Cass Gilbert's Palace of Fine Arts, now the Saint Louis Art Museum, was the only permanent structure built for the 1904 World's Fair. While a cultural icon to this day, the historic building's neoclassical design limits how art can be displayed, especially large contemporary works. Museum commissioners selected Sir David Chipperfield to design an expansion for such works that incorporates daylight in the galleries and takes advantage of its location in sprawling Forest Park. His new East Building does both, but without allowing any direct sunlight to touch the art.
The key to the design is a dramatic 4-foot-deep coffered ceiling that bounces light off the structure's highly reflective concrete. Sunlight comes through skylights composed of triple-glazed translucent glass with a UV-resistant interlayer. Within each of the ceiling's 4-by-9-foot openings is a framework of aluminum extrusions that supports what the designers call the light spreader—a horizontal light-diffusing resin panel. Around the top of that is the halo, a raised collar that blocks any residual direct sunlight that might seep through. “What's unique about this solution is that while we are controlling daylight, you really [sense] it in the galleries,” says Roger McFarland, principal at HOK, the architect of record. “If a cloud goes over, you notice it.”
For a more direct experience of being in the park, glazed walls make up 20 percent of the building's perimeter. Strategically located, one glass-enclosed gallery overlooks the outdoor sculpture garden. Guided by an astronomical clock working with rooftop photo sensors, two layers of vertical shades control light levels within this and two other windowed galleries. A light-reducing shade allows views out to the park when down. A more opaque, diffusing shade allows little light transmission and is typically set 7 feet above the floor, descending completely only when the sun is very low. The shades are operated by the same manufacturer's control system, which has been modified to meet the specifications of the museum. “The intent was not to have the shades continuously open and close, as that would be very distracting,” says Christopher Rush, senior lighting consultant at Arup, the firm charged with the project's overall illumination. “The general idea is to keep both sets of shades open as much as possible.”
To balance daylight with conservation needs, the client and lighting designers agreed on a cumulative-exposure approach whereby the curators track average light levels over the course of the year, rather than set maximum exposure levels for any specific time. Blackout roller shades directly beneath the skylights are deployed when the museum is closed, decreasing average daylight quantities.
Electric lighting is used when sunlight levels are low—in the winter or when the museum is open at night. Fluorescent tubes tucked above the coffers provide cool ambient light, while halogen spotlights on a track built into the framework around the light spreader animate artworks. The effect can be brilliantly seen on St. Louis native Tom Friedman's “Untitled” (Seascape), 2012, a trompe l'oeil paper construction, with creases and wrinkles that evoke waves. “This piece needs light from above to bring out its full complexity,” says curator Simon Kelly. “General diffuse light doesn't show this off optimally.”
Properly displaying the artwork remained a constant consideration. “The challenge was making all of the technology invisible,” explains McFarland. “When you look up to the coffers, you have no idea how much stuff is going on there!”
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Saint Louis Art Museum
200,000 square feet (includes 115,000-square-foot garage)
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