Monday, April 25, 2016

SHAMELESS THEATRICS: Taking a Lighting Cue From the Movies

Indirect lighting makes the ceiling vault appear to hover.
(Wiltern Theater, Los Angeles, 1931)
Remember the sumptuous and exotic interiors of the great Art Deco movie palaces of the Thirties? Their magic owes a great deal to a technology that was just beginning to mature during that era:  atmospheric lighting.

Today, sixty years on, we can still learn a lot from the innovative lighting techniques of these remarkable buildings.  
The heart of most Art Deco theater lighting was the indirect lighting fixture.  In “indirects” the light source was concealed, producing a soft, glowing light with no obvious source.  The lamp bulbs were often hidden behind frosted or etched glass diffusers, inside niches, or behind pierced metal screens or grilles.  Several different colors of lamp bulb were used in one fixture, and each was controlled by a rheostat (the predecessor of today’s dimmer).  By varying the intensity of each colored lamp, the theater’s atmosphere could be made “warmer” or “cooler”. 
Indirectly lit water fountain niche,
(Pantages Theater, Hollywood, 1930)

Another Art Deco lighting trick was to conceal fixtures in continuous recesses near the tops of walls or in stepped ceilings, producing a halo of light at the ceiling’s perimeter and making it appear to float.  Again, multicolored lamps controlled by dimmers were used to vary the atmosphere of the space.

Still other theater lighting used etched glass panels edge-lit by hidden lamps. Refraction caused the etched design to luminesce while the clear glass remained dark, producing an almost holographic effect.  

Due to its unnatural direction, indirect
uplighting creates an otherworldly effect.
(Egyptian Theater, Hollywood, 1929)
Another atmospheric trick used in these building is indirect uplighting. Since the shadows cast by upward-facing fixtures are the reverse of what we’re used to seeing in sunlight, the effect is eerie and highly atmospheric.  

Shamelessly theatrical?  Yes.  Too wild for residences?  Hmmm. . .

The aptly-named Fountain of Light consists of
frosted glass panels backlit with colored lamps.
(Paramount Theater, Oakland, 1932)
•  Indirect lighting is still one of the simplest and most effective lighting schemes.  The fixtures themselves can be inexpensive, since they’re often totally concealed in the architecture.  What's more, the advent of affordable LED (light emitting diode) lighting has vastly expanded the range of indirect lighting possibilities. For example, LED "tape", which contains rows of tiny lamps on a flexible backing, can be fit into tiny spaces that could never have accommodated incandescent or fluorescent fixtures.

Uplit buddha figure with glowing eyes.
(Fox Theater, Oakland, 1928)
• Since the real impact of indirect lighting depends on the way it’s incorporated into the architecture, try unusual locations like beneath cabinet toe spaces or stair risers to achieve a floating effect.  Staircases can be lit by strip lamps concealed beneath handrails. Use indirects LED lamps hidden behind the front edge of niches to light objects inside, rather than lighting them from above.  The objects themselves will appear to glow.

•  Dimmers, a longtime staple of theater lighting, are becoming much more popular in residential work as well. By having several types of dimmable fixtures in one room, you can produce an infinite range of moods to suit any occasion. High-end dimmer systems even feature programmed “scenes” which adjust the lamps to preset light levels at the touch of a button. 

•  Colored lighting, which fell out of favor by the end of the Art Deco period, was dealt another blow by none-too-subtle usage during the psychedelic era of the 1960s. But it still has its place. LED lighting is available in a range of colors and can also be programmed into"scenes". Subtly varying light color can have a remarkable effect on room ambience, just as it did in the days of the movie palaces. Combined with dimming, varying colors offers a tremendous range of lighting possibilities.
Indirects work outdoors, too. Exterior uplighting
create a dramatic gradation of light from bottom to top.
(Senator Theater, Baltimore, 1939)

Shameless theatrics? You bet.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016


AUTHOR'S NOTE: I'll be away this week, so I'm reprising one of Architext's most Googled posts below. 

“Won’t it leak?”  Those are the first three words I hear from clients when I propose using a skylight.   

South-facing skylights may work great in winter,
but beware overheating in summer.
Not to worry.  Today’s skylights are all but leak-proof when they’re properly installed and flashed.  Least troublesome of all are the self-curbing variety, which feature a one-piece welded aluminum curb in place of the old-fashioned wooden curb and its associated waterproofing headaches.  Even interior condensation problems have been eased with the use of built-in gutters which either drain away condensate or hold it until it evaporates naturally.  

