Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, UCLA
Casting light as a metaphor for film, Michael Maltzan and Lam Partners animate the Billy Wilder Theater
Los Angeles, CA
Like shooting stars against a night sky—or a glowing game of pick-up sticks—thin rods of white light dynamically charge the black-box auditorium of the Billy Wilder Theater in the Hammer Museum at UCLA. These LED rods, hovering beneath the ceiling with barely visible means of support, don’t literally move, yet they generate an immediate sense of velocity, as if streaking by. “The idea,” says the architect, Michael Maltzan, FAIA, “was to transport you experientially from the world outside, much as the old movie palaces did—but in a more contemporary way—before you’re spirited away by the film itself.”
The $7.5 million theater—named for the Academy Award–winning screenwriter and director of Sunset Strip and Some Like It Hot and made possible by a $5 million gift from his wife, Audrey Wilder—provides a cinematèque for UCLA’s Film & Television Archive. With cutting-edge as well as rare, archaic technologies, the 295-seat screening room presents the full historical range of motion pictures in the original formats: from silent footage with variable-speed projection to highly combustible nitrate film (requiring a fire-shuttered booth) and state-of-the-art digital video.
Capturing the spirit of movies, but without the clichés, Maltzan envisioned the theater’s radiating strips of light as a metaphor for film. But the screening room, which doubles as a lecture and small performance hall for the Hammer, is just one key and dramatic component in the architect’s larger, yet-unrealized master plan to remake and reprogram the museum’s entire 1990 Edward Larrabee Barnes–designed building.
To give the existing, “otherwise-opaque structure transparency and translucency, we had to make sense of the spaces without adding lots of signage,” says Maltzan. “The overall lighting scheme needed to provide the ‘breadcrumbs’ that guide you.” Working closely with lighting consultant Paul Zaferiou of Lam Partners to create stronger visual connections both internally and with the museum’s surroundings, the architect introduced daylight in key locations and developed a language of long, linear fluorescents, some behind glass, others in front of it, many in striped configurations. In the theater lobby, for example—a space dominated by lenticular photomurals of Wilder and his work—semirecessed, bare T6 fluorescent lamps without end caps (the contact pins lie on the back side of each tube) hover overhead like a procession of elegantly luminous railroad ties.
“You come from this regular pattern into the theater, where the lines of light seem to accelerate randomly through space,” as Maltzan describes them. Though he considered using neon here, Lam convinced him instead to install 3500K LED sticks, which come in 4- and 8-foot lengths and can be butted together end-to-end. With the LED dots diffused by a tubular, bullnosed acrylic casing, these glowing rods appear as pure, crisp lines of light. The advantages of LED over neon, explains Zaferiou, include easy installation, extreme light weight, low-voltage wiring, absence of buzzing or other noise, minimal maintenance, color consistency, and tube ends that appear as pure points of light. Also, he suggests, such innovative technology sends exactly the right message for a leading-edge venue.
Seemingly afloat, the 128 LED strips clip into almost invisible supports: thin struts, painted black, that stem 6 to 18 inches off the black walls and ceiling, virtually disappearing into darkness. (The fixtures are wired to remote transformers behind accessible wall and ceiling panels.) The luminous rods have a spectacular presence not only against the contrasting backdrop, but also above the seating’s deep-raspberry leather upholstery, chosen to evoke luxury in the spirit of great movie palaces.
Though the theater has a “supporting cast” of subtle yet purely practical lights—spot or accent fixtures for lecturers on stage, dimmable recessed halogen house lights, a motorized floodlight for the stage, as well as egress and emergency illumination—the real stars are the “flying” LED sticks. A dimming system for the various fixtures, programmed with 16 preset scenes, helps transform the space to its different uses and transitional modes or moods. But most dramatically of all, in the moments just before a screening begins, the LEDs, set on 12 dimmers at varying intensities, fade from front to back of the theater, “as if,” Zaferiou suggests, “sucking the light back into the projector.”
Senior technical coordinator:
Design architect and architect of record
Building code and fire protection consultant engineer
Communications technology consultant
Construction cost management
Signage and wayfinding
Lobby bench lenticular mural
Lobby and vestibule mural
Stretch acoustical fabric walls
Perforated metal panels
Main auditorium lights
Main lobby lights
Recessed halogen and compact fluorescent downlights (theater and lobby)
Recessed rectangular halogen wallwashers(vestibules)
Track lighting (theater)
Fluorescent cove uplight (lobby)
Recessed linear fluorescent wallwasher
Wall recessed steplights (theater)
Theatrical motorized floodlight with optical zoom and color wheel