Let There Be Light
A Florida architect is leading the charge for natural light in art museums.
At the Frost Museum in Miami, scheduled to open this fall, sculptural petals help diffuse the natural light from the skylights.
When the Patricia and Phillip Frost Art Museum opens in Miami this fall, it will be the first major Florida art museum to use natural light rather than artificial light in much of its exhibition area. “Florida has been slow to understand the trend,” says Tampa-based architect Yann Weymouth, director of design for Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum (HOK) Florida.
Weymouth, who worked with famed architect I.M. Pei as design chief on the National Gallery of Art East Wing in Washington, D.C., and the Louvre’s pyramid project, is a longtime believer in the benefits of natural light in all types of buildings. In both the Frost Museum and a new Salvador Dali Museum that will be built in St. Petersburg, he is incorporating skylights in exhibition areas.
At the Frost Museum, two-thirds of the galleries use skylights made of a 16 millimeter-thick curved polycarbonate similar to the material used in motorcycle helmets. At the Dali, glass will be used for seven skylights that will highlight notable works of art.
Art conservation researchers over the past 40 years have studied the sensitivity of artworks to light. In Weymouth’s designs, a crucial element is using materials and coatings that block out both ultraviolet rays and heat. The skylights are no more than about 6% of the room’s size. A 1,000-sq.-ft. space, for example, would use skylights that total less than 60 square feet.
Sculptural petals made of fiberglass-wrapped balsa wood (the material used in surfboards) cover the inside of the skylights at the Frost Museum. The petals act as optical bouncing devices that spread the incoming light across the room. Electric lights are used to spotlight works in an exhibit and to allow viewing on cloudy days.
Natural lighting is used only in non-exhibition areas in the Hazel Hough Wing at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts.
HOK’s two other Florida museum projects, the recently opened Hazel Hough Wing at the St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts and the Arthur F. and Ulla K. Searing Wing of the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, use natural light only in non-exhibition areas. Those museums will use their new spaces for traveling shows that could include fragile photography, lithographs and watercolors that museums might be hesitant to loan to museums that incorporate natural light in exhibition areas.
Extensive natural lighting increases construction costs, but over time the payoff likely will be lower energy costs. Saving energy isn’t the first consideration on Weymouth’s mind when he talks about natural light, however. He touts how natural light shows artwork to its best advantage. Says Weymouth, “I think that it’s going to knock people’s socks off.”