If an institution is looking to confer an aura of innovation on itself, there are few more effective ways to do so than to hire Frank O. Gehry as an architect. That's just what the Weatherhead School of Management at Cleveland's Case Western University did when planning a new $61.7 million facility, dubbed the Peter B. Lewis Building, after the Progressive Corporation chairman who is its chief donor. The structure, which opened in October 2002, has the cascading, gleaming, stainless steel exterior and undulating interior walls that mark it as a Gehry design, and projects an image far from your father's stodgy business model.

One thing about those Gehry buildings, though: They can be a real bitch to light. City Design Group's Ted Ferreira discovered as much when he was called in by specialty electrical engineer Lucci & Associates to serve as lighting consultant on the Lewis Building's common areas and classrooms. (Bard, Rao + Athanas was in charge of engineering the basic structure and other spaces, which Ferreira played no role in lighting.) “The big challenge for us, as with any of Frank's projects, was finding a balance between the natural light and artificial light,” says Ferreira. “It's particularly complex in his projects because there are very few places to put fixtures. Unlike some of his museums — [the Guggenheim in] Bilbao, for example — which have metal catwalks and structure for mounting equipment, we had very little of that. The struggle was to find lighting positions that really met the need.”

The facility's interior is structured around a giant atrium, in the midst of which float two towers on 20'-high pedestals. These structures (referred to as “Buddha towers” by Gehry's firm, Gehry Partners LLP) house classrooms and connect to the rest of the building's spaces — other classrooms, offices, lounges, career library — through a series of bridges and walkways. A typically unorthodox Gehry touch: In places, the white walls of the towers come within 2' of other white surfaces, creating an effect the architect likens to “crevasses in the snow.” In these locations, the overhead skylights can shoot beams of direct daylight down for a few minutes before the sun moves on. “I think the building is conceived to encourage random meetings and conversations; you can see multiple levels from any one point,” says Ferreira. “It's like a forum space, and there are little corners where students can go and talk.

“We had two completely different design challenges on this project in terms of applications,” Ferreira continues, referring to the classrooms and common areas. “In the classrooms, we took a homogenous approach, even though they're each very different; we wanted to make it easy for the faculty to move from classroom to classroom. The press release says it's one of the most technologically sophisticated buildings in the world; most of the classrooms are set up for full audio-video projection and laptop projection, and several are distance-learning classrooms. But the lighting is very simple.” Kurt Versen halogen downlights are used over both the instructor well and the rows of seating, and Elliptipar wall wash instruments light the classrooms' large whiteboards.

“Some of the whiteboards are 20' to 25' wide,” says Ferreira, “and they have two or three sections, so they can move them up on the wall and you have another section below to write on. One of the requests from the university was to try to evenly light the whiteboards as much as possible. It's not uncommon in older institutions that there's track lighting on whiteboards, and you end up with scallops and hot spots. The wall washers make the whiteboards nice and even all the way across. Most are semi-recessed in the ceiling, or, in the classrooms where the ceiling is exposed structure, there are canopies that extend out from the whiteboards, and we used them as mounting locations.”

Each classroom has a six-channel Lutron dimming system controlled from a multimedia rack off to the side of the whiteboard. Ferreira says, “We provided four presets for each classroom, and, to make it as uniform as possible, each preset is the same in every classroom: lights full up with the instructor, lights full up with the wall wash, video projection condition, and so on. We specified a high rise-time choke — 800 milliseconds, which Lutron does not normally make. The reason was, we wanted a very quiet dimming condition. The acoustical consultant gave us pretty strict criteria for noise levels, particularly in the distance-learning classrooms, where you're broadcasting. We remoted most of the dimmer cabinets outside the classrooms, which helped as well.”

One location Ferreira singles out as unusual is the “democratic classroom”: an instruction space encircled by just two rows of seating and by whiteboards, with an overhead skylight providing limited daylight. “The real challenge there was to light the center of the room, light the students, and light the whiteboards, without throwing light into everybody's faces at the same time,” says the designer. “We put wall washers all the way around the perimeter of the room, and located them above the second row of seats, so they weren't directly in people's eyes. It's not an ideal solution, but it was a difficult room since the walls undulate.”

