.
To create the effect, more than 3,500 linear ft of RGBW LED fixtures (Lumenpulse) were integrated into the 54 glass bays wrapping the façade. The fixtures are concealed within the top and bottom of three columns located within each bay.
“One of the biggest challenges was the integration of the fixtures into each of the modular bays to ensure a smooth lighting effect,” Garcia explains. “We tested different applications and manufacturers during a series of full-scale visual mock-ups. We also tested an array of color temperatures and form factors such as round, linear and combinations [of both] at early mock-up stages.”
A combination of narrow (10 by 60-deg) and medium (30 by 60-deg) beam angles ensures the fixtures provide an even wash of illumination across each bay. The team also collaborated with Lumenpulse and metalworkers on custom shields for the fixtures so the LED diodes are not visible from the public deck spaces below. “This coordination allowed for fully concealed fixture integration within the reinforced glass, resulting in an unobstructed lighting effect,” Garcia says.
The façade lighting is programmed to follow a daily and annual schedule that highlights the lunar cycle. On a daily basis, for example, yellow illumination subtly gives way to blue—from east to west—as the sun sets each night. Annually, bright white lighting is on display when the moon is full.
Additional programs are available for special events, holidays and social initiatives throughout the year. The system is also customizable, with each bay containing eight control zones, all tied to one central DMX system (Pharos).
“Lighting commissioning was an important part of the project, especially ensuring that every color was displayed as intended when accounting for the subtle color shift that results between the light fixture and materiality of the glass, which has a subtle green hue,” Garcia adds. Extensive site visits were required to review the visible color effects, followed by additional collaboration with the manufacturer and control system to calibrate the colors and achieve the design intent.
Illuminating the public, landscaped decks and pathways connecting the building with surrounding areas including the Fulton Street Plaza required design restraint. “All the lighting was kept below chest level in order to maintain the cityscape and preserve views,” Garcia explains. L’Observatoire worked with James Corner Field Operations, which was responsible for the design and landscaping of public exterior areas, to ensure all fixtures were concealed within benches and landscape elements. Thousands of 3000K linear strips (Luminii) provide path illumination and create a subtle atmosphere with low light levels. “The lighting was intended to only illuminate the floor to provide a peaceful and calm vibe,” Garcia says. “This approach resulted in minimal light pollution at eye level, allowing for unobstructed views of the skyline.”
Concealing sources was also important in transition spaces, particularly the structure’s five “villages.” Each square-shaped space is anchored by a different tenant, topped by a wooden slat ceiling, and open at both ends to afford additional views of the water. “The village is meant to represent New York City’s streetscape so we consider the lighting design a hybrid interior/exterior design,” Garcia says. “The approach was to rely on linear LED fixtures concealed within coves to highlight materiality; linear LED fixtures concealed behind wooden slats to provide indirect lighting; and downlights between slats to provide additional lighting as needed. As a result, we could maintain views of the Brooklyn Bridge, which was a priority for the architect.”
In interior spaces, linear LED fixtures concealed in coves deliver warm ambient light, while LED spots and track heads—hidden within dark slot coffers—provide visual focal points and flexible accent lighting. Subtle illumination for core spaces intensifies at the staircase leading up to the roof deck, so nighttime guests can easily spot the exit. Linear fixtures integrated in the roof’s balustrades offer low-illuminance lighting around the space’s perimeter, and again maintain views for guests as well as the façade’s visual impact from afar. However, New York City building codes had an effect on the roof lighting, requiring levels be raised to at least 5 footcandles for safety. To that end, pole-mounted floodlights provide additional general illumination when needed.
Perhaps the roof’s brightness contributed to the project’s success as well. “The lighting transforms the building into a destination for lower Manhattan’s commercial resurgence and evolution into a 24/7 live/work/play community,” Garcia says. “Combined with the architecture, it brings a new energy to the neighborhood and waterfront.”