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Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Issue 74 August / September 2013 : Retail : Museum

ARCHITECT: Sam Marshall and NSW Government Architects Office LIGHTING DESIGN: Lightmatters PHOTOGRAPHY: Brett Boardman

As part of recent renovation of Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art, lightmatters helped to develop a scheme for the new cubiform interior.

Sydney’s Circular Quay is perhaps best known for the iconic landmarks that bookend its neat loop past the CBD. But tucked between the Opera House and Harbour Bridge there is a third grace, just as noteworthy.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA) was established in 1991 with a lofty remit ‘to inform and educate Australians about international contemporary visual art’. It adopted as its home the former Maritime Services Board building, an imposing art deco structure completed in 1952 and situated at the harbour’s edge. The site served the museum well, but in 2010 a plan was instigated to redevelop and extend the museum in order to create, in the words of MCA Director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor,  “a truly national and international institution serving the audiences of the future”.

When unveiled, the new design, undertaken by local architect Sam Marshall and the NSW Government Architects Office, was controversial: a modern ‘stacked cube’ structure that sought to echo the progressive and contemporary nature of the art inside. Marshall offered a sturdy defence. “The new extension provides the MCA with a striking architectural signifier which reflects the contemporary work of the institution, whilst respecting the existing building’s architecture,” he said.

After a 21-month closure, the museum reopened with its new Northern wing - containing two new five-metre-high column-free galleries -  as well as refurbished galleries and lecture theatres, new workshop and office spaces, covered outdoor terraces and a café.

The critical task of lighting both new extension and refurbished galleries fell to lightmatters, the specialist lighting studio at Sydney-based Haron Robson. Lightmatters already had a longstanding involvement with the museum, having carried out occasional renovations since as far back as 2002. This working history proved a strong advantage as the project proceeded, as lightmatters’ Managing Director Glen Haron notes: “The team had worked together for a long time and by the time we started the major project we understood their business and aims very well. For the lighting the architect wanted minimal intrusion of lighting hardware and sought a series of white boxes or blank canvases on which anything could be overlayed - for art or functions. If the lighting could emphasise the box forms then this was seen as a bonus by the design team.”

The cubic shapes that characterise the exterior of the new extension are echoed inside as a repeated pattern on the ceiling.

Lightmatters liaised with the architect to find places in which the lighting could be hidden as much as possible, while at the same time emphasising these forms and the smooth surface textures within the museum space.

“We used a lot of 3D modeling of spaces and light effects to illustrate options and the light effects of those options,” says Haron. “Mock-ups were used to create full scale illustrations of light arrangements, the focus being to minimise the impact of the equipments’ form on spaces.”
Together they developed ceiling and wall forms in a way that could accommodate light locations.

“Some of these forms work and some fall a little short of our aims,” says Haron. “Perhaps we were seeking to achieve the impossible in the perfect integration of light and forms. Overall the lighting reveals the spaces well and allow objects within the spaces to be lit effectively.”

A particular concern was the potential effect of spill light from the light locations and how this might detract from the integrity of the pure box forms of the interconnecting spaces. Much effort went into avoiding these issues wherever possible.

Apart from revealing and defining the spaces, providing lighting flexibility for exhibitions was a key challenge. An existing surface mounted track system, previously developed by lightmatters, was used in some spaces and an integrated track lighting system used in others.
For a number of spaces that are used during business hours the team developed diffused T5 light solutions. “These work well during the day with the large amount of daylight in the spaces, but at night, due to the diffuse nature of the light, they tend to be a little flat,” says Haron. “Again, an example where compromises based on cost, form and time of use resulted in a less that perfect 24 hour lighting solution, but a good solution for the hours of operation.”

Behind the aesthetic goals, special attention was also placed on creating a sustainable building. All lighting is controlled via a comprehensive Philips Dynalite system, which communicates with the Building Management System. High output T5 fluorescent lamps with high frequency ballasts were used within cove and diffused lighting solutions, supporting the sustainable energy principles.

Overview: General Lighting
The spaces within the redevelopment have flexible and adjustable lighting that is sustainable, through control zoning, dimming and the use of energy efficient lamps. The lighting design required illumination for the fixed walls that was also flexible enough to illuminate any temporary display walls. The fixed lighting of the foyer was required to add to the drama, and enhance the architectural features. All venue lighting, as well as the lighting of the National Centre of Creative Learning and the Veolia Lecture Theatre required a flexible arrangement. Also imperative was a high level of control, dimming, to be unobtrusive and UV free.

Overview: Exhibition Lighting

The brief for the Exhibition Gallery consisted of a combination of fixed general lighting and moveable exhibition lighting, including focusable luminaires and wall washers. Since some areas are used 24 hours a day, consideration was given to the choice of lamp to reduce UV emission, whilst also providing good colour rendering properties. The overall aim was to conceal and provide consistent lighting in the ceiling troughs, maintaining the clean line of the ceiling.

The art itself remained the prime focus throughout the project. Much of it uses traditional media - paper or sculptures - and for these the display lighting uses UV filters, controlled lighting levels and minimised lit periods. Decisions on the use of these tools is made by the Curatorial team who advise where reduced irradiation is required.

Equally, a significant proportion of the collection is made up of active video or still projections, which require much reduced light levels in the surrounding space, and no lighting on the actual artwork. This necessitates a very flexible control system and maximum flexibility, achieved using switched outlets, dimming and multiply circuits in all areas of the gallery. Provision of controlled power outlets at skirting level in some areas also assists artists who seek to back light or provide low level feature lighting to their displays.

With such a diverse set of uses and potential configurations, lightmatters have succeded in making a space with enough flexibility to meet all future challenges.

“We have provided the light tools to allow the museum users to get the balance right between lighting the space and the art. This is a dynamic and ever changing balance,” concludes Haron.


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