However, while skylights may give you fewer technical worries these days, their aesthetics and functionality still demand careful thought.  Here are a few tips:

Integrate your skylights into the design, as seen here;
don't just have them floating at random in the ceiling.
•  Choose the skylight’s location carefully.  First, determine its solar orientation, so you’ll know how much light you’ll be getting.  Too little light won’t justify the installation cost, while too much can make a room intolerably hot.  South-facing skylights in sloping roofs are especially liable to overheat rooms;  north-facing skylights will admit a soft, diffuse light all day long, though they won’t give that sun-splashed effect.  

Most manufacturers offer a range of glazing tints, from clear to gray- or bronze-tinted to translucent white, to suit the skylight’s orientation.  The gray and bronze tints help reduce overheating but still allow direct light, while the translucent white diffuses the light as well. However, you should also plan on some additional form of shading, whether an old-style roller shade or a pleated fabric one on tracks.   

•  Consider the skylight’s appearance both indoors and out.  Inside, try to align the skylight opening with a door, window, or some other existing feature, so that it doesn’t look haphazard.

Mind the skylight's appearance outside.
If possible, avoid having them face the street.
Low-profile skylights or "roof windows"
may look better from the outside.
Outside, avoid installing the skylight on any roof surface that faces the street.  Front-facing skylights look jarringly out of place on traditional home styles, since they were seldom used in the original designs, and often yield a cluttered-looking roof even on Modernist homes.  Discreet concealment is the safest course.

•  Choose a skylight that’s as large as orientation and aesthetics will allow.  A large skylight is cheaper than small one per unit area, and the premium in labor is often marginal.  Frequently, a single large skylight is also preferable to an equivalent group of smaller ones, even if it requires minor reframing.  Multiple units admit less light due to the intervening mullions, require proportionately more labor to install, and have a greater likelihood of leaks due to improper flashing.  

Why complicate things?  Single skylights are widely available in sizes up to five by eight feet, and at least one manufacturer offer standard units up to ten by twelve feet.  

Lots of unusual shapes are available, too.
•  Take advantage of special skylight options.    If you’re not keen on conventional “bubble” skylights, for example, some manufacturers offer special low-profile models.  Some firms will furnish some of their standard skylights with flat glass in place of the usual acrylic plastic bubble.  However, make sure the glass versions will meet your local building and fire codes.

Unusual shapes such as circles, octagons, and pyramids are also available.  Many rectangular skylights can be ordered “operable” (hinged to open a few inches for ventilation).  They can also be fitted with an electric operator controlled by a wall switch--probably a waste of money if the skylight is easy to reach, but a great convenience if it isn’t.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


Author's note: Storybook Style, the 2001 book I co-authored with photographer Douglas Keister, is being republished by Schiffer in a renewed and expanded edition that will arrive next Spring. I've written on a number of the architects featured in the book, and in anticipation of its arrival, I'll reprint some of these essays in this blog from time to time. The following piece sketches the life of one of my favorite architects, Carr Jones.

If you think today’s “green” architects are pioneers, take a look at the work of Carr Jones.  An obscure engineer-builder, Jones clung stubbornly to environmental priniciples we’ve only lately come to cherish--and he started doing it back in the Teens.    

 Rear courtyard of the c. 1932 Hermans Residence
in Oakland, California. Jones both designed
and constructed his singular homes.
(Photograph by Douglas Keister)
Jones was born in Watsonville, California in 1885.  He attended the University of California at Berkeley and received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1911.  Around this time he designed and built a simple redwood cottage for his parents in Berkeley, kicking off a long and colorful career as what we’d nowadays call a “design-build contractor”. 

But Jones was ahead of his time in other ways.  He worked in large part with recycled materials--brick, slate, timber, scrap steel and bits of salvaged ornament--from which he managed to conjure lyrically beautiful homes that transcended their humble origins.  

Carr Jones homes were often wrapped around
an interior courtyard that provided a quiet
sanctuary from the street.
Jones’s houses are almost invariably built of roughly-laid bricks left unfinished to show their natural range of colors; many have a gently curving floor plan embracing a central courtyard.  His unmistakable elevations are graced by an array of turrets, dormers, and chimneys.

Interior walls in a Carr Jones home are of exposed brick as well, enlivened by a variety of arched openings.  Overhead, massive, exposed roof trusses of salvaged timber provide dignified drama.  The genius of these houses lies in their perfect balance of the familiar and the unexpected--on the sense of calm lent by an ancient palette of materials, played against the builder’s continual ability to surprise.  In a Jones house, every window frames a charming vista; every room is a spatial banquet; every corner holds architectural delight.

