Ryan Centre for the Musical Arts, USA

Pic: Tom Rossiter

With more lakeside views than you can shake a stick at, Goettsch Partners’ Ryan Centre for the Musical Arts has been brought to life by Schuler Shook’s integrated lighting scheme, which marries illumination with art and music with design.

The Ryan Centre for the Musical Arts is the new home for the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University, one of the top music programs in the US. Located in the southeast corner of the university’s campus, directly adjacent to Lake Michigan, one of the Great Lakes of North America, the centre features dramatic views of the lake and down the shoreline toward the Chicago skyline. The building also serves to enclose the new Arts Green, creating a new ‘quad’ for Music, Theatre, and Visual Art buildings.

US-based lighting design practice Schuler Shook became involved in this project in 2010 when Northwestern University initiated an architectural competition for the new music building. The practice was invited by Chicago-based architects Goettsch Partners (GP) to join its team as lighting designers and theatre planning consultants. The GP design was selected as the winning entry and began work immediately on the design and documentation phases of the project. Following an 18-month pause for fundraising, the project went into construction in 2013 and was completed in 2015.

When asked about the main architectural challenges of the project, Scott Seyer, Principal, GP, and senior project designer for the Ryan Centre, explained: “The overriding challenge was to create a beautiful design solution that performed well acoustically and was within the project budget. GP worked closely with the owner and its consultants to find cost-effective solutions that maintained the original intent of the winning design competition scheme.’’

Patrick Loughran, Principal, GP and technical principal for the Ryan Centre project, also commented: “The design changed substantially over time in order to get the project within budget; however, most of the big changes led to a more efficient and better building design. Northwestern University was very interested in low-maintenance lighting solutions that would not overly tax the building engineers in their operation. “Below-grade light was used sparingly, and lamps with long life and easy access were specified,’’ continued Loughran. “The design brief always included rich building materials exposed to view: glass, wood, limestone walls, granite flooring, decorative fabrics, and so on. The lighting had to be designed to showcase these materials, and the solution here does so very successfully.’’

The Ryan Centre has many unique rooms with many different lighting requirements – the lobby, opera black box, choral rehearsal, practice rooms, classrooms and teaching studios. The recital hall, the crown jewel of the building, had the most complex lighting design of all. Its lighting had to be integrated into an intricate system of wood panels.

Loughran explained: “The goal was to keep the lamps hidden from the audience, avoid scallops, and effectively provide the desired illumination. The structure of the wood wall and ceiling panel system had considerable acoustical constraints, and the lighting system had to be detailed around these requirements. Similar to the architecture in the room, the lighting design had to bow to acoustics. In all cases, acoustic considerations were paramount.’’

The lighting concepts were based on transparency and technical proficiency. GP desired the building to be transparent and inviting, and planned for the building to allow maximum exposure to daylight in all classrooms, performance spaces, practice rooms, and offices. All fittings were specified to be completely integrated into the architecture, with no decorative luminaires used. The stringent acoustical requirements for the music building required that many of the classrooms and practice rooms had no ceiling penetrations to ensure acoustical separations from adjacent rooms.

As the project was designed between 2010 and 2011, it wasn’t able to take advantage of some of the newer advances in LED illumination, lighting quality, control, and cost. Therefore the lighting in the building is a combination of fluorescent, LED, metal halide and some halogen in high ceiling, full-range-dimming applications. The overall result is very high quality lighting performance balanced with energy efficiency, which is reflected in the attained LEED Gold certification.

Schuler Shook’s lighting concept is focused around three main rooms / areas in the building: the recital hall, atrium and choral and recital room.

Firstly, the recital hall’s 400-seat music performance space includes bands of warm wood that undulate against each other. While this was done primarily for acoustical purposes, it gave the lighting design an opportunity to highlight the ‘hills and valleys’ of the walls. All of the topside horizontal surfaces were detailed to incorporate linear white LED strips from Philips Color Kinetics – with louvers from Tempest – carefully positioned to glow upwards onto the wood band above. Kurt Versen halogen downlights, installed on the ceiling of the recital hall, are extremely well shielded to avoid reflections in the glass wall behind the stage and are completely adjustable.

The atrium – the heart of the Ryan Centre – is a three-story space that traverses the building from front to back, allowing significant daylight penetration at all hours of the day. The space serves as the audience lobby / foyer for the recital hall and the opera theatre, and also as a pleasant student gathering space between classes. One key feature of the atrium is the dramatically sloped limestone wall indicating the entrance to the recital hall. This wall is highlighted from below with recessed metal halide uplights from ERCO, and from above with carefully placed downlights from WE-EF. Additionally, Focal Point wall-wash fixtures illuminated the atrium’s perimeter wall slot.

The same lighting scheme is used for the portion of this wall that extends into the exterior of the building, giving the building a high level of transparency after dark; along with Forms+Surfaces bollard luminaires, illuminating the centre’s exterior pathway into the atrium.

The choral and recital room serves a dual function: as a choral rehearsal room, with the performers seated in the curved rows; and as a small recital hall, with the performers on the flat floor. As with the recital hall, warm wood is the primary finish element, and the lighting is designed to enhance the warmth of the walls and ceiling via ETC pipe-mounted theatre lights and Kurt Versen recessed downlights. All of the sources in this room are halogen, to provide smooth dimming throughout the dimming range with no stepping or drop-out. Illumination levels were designed for choral classroom requirements, and lower light levels are created with the control system from ETC, which is pre-programmed for both uses.

Schuler Shook has developed a lighting scheme that celebrates GP’s contemporary architectural design in providing a welcoming and productive space for its students, along with a dramatic and moody atmosphere for both small-scale and major performances.

Pic: Tom Rossiter