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EMPAC Arts Center, Troy, USA

Issue 41 Feb / Mar 2008 : Architectural : Façade

Lighting Design : JENNIFER TIPTON


Robert Such explores legendary theatre lighting designer Jennifer Tipton's first foray into the architectural market with an installation at a new facility for media artists in New York State.

Rather than board a rocket - she once studied astrophysics and dreamt of walking on the moon - celebrated US lighting designer Jennifer Tipton ventured instead into the world of lighting design some four decades ago, and captivated by light, has been spotlighting opera, dance and theatre stars ever since.
Early last year, Tipton began a new adventure, when Johannes Goebel, Founding Director of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) approached the multi award-winning theatre lighting designer to create a lightwork for the new £72 million ($141.7 million) EMPAC building, designed by architects Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners.
The plan was for the lightwork to call attention to the prominent new construction on the hill overlooking the town of Troy and the Hudson River, some 170 kilometres north of New York. When it opens later this year, EMPAC will provide research and study facilities for artists working in a wide range of media. The building stands on the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s university campus.
Various ideas for an event were considered before Tipton came on board, but the final project fell to the seventy-year old designer to create a lighting installation connected with the building site, which in itself presented Tipton and her team with a number of challenges. They worked at night after building workers had left for the day, and they had to remain flexible, changing their plans as the construction site evolved.
Tipton worked alongside Michael Boll of Robert Stark Lighting. Boll selected the equipment best suited for the job and worked out the logistics. “I’m not a good technician,” says Tipton. “I’m a very good designer, but I’m not a good technician at all. I leave it to others to know about equipment.”
Initially Boll wanted to use Falcon Beam fixtures, as Tipton wanted to play with beams and to have them “join and overlap,” she says, but their unavailability on the east coast meant they had to work with Syncrolites. Combined with Martin MAC 1200s, the luminaires covered the huge 21,000 square-metre (221,200 square-foot) building in a sequence of colour washes and shapes from dusk until 10 pm for three weeks in January and February.
Over the years, Tipton has learned to work with budget lighting systems generally found in theatres. Boll, on the other hand, prefers working in the entertainment and event industry, where bigger budgets permit the use of cutting-edge technology. Part of the EMPAC challenge for Tipton was getting accustomed to working with the new equipment. “Syncrolites had there own quirks and shapes,” she says. After first programming the display, Tipton returned the following day and said “no, let’s start again.” The Syncrolites are not “designed to make patterns on walls,” she says.
Each night the installation ran on a repeating fifteen-minute cycle. Syncrolites and MACs illuminated the facade in scrolling colour washes and white dot and frosting effects.
“Showing off the building,” she says, “as well as having a few moments of quiet light, but a sense of activity in the studio spaces themselves” was Tipton’s principle idea for the dynamic work.
First, the building lights went out. Blue Neoflex tubes (budgetary restrictions meant the preferred, but more costly, white Neoflex could not be used), fixed to the scaffolding, came on to create a series of blue horizontal lines on the north side.
At the same time a flickering light filled the artists’ studios, the effect produced by Flickermaster-controlled safety light bulbs. “People watching could imagine people were moving around in the studios,” she says.
Three MAC 1200W luminaires drew the viewer’s attention to the ‘snout,’ as Tipton likes to call it. The ‘snout’ is the visible end of the EMPAC’s 1,200-seat cedar-clad concert hall, which sits inside the building like a ship in a bottle. Protected from the winter weather by Plexiglass, the MACs were mounted on scaffold constructions across the street.
The changes in pace of Tipton’s dynamic lighting installation were guided by “my own rhythms that felt right to me,” she says.
Born in Ohio, Tipton began studying astrophysics—hence the desire to be an astronaut—at Cornell University, but switched to English and graduated in 1958. Tipton then went to New York to be a dancer, but as a rehearsal mistress she started to look at “the bigger picture, and in the picture was light, and I fell in love with it, and I’ve been in love with it ever since,” she says. Later she studied under American lighting designer Thomas Skelton, and then became his assistant. When the chance arose to light a theatre production herself she grabbed it and never looked back.
“I have accumulated experience over my life time, and so it’s been a slow growth,” she says. “This coming to terms with this equipment and dealing with these challenges in just a few nights made me realize that this is what it is about for us. The equipment was the collaborator.” Tipton feels it is important to “speak to the equipment and have the equipment speak back!” she says, “and to listen to what it says and to shape one’s ideas through it.”
In the future Tipton has plans to work with other non-theatrical subjects, such as Alexander Calder’s sculptures at the Whitney Museum of American Art in October. However, as she will be working inside and on a smaller scale to the EMPAC project, it will be “more like theatre than lighting a building,” she says.

www.empac.rpi.edu

 

Empac

Syncrolites and Martin MAC 1200s cover the huge 21,000sqm building in a sequence of colour washes and shapes from 10pm


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