Jones combined salvaged timber and brick with
factory-sash windows and clay floors
to create a uniquely natural style.
(Photo by Douglas Keister)
Though Jones’s houses share many traits with the Storybook Style homes of the 1920s--aged appearance, serpentine curves, and whimsical details--in his hands these features are organic rather than superficial.  It’s a happy result of building in a true medieval vernacular, without undue concern for perfection or popularity.  Jones chose his materials and designs not because they were fashionable, but because he believed in their absolute fitness for domesticity. 

Just where someone trained as a mechanical engineer acquired these refined sensibilities, we may never know.   There’s no doubt, however, that Jones would have been quite comfortable working in today’s era of earth-friendly architecture.

In view of where green architecture is now headed,
Jones's designs are about as old as tomorrow.
Like many pioneers before him, building with an unwavering conscience brought Jones neither financial success nor even much recognition during his lifetime.  When Revival styles lost favor after World War II, the demand for his lovely and personal works became even more modest.  He completed a scattering of postwar commissions in the Bay Area and designed his final residence in 1966, dying on the morning that its foundations were being chalked out on the site.  Jones’s stepson, Doug Allinger, completed the project following his death, and has admirably carried on Jones’s building philosophy in his own work.

Alas, Jones didn’t live to see the birth of the ecology movement in the late 60s, nor the subsequent rise of green architecture--events grounded in the very ideas he’d been practicing for half a century.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


Every so often, some moldering architectural idea rises up from the dead and come back for an encore.  It’s especially common these days, what with the revival of traditional architecture.  We tend to forget what brought these ideas to a merciful end, and why it sometimes defies reason to resurrect them.  Windows with divided lites—what architects call “muntins”—is one of them.

Medieval windows were divided up
with muntins because they had to be—
glass wasn't made any bigger.
I’ll say it right up front:  The new windows in any home remodel should match the originals, and that goes doubly for homes whose windows have muntins.  Yet for most new work, muntins simply don’t make sense.   
Dividing windows up with wooden muntins is a practice that harks back to the beginnings of the glass industry, when it was impractical to produce sheets of glass larger than about one foot square.  Only the wealthy could afford glass in their windows (the poor had to settle for parchment), and even these had to be composed of dozens and sometimes hundreds of individual panes.  

Medieval glass was so costly that it came to be flaunted
as a status symbol—such as here at Hardwick Hall,
Derbyshire, England (completed 1597).
Hence, window size became a status symbol by the late 1500s.  In England, the manor house of Bess of Hardwick became so renowned for its enormous, intricately leaded windows that the couplet “Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall” was immortalized in an English nursery rhyme.  

However, sheet glass manufacturing techniques progressed so rapidly during the Industrial Revolution that by 1851, the English were able to produce some 900,000 square feet of glass for a single building—the famed Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park—in the space of nine months.

Thanks to the Industrial Revolution, England's glass industry
 became mechanized, making it feasible to construct
buildings such as London's famed Crystal Palace.
Alas, American glass production lagged well behind England’s until mid-Victorian times, so the average Yank continued to make do with multipaned windows until well into the 1800s.  As such, muntins were not a decorative feature but a necessary evil which people would have been thrilled to be rid of.  In fact, they did get rid of them as soon as it was practicable:  that’s why the majority of Victorian home styles have windows with a single pane of glass.  

Only toward the end of the 19th century did the twin forces of Colonial Revival architecture and the Arts and Crafts movement resurrect the use of muntins.  Then,  that most bombastic of Victorian styles, Queen Anne, once again featured window muntins, albeit ones forming a narrow colored glass border around a large central pane.  

"Sandwich grid" divided lites are sealed between
the double glazing, producing a uniquely unconvincing
two-dimensional effect. Why bother?
A number of subsequent home styles featured divided lites after that—most notably, the California Bungalow.  Yet the arrival of modern architecture would soon ensure that great sweeps of monolithic glass would prevail for the next generation.

Architecture is nothing if not cyclical, however.  Today we can produce glass for a song, yet we choose to carve up our windows anyhow—or at least pretend to.  That may seem warm and fuzzy until a few years pass and homeowners realize just how much maintenance those muntins require.  A lower-maintenance alternative, the ubiquitous “sandwich grid” consisting of divider strips placed between the layers of double-pane glass, is even more pointless:  the look is two-dimensional, with none of the relief of traditional divided lites; while nevertheless obstructing any view.  

And so, the fundamental question:  Why bother?