Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Focus Lighting

Architecture tourists may think of Milwaukee as a destination thanks to the Quadracci Pavilion, the 2001 expansion to the Milwaukee Art Museum by Santiago Calatrava featuring a dynamic, wing-like sunscreen. But the Wisconsin city has a longer tradition of supporting contemporary architecture, evidenced by the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Designed by Harry Weese and completed in 1969, the building originally known as the Milwaukee Center for the Performing Arts exemplifies the Chicago architect’s brand of Brutalism, which had propelled him to fame with his completion of the Washington, DC, metro rail system just several years earlier. Since April, Focus Lighting has made the Marcus Center famous again with a new, colorful nighttime personality.

When the Marcus Center contacted Paul Gregory, head of the New York–based lighting design firm, in 2005 about reinvigorating the structure with light, it wanted not so much to compete with Calatrava’s creation but rather to make its patrons’ encounter with the arts more substantial. “They had displayed paintings from the museum in the interior to make the pre-show experience a little better,” Gregory explains, “and illuminating the exterior also seeks to make it better.”

Gregory won the Marcus Center commission from a shortlist of three other designers. Weese’s scheme, he says of Focus Lighting’s proposal, begged for illumination: “The Brutalist architecture is really strong, and for us to light different surfaces with different shades of color would accentuate its crisp edges and angles while also providing warmth to an otherwise cold structure.” Gregory also thrilled to the urban context. Occupying a single block, not hemmed in by tall neighbors, and distinguished by substantial setbacks, the lighting plan could grab people’s notice.

By the time Weese designed the performing arts center building, peripatetic artist Georgia O’Keefe had already settled permanently in New Mexico. Yet Wisconsin claims O’Keefe, who spent the first five and a half years of her life there, as its own. So with fundraising completed three and a half years after the Marcus Center and Focus Lighting began their collaboration, Gregory polished his initial concept by paying homage to the state’s native daughter.

The walls of the Marcus Center are bathed in washes of light whose colors are inspired by the O’Keefe artworks Red Canna (1923), Blue Flower (1918), and Petunias (1925). Gregory programmed 16 different compositions in all, and many others make reference to Wisconsin: One is the wood violet, the state flower, for example, while another features interlocking blue and green wisps to evoke the aurora borealis. Until 1 a.m. the installation changes every 20 minutes, and Gregory likens viewing the slow procession of images to the way a museumgoer contemplates art in a gallery—a deliberate, one-work-at-a-time pace.

To achieve the effect, more than 900 LED-based luminaries were installed on Unistrut racks around the building and digitally programmed to cycle. Gregory pointed the lights at a 20-degree angle, noting that the slightly steeper Brewster's angle would have caused the beams to graze the building, and adds, “The surface of the Marcus Center’s exterior is not unlike the beaded screen you used to watch movies on. Light bounces off the lightly pebbled stone to create a really pretty, even aura.” The LED lamps have also proven to be an affordable, environmentally friendly method of nighttime wizardry. “It costs $10.50 a night to run, and there’s no maintenance for 15 years. The old theatrical method would have required 15 times more power.”

Just as Gregory didn’t “bludgeon the building with color,” these technical details are not so conspicuous. Rather, the abstract works of “light art” projected onto the Marcus Center establish relationships between the building, nature, and O’Keefe in an understandable way. Moreover, “it’s not advertising,” says Gregory, who attached a personal note to the lighting control equipment describing the origin of the project and requesting that it not change.

The designer says he owed this final safeguard—and his overarching vision—to the public: “The other day my dentist was talking about the visual effects of titanium versus stainless steel in Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao and Bard Fisher Center buildings. That’s my dentist! The public has come such a long way in appreciating design, and has become so savvy, that I think we’re designing up to their level.” Clearly, the public agrees. Just hours after being interviewed for this story, Gregory returned to Milwaukee to speak to a certain flapping museum about implementing a new lighting scheme.