Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food, and the Arts, which opened in November 2001 on a scenic bend in the Napa River in Napa, CA, is no simple cultural center. The 80,000-sq.-ft. (7,200 sq. m) building, designed by Polshek Partnership Architects and surrounded by organic culinary gardens and other graceful exterior spaces (exterior landscape design by Peter Walker and Partners), is a fulfillment of the vision of winemakers Robert Mondavi and his wife Magrit. The Mondavis donated the land for the project and helped kick off the fundraising effort. Says lighting designer Larry French, principal with architectural lighting firm Auerbach•Glasow, “It was their dream to offer the public access and insight into the culture and celebration of the collective table through wine, food, and the arts.” And where better for such an institution than the gateway to California's wine country?

The Copia center is a cornucopia of spaces and functions. There are two exhibition galleries, one for changing exhibits and one for a more or less permanent installation. There is a 260-seat Theatre equipped for films, lectures, performances, and multimedia presentations. There's the Meyer Food Forum, a cooking demonstration kitchen with video capture and taping capabilities. And there's a two-story arc-shaped Crescent Lobby and Mezzanine Gallery that serves a variety of programs. It provides visitors with an entry and information center for the building and is designed to accommodate a number of artworks and shifting displays. The lobby, which features a curving rear window wall looking out on the river, is also periodically transformed into a party or event space.

“Putting all these pieces together and making them overlap and interrelate was really challenging,” says French, who worked with Auerbach•Glasow project manager and designer Susan Porter on Copia. “Because each room seemed to have a number of different functions, the systems had to be pretty flexible and easily or quickly changeable. And lighting was going to have to connect the rooms somehow. Control of the lighting was also going to have to be relatively sophisticated.” The building's public spaces are controlled by an ETC Unison system, which is linked to the auditorium's ETC Express 24/48 theatrical control system. For the greatest degree of flexibility, all of Copia's public spaces are dimmable.

Approaching the center along an allée flanked by poplars and bollards on one side and a reflecting pool on the other, one can get a good view of the building's waveform roof, a Polshek motif repeated throughout Copia's various spaces. At the entrance, along with Prescolite downlights, another motif is introduced — MR-16 accent lights, provided by Translite and Alulite, on a suspended low-voltage rail. These curving rails, which float in plain view and help to connect the spaces, are an example of what French calls “jewelry.” That is, “they're intended to be a feature,” not hidden for pure illuminating function.

“Generally, I would say, the visible lighting is the most decorative element of the building design,” French says. “Most of the rest of the lighting is highly integrated. For example, in that big lobby, Susan and Polshek worked to integrate the general downlighting into an architectural slot in the ceiling, as well as a series of track monopoints for use as accent lighting for art. That slot also accommodates the HVAC, sprinklers, and speakers, and gives the center staff a very flexible system for changing art exhibits and accenting tables for parties. Potentially, any place in the room could be a location for art, for a party or a lecture, or display kiosk.” The soft, broad halogen A-lamp downlights in the space are by Kurt Versen, with Edison Price PAR-36 fixtures providing the monopoint accents.

Suspended over the stairs leading to the Mezzanine Gallery is one of the lighting rails. “These expressed fixtures give a little bit of scale back to the space, because it is rather large,” says Porter. “Those rails are not too low, but they divide up the space.” The rail system and accent lights are flexible enough to accommodate most potential exhibit positions, but French says, “We realized that due to the second-story height, if art was put close to the window wall there was nowhere to light it from.” Therefore, Polshek created a window wall armature on the interior window mullions, and the lighting designers installed fixtures by Italian manufacturer iGuzzini.

The dimming system throughout the center functions on an astronomical time clock, so it automatically adjusts itself based on time of day. In addition, says French, “the lights in the building automatically shut off at night, and we're shutting off a lot of load by dimming the sources down during the daytime.” The window wall floods much of the lobby and Mezzanine Gallery with light during the day, so the artificial illumination kicks in more for evening use.

Copia's two second-floor exhibition spaces, on the other hand, are largely windowless rooms. The Core Exhibition Gallery, which features many displays and kiosks about the history and nature of food (and includes such interactive exhibits as a smell-o-rama station), has a wavy ceiling that mirrors the profile of the center's roof. Lighting comes from Lighting Services Inc. recessed track and fixtures in the ceiling. Says Porter, “The intent was to specifically locate those tracks at the peaks and troughs of the waves, and it took some coordination with Polshek to do it, without compromising the aiming angles required for exhibits. It's a two-circuit track for flexibility, and in terms of control we have each run of track broken down into separate zones.” In the smaller Changing Exhibits Gallery, the ceiling is flat, but the light tracks are laid out and separated into many control groups in similar fashion.

