Aug 31, 2021

Architecture and lighting are one single gesture in the new Nancy and Rich Kinder Building at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts


By Samantha Schwirck

To the naked eye, nothing about the new, 164,000-sq ft Nancy and Rich Kinder Building in Houston says “compromise.” In fact, the final piece in the Museum of Fine Arts’ decade-long campus expansion—a trapezoidal concrete structure clad in dynamic glass tubes designed by architect Steven Holl—makes a statement powerful enough to secure Houston’s standing alongside the nation’s other “art capitals” like New York and Chicago. However, compromise was critical to the design process for the Kinder Building, particularly when it came to lighting.

“We needed to walk a thin line to respect both the architect and curator’s needs,” explains Hervé Descottes, whose team at L’Observatoire International (New York City) was responsible for lighting the four-story building over a six-year project timeline. “We had an iconic architect building a museum for fine art, so it was about the architect, but it was also about the content,” Descottes continues. “Our work was to bring a layer of light into the building that was one single gesture—an accent layer—and to maintain the dialogue [between the architecture and art], we needed to find a good compromise.”

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The façade is the first example of the balanced design philosophy that carries over into the building’s interior. Covered in hollow glass tubes, the exterior serves as a muted backdrop for the lush green oak trees of the museum grounds during the day, and softly glows as a beacon at night. The lighting positions the exterior in the context of the city while shaping an intimate pedestrian experience for visitors. In other words, illumination helps the building make a statement while still remaining accessible to guests.

“The building is located in a residential area so we had to find a good balance for the brightness,” Descottes explains. “The side on a main road is evenly lit, glowing and bright, while the other side is more like a window leaking out.” To achieve the aesthetic, 4000K linear grazers (Ecosense) backlight the façade, emphasizing the soft sheen of the glass tubes and enhancing the luminosity of their semi-circular curves as they catch and bounce daylight to the concrete structure set behind them. As the sun sets, the façade lighting accentuates specific window openings, rather than washing the full elevation in light. This selective illumination allows for an organic articulation of the exterior, as it becomes a canvas for the museum’s interior activity, and is animated like a cityscape at night.

Sources at 3000K trace windows and recesses, highlighting parts of the façade that connect to the interior to create a smooth transition into the building, where 3000K is the predominant color temperature. Inside, the same Ecosense fixtures, concealed within reveals, walls and ceilings, provide gallery illumination. Throughout, gallery lighting is complemented by general illumination from fixtures integrated into the concrete architecture, including custom projectors (Light Lab). With detachable monopoint sources that can be removed when they aren’t needed, the projectors offer flexibility for various events and exhibitions. “On opening day about 30% of the projectors were used, but they can be changed anytime,” says Wei Jien, project director for L’Observatoire. Without the lamps screwed in, the fixtures simply look like a hole in the ceiling or wall.

For the circulatory ramps lining the full-height atrium at the center of the building, lighting is integrated into guardrails. “The guardrail is made of formed steel, so the Ecosense fixture wouldn’t fit,” Jien says. “We used a grazer [Luminii] from the top to backlight a translucent gloss, which gives us a diffused light source.” The technique also helps reduce the amount of light fixtures visible on the ceiling—something the designers sought to achieve throughout the museum to create an optimal environment for viewing art.

Lighting also accentuates structural curves, designed to catch and celebrate Houston’s daylight. On the top level of the museum, where the building’s billowing architectural lines are most pronounced, lighting is calibrated to heighten the reading of the curved, disconnected ceiling planes, while balancing daylight that enters through vertical windows located between the planes. “The natural light entering from the side bounces on the curve of the ceiling, which is used a reflector,” Descottes explains. Daylight is complemented by additional monopoint fixtures (Ecosense) as well as large asymmetric luminaires (Winona Lighting) that uplight the ceiling.

On the first and second floor, pocket lighting integrated into “ceiling flaps” compensates for reduced levels of daylight. “The flaps were not easy to deal with,” Descottes explains, but the team found a solution in tunable white linear grazers (Quark Star), containing a single row of linear LEDs with two channels at 2700K and 6000K, as well as a clip-on accessory to smooth the light. “The asymmetric optics [of the tunable fixtures] are very sharp but didn’t work as a wall-wash layer for the gallery, so a mesh scrim was clipped on to control glare and smooth the light,” Jien adds.

By enabling a transition between day and night, the tunable fixtures also help bridge a gap between the architect, who wanted abundant natural light, and the director of the museum, who thought a daylit design would be difficult to carry out. “Using tunable light and the monopoints we developed seems simple, but it’s quite complex when you’re talking about this scale,” Jien says.

L’Observatoire also restored and redesigned the lighting of the adjacent Cullen Sculpture Garden, created by sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The existing pole lights, in-grade wall washers and wall sconces were re-lamped and refurbished to accommodate LED sources. “The Noguchi garden has been there since the ’70s,” Jien says. “We were changing the sources but using the same original principle, and adding a little bit of light such as a few poles to light the scripture.”

Additional direct and indirect lighting was incorporated in the form of uplight and downlight around and within the garden’s trees, as well as new poles and string lights to frame the plaza. Finally, L’Observatoire used the garden as an opportunity to weave in some of the lighting fixtures used in other areas of the museum campus. “Where additional lighting was needed for safety, the same typology of pole-mounted Bega spotlights was used throughout to bring continuity between the Glassell school, Cullen garden and Kinder building,” Jien says.

The interior and exterior illumination use a Lutron Quantum control system, which is connected to a campus-wide network and programmed to enable a smooth transition between day and night. A few additional scenes, such as a special events mode, can be activated manually by a touchpad.

For L’Observatoire, walking the thin line between the various parties resulted in a design that pleases everyone involved in its creation. “We were extremely happy to be involved in the project,” Descottes adds. “It’s a gorgeous project, and it’s also a great contribution to both architecture and art.”


Samantha Schwirck

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