Richard Kelly in a New Light

The ambitious designer’s influences are apparent in an exhibit that highlights his work, innovation, and vernacular.

A new exhibit at the Center for Architecture, in New York, Light/Energy/Impact: the Legacy of Richard Kelly, explores the contributions of this pioneer in lighting design. In the era of high modernism, Kelly, who trained as both an architect and lighting designer, collaborated with Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn and other greats to integrate science, design, and technology into some of the most iconic buildings of the 20th century.

Contending with contemporary building materials and their often reflective nature, Kelly developed a threefold approach: highlighting objects, washing surfaces, and creating sharp detail. He coined the terms “focal glow,” “ambient luminescence,” and “play of brilliants” to illustrate his method. The theatrical aspect should not go unnoticed here, as Kelly also studied stage lighting at Yale and would later design for Lincoln Center.

Yet his influence does not end with dramatic modern masterpieces like Mies’s Seagram Building, a glass and steel tower enhanced by Kelly’s layering of indoor and outdoor lighting. “Kelly’s aesthetic served and enhanced the modernist ideals,” says Renee Cooley, a co-curator of the original traveling exhibit with Matthew Tanteri, “but his verbal and visual vocabulary are timeless because they relate to the essence of the qualities of light itself.”

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This scientific understanding of light points to another factor in Kelly’s legacy, his prescient use of daylighting. At Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art and, most notably, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, Kelly relied on daylight as the primary source of illumination to define the space. Decades before computer calculation and rendering tools became available, Kelly studied solar paths and brightness patterns along with building plans to optimize natural light. The Kimbell’s perforated baffles diffuse daylight from axial openings in the roof and demonstrate the early integration of architecture and lighting design. The site-specific presentation of this within the exhibit locates the daylighting component beneath a similarly diffused light shaft, but the ‘ambient luminescence’ is mitigated by the expanse of dim, empty space in the center of the room.

An adjacent display reveals another side to Kelly’s technological innovation. Often the fixture or control system he required did not exist, so collaborations with manufacturers such as Edison Price and Lightolier yielded designs like the Barbizon-Plaza Hotel wireless chandelier, a huge, thistle-like pendant that carried electricity to low-wattage bulbs through its metal frame. A smaller version is displayed in this exhibit along with other Kelly originals including an electrified divider curtain he designed for his family’s Manhattan apartment. The components flicker on and off, reminding the viewer of the range in his experimentation, from the scientific to the commercial and the extravagant to the everyday.

On this marriage of aesthetics and innovation, Tanteri notes “Kelly’s ability to articulate a highly developed visual language and push the boundaries of available technology in its application brought him to the attention of many of the most noted architects of his time.” With the CFA’s exhibit, Richard Kelly’s name will no doubt shine brighter in their midst.

Light/Energy/Impact: the Legacy of Richard Kelly is on view at the Center for Architecture through September 16, 2006.

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