School of Architecture lights up with first-ever lighting exhibit

A new exhibit highlights the contributions of Richard Kelly to the field of architectural lighting design.
A new exhibit highlights the contributions of Richard Kelly to the field of architectural lighting design. Photo by Joseph Breen.

Don’t turn off the lights: Yale’s first-ever exhibition on architectural lighting is on display at the School of Architecture.

“The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture” celebrates the pioneering contributions of Richard Kelly to the field of lighting design by examining the discipline from its incandescent beginnings in the 1920s to today’s LED-dominated fixtures. The exhibition, curated by former visiting professor Dietrich Neumann, coincides with the 100th anniversary of the lighting designer’s birth and with the donation of Kelly’s archives to Yale by his wife and children.

Through lit models, lamps, photographs, sketches, journal articles, paintings and interactive computer screens, the retrospective portrays the emergence of lighting design as a defining discipline in architecture during the first half of the 20th century. Kelly is presented as the most influential, avant-garde designer of this movement, which parallels the rise of Modernist architecture.

School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said Kelly was a very influential teacher at Yale and the most articulate person to explain the phenomenon of lighting.

“Kelly got America sensitized to the fact that lighting wasn’t just a matter of brightness or sticking a table lamp next to a chair,” Stern said. “[Lighting] could change moods and it could meet the challenges of the new modernist architecture.”

Kelly was not the only lighting designer of his time, but according to Neumann, he was the most visible and outspoken one. Over the course of his career, Kelly worked hand-in-hand with mid-20th century starchitects Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe and Louis I. Kahn on projects that used both natural and artificial light.

“Kelly helped to establish architectural lighting as a discipline in itself,” director of exhibitions Dean Sakamoto said. “During his career there were many technical advances in light technology that he anticipated and applied.”

But despite Kelly’s extensive work on the subject, Stern, Sakamoto and Neumann said lighting design is an often overlooked discipline. Indeed, the preface to the exhibit’s brochure, written by Stern, calls it “an underappreciated but critical aspect of contemporary architecture.”

The exhibition is divided into three main sections, arranged chronologically. “The Rise of Architectural Illumination” and “Architectural Lighting Today,” provide historical context and physically sandwich the portion of the show devoted to Kelly, which is located in the center of the gallery space.

On display under the heading “The Rise of Architectural Illumination” are a handful of brightly lit Plexiglas models of buildings mostly from the 1920s, including the Glass Pavilion at the 1914 Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne, Germany and the American Radiator Building in New York. Also in this section are two computer touch screens, one allowing visitors to navigate downtown Chicago, and, by means of a 360-degree panoramic view, to appreciate the lighting design of the Chicago Tribune building and how it responds to the infrastructure across the street.

“You are not supposed to see the sources of the light,” Neumann said. “All you’re meant to see are glowing walls and transparent glass. That was very important for Kelly.”

Large screens across the gallery show 360-degree projections of four of Kelly’s most renowned lighting commissions, including the lobby of van der Rohe’s Seagram building in New York and Philip Johnson’s “Glass House,” in New Canaan, Conn.

Also on display are blueprints and studies for the lighting of the Yale Center for British Art. Kelly designed a system by which daylight could be used to illuminate the space without damaging the artworks inside. Across the gallery, photographs and drawings for the special light fixtures in the Louis I. Kahn building of the Yale University Art Gallery hang near sketches of Yale Drama School lighting techniques.

The exhibit concludes with a series of projects designed in the past seven years that incorporate intricate, ambitious lighting as a key feature of the architecture and personality of the infrastructures — a testament to Kelly’s foresight in envisioning lighting as an integral part of architectural design.

An international symposium on lighting in modern and contemporary architecture will take place on Oct. 1 and 2. “The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture,” will be on view until Oct. 2.

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