Focus Lighting Deftly Uses Illumination to Build Narratives Atop Buildings and Architecture

Since its founding 32 years ago, the studio has projected its designs onto projects of all types and scales, from the Times Square Ball to the space shuttle Enterprise.
Focus Lighting architecture design

Based in New York, Focus Lighting has illuminated architectural projects all over the world. At the National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, the firm chose to light the memorial in white light. “The immediate impression was not about warmth inside; it was more of an art piece, really,” says designer J.P. Lira. “The colors are very much this kind of black-and-white neutral that takes you back in time.” Courtesy Focus Lighting

The designers at Focus Lighting will tell you they don’t think in terms of color, but a quick glance at their portfolio would seem to undercut this claim. Since its founding 32 years ago, the studio has projected color onto projects of all types and scales, from the Times Square Ball to the space shuttle Enterprise. Its most recent idea proposes bathing the Riverside Drive viaduct, a towering railroad-turned-roadway in West Harlem, New York City, in a rainbow of hues.

What, then, accounts for this dissonance between word and act? “In today’s age with LED fixtures, it’s so easy just to stick a color-changing fixture on a building,” explains firm partner and principal designer Brett Andersen. “We’re hunting for inspiration, for a reason to paint a piece of architecture with color—we really don’t think about light as colored or white.”

Focus Lighting architecture design

The lighting scheme for the exterior of New York Aquarium’s Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit in Brooklyn works in tandem with a sculptural work by the artist Ned Kahn. The piece comprises thousands of scales that shift in the wind, catching and reflecting light to create a unique display. “You’ll never see the same thing twice,” says principal designer Christine Hope. Courtesy Focus Lighting

At any given time Focus’s staff of 34 can be working on upwards of 100 projects. With each new commission, the team builds a concept around a client’s goals, evaluating early on what spectrum of color—green or blue? yellow or violet?—is most appropriate. These decisions play out in the firm’s “light lab,” a double-height room inside its West Harlem office that operates like a black-box theater. It’s where designers build scale mock-ups of spaces (and objects), subjecting them to light to better gauge how different materials, finishes, and colors respond to various treatments. In one recent project for a nightclub, Focus demonstrated how the patterns of the expensive, ornate wallpaper favored by the client, so visible in daylight, would disappear in a dimly lit nocturnal environment. Stepping outside its typical purview, the team began altering the depth, size, and texture of the feathered pattern itself, going through seven iterations before settling on the best wall-covering.

“It’s really trying to get in the mind of what the project wants to be,” says principal designer J.P. Lira. “What is the vision from the client’s point of view? The architect’s point of view? And then if we need to use color, it’s only to strengthen or support that vision.”

Focus Lighting architecture design

Scales (small aluminum plates) from the New York Aquarium installation Courtesy Focus Lighting

In Focus’s work, color plays a supporting and not a central role, enlisted in a wider narrative. “We’re trying to use light to create a sense of place, create an emotion, or kind of reinforce some visual composition,” says Andersen.

Inside Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, Focus created a perimeter in blue light to help unify 70 individual exhibits. At the open-air National Holocaust Monument in Ottawa, the firm enhanced the atmospherics of architect Daniel Libeskind’s contemplative space by using a slightly warm white light. And on the exterior of New York Aquarium’s Ocean Wonders: Sharks! exhibit, it lit artist Ned Kahn’s shimmering wall of tiny aluminum plates in shifting blues, greens, and whites to resemble a moving tide, an experience that founder Paul Gregory likens to viewing a theater show: “If you can look at something and it’s as if the curtain went up onstage and you saw it for the first time and you’re moved by that, that’s what we want.”

Focus Lighting architecture design

Focus’s latest project is one of its most ambitious. Its Arches of Harlem aims to illuminate the entirety of the Riverside Drive viaduct in colors drawn from Harlem Renaissance painters. Courtesy Focus Lighting

With its latest project, for the Riverside Drive viaduct, Focus will try to re-create that effect at the level of infrastructure. The designers propose illuminating the structure’s 26 arches and 52 columns in color palettes they developed with local artists. (The hues would change monthly.) Focus has gained support for the project from politicians and nearby Columbia University and is currently looking for a financial backer. “It’s shielded from outside light and it’s just beautiful, a perfect opportunity,” says Gregory. “Some of us were trained theatrically, and you can make good scenery look great. This is great scenery.”

More great scenery: Manhattan’s famed Waldorf Astoria hotel, part of which is being reconfigured into apartments. Focus is at work lighting the landmarked Deco interiors, in addition to new amenity spaces. Valentina Doro, the project lead, says the goal is to “keep fidelity to the space, but with new tools.” She describes marrying the Waldorf’s historic character with high-tech but low-maintenance LEDs that mimic halogen lighting while meeting modern-day energy codes—“a warmer, dimmer, sexy look,” Doro explains. “Even if it’s an old building, it needs to be used and lived in by people who are more into this type of technology.”

Whatever Focus is lighting, the goal remains the same: eliciting an emotional reaction from onlookers. “It’s that moment when you’re filled with emotion and you sort of burn that memory into your brain,” says Andersen. “It’s what we try to do with every project.”

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Categories: Lighting