Though the Theatre and Food Forum were primarily the domain of Auerbach•Pollock•Friedlander, Auerbach's theatre consulting arm, Auerbach•Glasow worked on the rooms' architectural lighting. In the Food Forum this overlapped to some extent with theatrical lighting. Explains French, “There was a conscious decision to express the theatrical fixtures so it has the look of a broadcast studio.” Exposed theatrical PAR cans by Altman, Arri fresnels, and Altman 3.5Q mini-ellipsoidal spotlights, hanging amid flat-screen television monitors, illuminate the cooktop area. Over the seating area are patterns of PAR-36s in Edison Price pendant stem fixtures, occupying the same plane as recessed downlights. Low-level aisle lighting is done with very low-wattage steplights by Bega, some lensed and some louvered. An illuminated cove around the room perimeter uses a low-voltage Xenflex strip.

The multifunctional Theatre space is lit with Kurt Versen T4 250W downlights, mounted in an exposed ceiling truss that again reflects the wavy shape of Copia's roof. The room also includes Kurt Versen A-lamp downlights, low-level Bega steplights to provide an egress path, and Lighting Services Inc. MR-16 accent lights hitting the box fronts on one side of the Theatre. “That was a really nice detail Susan added to the overall design,” says French. “The hall is asymmetrical, so the box fronts on one side with this rounded, glowing wood are brought out by the lighting. It's a good example of what we as lighting designers try to do — reveal the volume.” High-output downlighting of the stage platform employs Lighting Services Inc. 250W PAR-38 fixtures. Theatrical fixtures are ETC Source Four ellipsoidals; dimmers are ETC Sensors.

Outside, for the most part the lighting is meant to accent rather than reveal. “All of the lighting on the exterior front is relatively downplayed, so that the interior of the building reads as a lantern,” says French. The front side includes two gardens “which feature the most amazing plant displays you've ever seen; the plants look like they're on steroids, but they're not fed inorganic materials of any kind. The gardens are divided into a series of squares, and within each square is often a theme, like the Italian kitchen garden.” Louis Poulsen pole lights are scattered in an irregular pattern through the gardens, with inconspicuous steplights integrated into the low surrounding stone walls.

An outdoor dining terrace off the center's dining room is lit by cable lights strung through the olive trees, for a “festive Italian garden feeling,” says French. The fixtures are clear A-lamps covered with hat-shaped metal shades fabricated by Winona and Celestial Lighting. “Everything out in the gardens, by the way, is galvanized finish,” French adds. “It evokes a farm or rustic feeling, in a very sophisticated form.” A stairway to a second-level terrace features an illuminated center handrail provided by Cole Lighting.

The center's rear exterior is taken up by an amphitheatre-shaped river concert terrace and performance stage. Here, light from Copia's rear window wall provides a degree of ambiance, accentuated by miniature bollards lighting the olive tree canopies. It being California, and the emphasis of the center being on appreciation of good food and drink and the land from which it springs, “there is a tremendous connection between the interior and exterior,” says French. “They almost meld right into each other in terms of the functional use of the building.”

The Copia center has full-time staff members dedicated to maintaining the building's systems, and French says that it shows. “We didn't go back to photograph this until about a year after it had opened, and the building is being beautifully maintained. We knew it was not going to be maintenance-proof — it's complicated, it has a lot of flexible systems, and you have to stay on it.”

The designer says that the last time he visited, the lobby was being used in just the multifunctional manner he and Porter had been promised. “They not only had artwork in a temporary display down there, they had a party table being set up at one end of the room, a wine tasting going on at the wine bar, and an agricultural display of the hundreds of different kinds of potatoes there are in the world.” How were the potatoes lit? “They were set up under a downlight, but it hadn't actually been focused. I pointed out to the guys, ‘You've got a little monopoint if you want to accent this.’ They said, ‘I don't know, we're only going to be here a day.’” After that, the potatoes would lose their freshness, but meanwhile, they could have enjoyed a proper moment in the spotlight.

Contact the author at john.calhoun@rcn.com.