Lighting Focus: Project

Project 550, Madison Avenue, New York

Words by Jill Entwistle


Client: Olayan Group (development partner RXR Realty)
Building architect/ gardens: Snøhetta
Electrical engineer: Jaros, Baum and Bolles (JBB)
Architect of record: Adamson Associates Architects (AAI)
Suppliers: M3
Suppliers: Lumenpulse (Lumenfacade DWW); Luminii-OpticArts (FOT Narrow Series; Kendo S); LED Linear (VarioLED Flex-Skylla); Lumenture (T80); Ecosense (Rise F080 Quad); USAI Lighting (the LittleOnes Micro Square Downlight)
Lighting design: Gensler/KGM Architectural Lighting

WHEN PHILIP JOHNSON’S AT&T tower in New York was completed in 1984, it was architecturally controversial to say the least. A monument to postmodernism (Johnson has been described as ‘the midwife to the postmodern movement’), it outraged modernist purists. Things have calmed down somewhat since then – there have been rather more dramatic architectural fish to fry – and the building is now renamed after its location at 550 Madison Avenue. Over the years, the base of the building has gone through numerous renovations, the latest by Gensler and featuring a large-scale art commission, Solid Sky, by Polish-German contemporary visual artist Alicja Kwade.

Gensler’s renovation, part of a Snøhetta-led overhaul of the building, pays homage to the building’s design DNA by retaining the lobby’s volume and spatial proportions in their simplest form. The 34m-arched entryway along Madison Avenue was preserved and refurbished with vaulted triple-height ceilings gently arching above the ground floor. Materials on all four corners of the space include terrazzo, leather and bronze mesh. The design is informed by the building’s original use of curves and arches to produce an elegant, light-bathed space.

The remodelling ‘respects Johnson’s original postmodernist design,’ says Philippe Paré, managing director of Gensler Paris, and principal and design director for 550 Madison, ‘while creating a bright minimalist space’.

Central to that concept is the integrated lighting scheme. The clean, pure lines of light are inseparable from the architecture. ‘The overall approach to the lighting design seeks to complement the existing architecture and emphasise the ethereal, pensive quality of the space,’ says Paré. ‘We were mindful of concealing all the light sources specified. Surfaces and edges appear to magically radiate light, with no distractions to compromise visitors’ experience of this dramatic space.’

the 34m arched entryway on Madison Avenue has triple-height ceilings
The 34m arched entryway on Madison Avenue has triple-height ceilings

The lofty glazed entrance floods the space with natural light ‘and was fundamental to our approach to artificial lighting,’ says Paré. ‘Tunable white light creates dynamic and unique experiences throughout the day within the lobby while complementing the colour and amount of natural light that fills the space’. Overall ambient lighting comes from a high-power linear LED luminaire typically used to graze exterior facades. This provides the tunable white light ranging from a warm 2,200K to 3,500K to complement the tonal range of natural light filling the lobby. Low-profile lensed linear LED graze lights (2,700K) provide wash light on the bronze, mesh and leather wall surfaces.

A horizontal black line at the top of the mesh panels evokes the height of the original open arcade, which once ran around the perimeter of the main lobby space. The contrast between this and the white marble above also mitigates the soaring volume of the space by creating the sense of a room within a room.

The lighting strategy accentuates this idea: indirect linear uplights highlight the grand volume of the lobby, drawing the eye to the preserved oculus and vaulted ceiling, while the use of concealed linear lighting, with focused beam optics and warm colour temperature, for the feature wall panels highlights the mesh texture and creates intimacy at ground level.

Additional low-level lighting to the terrazzo flooring is provided by lensed linear LEDs (3000K) within millwork details. To maximise output with a minimal footprint, a double run of flexible linear LEDs is used to achieve a halo of dynamic white light ranging from 2,700K to 4,200K at the perimeter of the vaulted ceiling and oculus feature. Miniature recessed 3,000K downlights provide soft lighting in side corridors for a discreet appearance in the overall lobby.

Kwade’s art installation, a 22t Azul do Macaubas quartzite sphere, is suspended by 10 polished stainless steel chains just 3.5m above the floor. Adjustable lighting mounted within the corbel sculptures, as well as above the revolving entry doors, is specified in 3,000K to illuminate the installation as well as the terrazzo flooring. ‘They allowed us to achieve both even illumination of the sphere and code-required foot candles at floor level in case of an emergency,’ says Paré. ‘Another discreet light fixture position on top of the revolving doors allowed us to ensure additional sparkle on the sphere immediately visitors enter the space.’

Progressive Media International Limited. Registered Office: 40-42 Hatton Garden, London, EC1N 8EB, UK.Copyright 2023, All rights reserved.