Lighting the Dramatic Spaces and Interactive Exhibits of Exploration Place

When the board of trustees of Exploration Place in Wichita, KS, decided to build a new structure on a 20-acre site just below the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, the intent was succinctly defined. For its interactive science museum, the Board wanted the building design, both inside and out, to play a role in conveying its message of science, technology, and exploration. According to board chairman Phil Frick, “We wanted a building that was so compelling that people had to go there. We got that.” Indeed, the dramatic building has quickly become a regional landmark and impressive calling card for this institution.

The board chose architect Moshe Safdie, who designed a structure that dips and soars. It seems to rise up out of the water, as if it were planted there and organically grew directly out of its environment. At night, Exploration Place's illuminated reflection shimmers in the adjacent river. Interior and exterior lighting for the 98,500-sq.-ft. (8,865 sq. m), $62-million project was designed by Warfel Schrager Architectural Lighting LLC of Trumbull, CT.

Safdie, during the 35 years of his practice, has emphasized appropriateness and responsiveness of a building over personal expression. The final result for Exploration Place is clear, open, and spacious. The architect organized the building in two parts: an island pavilion for exhibitions, and an arc-roofed, land-side pavilion, which houses the lobby, offices, and an auditorium. Exterior walls are made of poured concrete. A covered bridge links the island and land-side structures. The land-side building hugs the earth and becomes a part of the vast flatness of the surrounding prairie. Sited at the river's edge, the island building, with its peaks and fluid shapes that face downtown Wichita across the river, relates to the sky above.

“The two-building solution was a way for the building to have closer proximity to the water without separating the park from the river,” says Frick. “We were brought into the project by John Jacobson of White Oak Associates, the exhibit producers,” says Sara Schrager, LC, IALD, a principal of Warfel Schrager Architectural Lighting. (Jacobson had been in one of Bill Warfel's stage lighting classes at Yale University.) “We really had two clients for this project,” Schrager points out, “Moshe Safdie for the building and exterior lighting, and White Oak Associates for the exhibits.”

The lighting program was organized in two parts: the first for the building, and the second for the exhibits. As the building was nearing completion, there were weekly trips by Warfel Schrager to the site for nearly 10 months.

When viewed at night from across the Arkansas River, the illuminated glass-enclosed exhibit spaces emphasize the diversity of the rooflines: flat, curved, and angled. A base of poured concrete “anchors” these spaces to the surrounding water. Inside, unified material treatment and integrating motifs such as curved Glu-Lam beams balance the individually expressive parts and create a continuity of forms. “In some of the window wall exhibit areas, the lighting program had to be in balance with the daylighting,” Warfel points out. Most spaces are column-free. “Our design had to express the volumes of space throughout the building,” he says, “and Safdie was quite clear in wanting the ceiling to play a major role within each of these spaces.”

Warfel Schrager's solution was to design what Schrager describes as “one elegant unit that provides ambient light and exhibit lighting.” Thus the unit had to be visually synchronized with the architecture and effective on the displays. This central lighting element, utilized throughout the building, is composed of a fluorescent uplight and a track for adjustable fixtures below. Track and fixtures were provided by Lighting Services Inc. Fabricator for the system was H.E. Williams of Carthage, MO. The channel strips are made in 4'-long (1.2m) straight sections, hung from the curved Glu-Lam ceiling beams by slender supporting rods so they appear to be curved like the beams.

Working with Warfel Schrager and the Safdie office, the general contractor built a 20'-long (6m) mock-up section of the ceiling in a warehouse near the site. Here, photometric readings were taken and the lighting fixture suspension system was tested.

With ceiling heights rising above 40' (12m) in places, installation required specialized equipment. “The height was beyond that of many conventional lifts, so the museum bought a self-propelled cherry picker,” Warfel explains. Since installation of the exhibit lighting was very much like lighting a play or concert, Warfel contacted Local 190 of the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees in Wichita. Foreman Chris Mullin worked with Warfel and Schrager to direct the crew on the lift as the work proceeded.

Sometimes the lighting was working ahead of exhibit production. “I would act as the display and move around the space,” Schrager describes. “Then the light would be aimed to determine the effectiveness at various points on the future exhibits,” she says.

Vistas, materials, shapes of spaces, and the proximity of exhibits to landscape features often reinforce the messages of the learning environments. In the Ride the Wind exhibit several flight simulation stations are operated by visitors. The “wind wall” is composed of thousands of 1"-diameter mirrors, each hand-hung on a pin. “When the wind is activated by a visitor, the whole wall ripples and moves like a wave,” Schrager reports. In another exhibit devoted to the Kansas landscape, a glass-enclosed 18'-tall (5.4m) simulated tornado occupies a corner of the room, making it seem to whirl across the exterior landscape.

The Kids Explore exhibit gives youngsters a chance to make puppets and then show them in a futuristic world of levels linked by a spiral staircase and wire-form trees. In the Tot's Spot, exhibits are geared to the museum's youngest visitors, with restful areas, a bubble wall lit by fiber optics, and a suspended fabric cone with a Martin Professional Roboscan 518, with a Martin 2510 DMX control unit, for constantly changing patterns and colors.

In the Kansas in Miniature exhibit, scale models of real buildings, a carnival, a ball game, and moving trains are arranged around examples of Kansas geological formations on a table measuring 50' long by 30' wide (15×9m). The model is frozen in time in the 1940s. Lighting moves from full sun in the day to star-studded night with moonlight on a programmed cycle. In the evening, projected images illustrate living history recordings.

Theatrical control systems and fixtures were provided by ETC and Altman. Recessed downlights used throughout the building were supplied by Edison Price.

New exhibits include a giant eye model in Health Explorer; the Ultimate Roller Coaster in the Simulation Center; and Body Works: The Interactive Adventure, in the CyberDome Theatre. Exploration Place drew over 300,000 visitors during its first year of operation.

Vilma Barr is a New York-based writer on architecture, interiors, and lighting.


Moshe Safdie and Associates

Associate Architect
Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey & Associates

Lighting Consultants
Warfel Schrager Architectural Lighting LLC

Museum and Theatre Planners and Producers
White Oak Associates

Museum Planning and Exhibit Design

Theatre Planning and Design
Talking Spaces

Landscape Architect

Hargreaves Associates


Structural/mechanical, concept and design development: Ove Arup & Partners
Structural: Dudley Williams & Associates
Mechanical, plumbing, fire protection: Manson Ward Legion
Civil: Mid-Kansas Engineering Consultants

General Contractor
Dondlinger & Sons Contracting Co.

Fixture Installation
Wichita IATSE Local 190

Equipment Manufacturers
A.W. Pistol
Altman Lighting
Edison Price Lighting
Electronic Theatre Controls
H.E. Williams
Lighting Services Inc.
Martin Professional