Salvador Behar Architects has a few fish stories to tell. In August, the Mamaroneck, NY-based firm completed an exterior lighting system for the New York City Aquarium at Coney Island, which enables its client, the Wildlife Conservation Society, to hold evening functions like fundraisers on-site. Project architect Sal Behar, who worked closely with project designer Bob Friedman and electrical contractor Peter J. Cantanzaro, says the "intent was to link the disparate structures of the aquarium with architectural lighting, focusing on nodes of interest along a progression of exhibits."

Behar says each of the installations has its own character and architecture. "It lacked an overall theme," he says. "And now, of course, the society can rent the spaces for evening events, so it's a revenue enhancer for them."

Getting the revenue for the lighting itself, he laughs, took some time: The design was started in 1996, with years of funding and approvals ahead of it as city agencies reviewed the plans. Installation, which began last year, "was complicated, in that we had to install it when the weather was favorable, but we couldn't shut it down too much and inconvenience visitors," Behar says.

The goal, he says, was to make the illumination as natural as possible. "There is a grotto-like exhibit, Sea Cliffs, that can be entered from the outside; the pools can be viewed below grade. Sea Cliffs is made to look like rock, and we wanted to enhance the look and feel of it. You're not aware of the sources, and the carpenters and masons at the aquarium's workshop are still in the process of shielding the fixtures housed within the gunite material that the rocks are made from. It's dramatic: We're not trying to light whole pools, but have beams of lights that the sea mammals, for example, can go in and out of."

To help visitors go in and out of the exhibits, and tie the exhibits together, Behar created 10-15 wall sconces that resemble manta rays and signpost the aquarium. The tensile structure (below) overhangs a large fish tank (above), named Oceanic, and was erected when the lighting design process began in the mid-90s. "With that pool, some of the light goes directly into the water, and some is reflected off the surface of the structure and bounces down into the pool. At night, this outdoor structure becomes a beacon for that part of Brooklyn."

In tests against sodium vapor and incandescent sources, metal-halide lighting proved to have the best color rendering through the water, though different sources were used: Manufacturers include North Star (400W metal-halide mercury vapor Marine Star Floods and metal-halide Challenger Floodlights), Phoenix (AMS series all-weather architectural PAR-38s), Quality Lighting (concentric beam floodlights and die-cast aluminum decorative pendants on trees at the rear of the property), and Stonco (vapor-tight wall incandescents and pencil-beam flagpole long-throws). Light sconce metal fabrication was executed by Derecktors Shipyard in Mamaroneck, with PVC-coated rigid metal conduit provided by Perma-Cote Industries, and custom brackets by Precision Metal Fabricators. Dimming is by Lutron.

Though visitors appreciate the romance of the new illumination, its effect, Behar notes, is largely lost on the occupants of the tanks. "The fish have no reaction at all," he says. "But the mammals, particularly the walruses, love the attention when there's a party going on."