Curving walls represent just one of the challenges facing Ferreira in the Lewis Building's atrium and common areas. He says, “I think Frank's office understands how to use natural light better than any architect I've worked with in my career. They have an excellent understanding of how to provide the best source of lighting interiors, which is daylighting. The democratic classroom is in the sub-basement, 20' below grade, and he's bringing daylight into the room from a skylight 80' above grade.” Numerous skylights throughout mean that, at any one time, the building can be bathed in an enormous amount of daylight.

There's one catch, however: Daylight isn't always available. “From a lighting design standpoint, the struggle is to try to light those surfaces in the evening, and when it's a dark and cloudy day outside, to approximate what you can get with natural light.” It's particularly difficult when dealing with limited placement locations and a designer like Gehry, who “wants the lighting to be perceived, not seen.” Ferreira continues, “We were given a certain set of locations where we could mount equipment, and used a mix of indirect lighting, which is what works best in Frank's buildings, and direct lighting in a few locations where it was necessary. Some of them are mounted on ledges and in soffits that border the perimeter of the atrium; some are downlights mounted underneath the bridges and cantilevered walkways; some are mounted in trays on top of the entry vestibules.”

The instruments include Kurt Versen fixed downlights on high ceilings, adjustable downlights for sloped ceilings, Rambusch ceiling washes for the towers and coves, and, as far as direct lighting, LSI spotlights mounted on a pipe rail around the main atrium skylight. One very visible light source, mounted on walls in several locations, is a grouping of 8'-long fluorescent T12 lamps, supplied by Celestial Lighting, with tiny, nearly invisible wiring trays and remote ballasts. “We told them we needed a fixture close to the floor to meet the fire code for exiting,” says Ferreira. “They said, if it's going to be mounted to the wall, let's at least make it look cool.” The design was inspired by the light sculptures of artist Daniel Flavin.

Overall, says Ferreira, “It's almost impossible to model a building like this with lighting; there's no program in the world that will allow you to correctly assess what the lighting is going to do when you have this complex an interior space. One of the things Gerhard Mayer, the project architect, told us from the beginning was that they don't require uniform lighting — in fact, they don't even prefer uniform lighting. There's no visual interest in a space that's lit uniformly from wall to wall. So we have areas where it gets quite dark, particularly where the Buddha towers come very close to the walls.”

Ferreira's design doesn't distinguish between daytime and after-dark lighting. “We designed the building with the intention of providing artificial light for the evening,” he says. “It's the same set of fixtures; there's not another set of lighting that gets turned on in the evening. The decision as to whether to leave some of the lighting on during the day was left up to the university.” Since most of the atrium lighting is metal halide, and because the wiring would become too complex anyway, dimmers are not part of the picture. “It's on a time-clock system,” the LD says. “The challenge was not to feel that we had to create a daylight condition; the building looks very different during the day than it does at night. We had fixtures tucked away in a lot of different places to emphasize features of the building and provide artificial light for traversing walkways and going up and down stairs, but it's not intended to be a replacement for natural lighting.

“The irony for me, a lighting designer who relies on dark spaces and artificial lamp sources, is that I'm profoundly impressed by the level of attention paid to bringing natural light into this project,” Ferreira concludes. “It's a much more cohesive building as a result.”

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


Lighting Equipment
Celestial Lighting custom T12 striplights and remote ballasts
Elliptipar T204-0350-T-02-A-00
General Electric PAR-38 HIR and R7s HIR lamps
Kurt Versen C7302
Kurt Versen C7310
Kurt Versen C7311
Kurt Versen C7344
Kurt Versen R7480-70-SC-DL
LSI 290-00-W
Lutron GP dimming panels with Grafik Eye GRX-4000 control stations custom with 800ms rise time chokes to comply with NC-20 criteria
Rambusch PAL-118-150-MC-RC-IY-SF
Rambusch PAL-XL-150-MC-S-RB-B
Rambusch PAL-118-300-Q-RC-IY-SF