Lighting Held In High Esteem In San Francisco MOMA Expansion

The project team for this museum project paid significant attention to the lighting throughout the entire facility. The loft-like galleries on the seventh floor were no exception.

Without the proper lighting, art loses much of its emotional impact. And, the museum housing it loses its sense of atmosphere. Lighting is a must for viewing art in a memorable space. So, it’s no surprise the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) took painstaking steps to create definitive lighting schemes throughout the facility when it embarked upon a $305 million expansion that vastly increased its size and amenities and tripled existing exhibition space.

A West Coast Modern Art Haven

The museum’s January 1935 opening on Van Ness Avenue marked a first for the West Coast — a facility devoted solely to 20th-century art. Dedicated to making modern and contemporary art a vital and meaningful part of public life, the museum is renowned for curating unparalleled collections, creating exhilarating exhibitions, and develop engaging public programs. In all that it does, the non-profit organization holds true to its enduring commitment to fostering creativity and embracing new ways of seeing the world.

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Snøhetta expansion of the new SFMOMA, 2016 (Photo: © Henrik Kam, courtesy SFMOMA)

In September 1994, the museum closed its original location and reopened in a new facility, designed by Swiss architect Mario Botta, in January 1995, marking the museum’s 60th anniversary. Then, with an eye on the future, the museum announced expansion plans in 2009, embarking upon a major capital campaign to fund construction of a new addition to the Botta building, weaving the museum into the urban landscape in a way it never had before.

This project, designed by Norwegian and American architecture firm Snøhetta, broke ground in 2013 and opened in May 2016. During the museum’s three-year closure for construction, crews added a new, 235,000 square foot building to the existing 225,000 square foot facility, bringing total space to 460,000 square feet. This included 45,000 square feet of additional gallery space, as well as public, and support areas, including larger and more advanced conservation facilities and an expanded library.

Ultimately, the expansion provided almost six times as much public space than the museum previously had, allowing SFMOMA to showcase an expanded collection along with the new and eagerly anticipated Doris and Donald Fisher Collection of contemporary art, among other installations.

Today, the SFMOMA collection includes over 33,000 works of painting, sculpture, photography, architecture, design, and media arts displayed in 170,000 square feet of exhibition space, The new addition makes the museum one of the largest in the United States overall, and one of the largest in the world for modern and contemporary art.

Lighting: The Supporting Player

Lighting played an integral role in the museum’s expansion. Sculpted by light, the SFMOMA expansion’s unique architectural features: bulges, tapers, carefully cut apertures, facade texture, and material finishes are tuned to respond to the changing ambient environment, yielding a naturally dynamic façade.

Lighting quality in the galleries evolves moving up the building, providing a sense of place to the visitor who might otherwise become fatigued in the over 170,000 square feet of exhibition space. In each gallery, the ceiling form and lighting are tailored to respond to each collection.

Snøhetta worked with New York-based Arup, to develop the new addition’s lighting scheme for the new addition. Known for its total-design philosophy of total design in bringing together architecture, engineering and an ever-expanding roster of specialties. A major part of Arup role in the project was developing the expansion’s lighting system.

“Each floor has a distinct lighting design tailored to the collection showcased in that area. Each floor incorporates a bespoke ambient and object lighting solution in order to meet the museum’s high sustainability, flexibility, and qualitative criteria,” said Star Davis, lighting designer for Arup.

She cites the seventh floor and its Mimi and Peter Haas Galleries as a standout example. These loft-like galleries feature an 8,800-square-foot showcase for a rotating selection of contemporary art, framed by postcard-worthy city views from an adjacent outdoor terrace.

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Mimi and Peter Haas Galleries in San Francisco MOMA (Photo: Courtesy of Esto Photographics Inc.)

“We wanted to create a more industrial, less-finished atmosphere on the seventh floor to complement the contemporary art,” said Davis. The gallery has a raw, studio-like aesthetic and needs to be flexible as the requirements for future exhibitions are rather unpredictable. We designed the lighting with infrastructure to support this dynamic space.”

Davis said no off-the-shelf lighting solution existed that could meet the performance, aesthetic, and the technical infrastructure that the museum needed in this gallery. The solution required collaboration between two different lighting manufacturers in order to meet all the goals. Bartco Lighting in Huntington Beach, CA, developed a tailor-made energy-efficient, LED fixture, with a soft diffusing lens providing high CRI ambient illumination to the space, while another company developed a custom extrusion to house track, raceway and unistrut infrastructure — housing the entire assembly. The lighting track, raceway, and custom Bartco LED fixture, sit within the same extrusion, blending the aesthetic and functional goals.

The fixture was mocked up and tested many times during the design phase. Bartco designed a 2-foot custom housing that recessed into the lower channel of the unitrack system. The design goal was the feeling of a solid glowing object, with impeccable light quality, and absolutely no dots. Bartco crafted a custom lens by milling solid acrylic into the perfect light diffusing treatment that protrudes just a bit beneath the track. Next generation high efficacy LEDs were custom blended to within 2 MacAdam ellipse at 3200K with CRI exceeding 90. These modules were combined with a dimming driver, to complete the highly specialized lighting solution.

“We were very pleased with the quality of light and appearance of the fixtures!,” Davis said. “They feature a solid acrylic diffuser with specialized custom lenses that puts the emphasis on the art. These lights provide a soft ambient which completes the aesthetic of the space. The art is what matters. The lighting helps make it stand out.”

The lighting system adjusts to the changing requirements of each exhibit on the seventh floor, allowing patrons to enjoy beautiful contemporary artwork in the museum.