20th Century and Contemporary, Architecture, Design

Notes from a Native New Yorker: Walking the City with Richard Kelly

Michelle Stein

One of the great parts of life in New York City is walking past buildings that offer a timeline of architectural history.  Looking back to the more recent past, mid-century modernism took hold of New York City, leaving a strong mark on the city with both a new architectural style and a new way to think about what buildings should accomplish.

However, building design alone cannot serve as the only way in which to create this new vision of architecture.  Richard Kelly was a lighting designer who worked with many of the most important  Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture mid-century architects.  His work is chronicled in The Structure of Light: Richard Kelly and the Illumination of Modern Architecture, edited by Dietrich Neumann.  Though a number of Richard Kelly’s light installations no longer exist, what remains still offers a valuable look into the value of his work, which formed a critical part of the reception of many buildings from the mid-century.

If you are in the city and looking to see the lasting influence of Richard Kelly and mid-twentieth century architecture, look no further than the following four spots, only some of the places where Kelly’s work either once was or remains today:

Lincoln Center

Its campus encompasses 62nd to 65th Streets from Amsterdam Avenue to Columbus Avenue

The New York State Theater (renamed David H. Koch Theater) is the current home of the New York City Opera and New York City Ballet.  Lincoln Center has been undergoing a massive renovation.  The theater was originally designed by Philip Johnson, and Richard Kelly created a lighting display that is fondly remembered by many who see a performance there, including me.  Six star shaped light fixtures illuminate the center of the building, and retract upwards at the start of the New_York_City_Opera performance.  The star motif is continued in the other fixtures within the theater.

Richard Kelly’s work at Avery Fisher Hall was quickly overshadowed by the outrage over the poor acoustics of the concert hall.  The hall was redone after the complaints continued to increase and attempts to solve the problems with the acoustics proved unsuccessful.

Seagram Building and the Four Seasons

375 Park Avenue (between 52nd and 53rd)

Designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the Seagram Building is one of the most iconic examples of modernist architecture.  In many ways a follow-up to Mies’s Lake Shore Drive towers in Chicago, the building is encased in glass and bronze mullions, but structurally reinforced by steel and concrete.  I-beams run along the side of the building, and all the lines made by the mullions and I-beams all run nearly completely identically, offering a crystallization of the building’s architecture and the lines of the city.  It is set back from the street in order to clear the zoning laws, and the extra space is used for reflecting pools.

Kelly’s contributions to the building provided the familiar vision of Seagram as a “tower of light.”  Emphasizing the lobby with a variety of downlights allowed it to gleam at the bottom of the tower, while lights on the ceilings of each floor created bands of light visible around the perimeter of the building.  This marked a change from the practice of floodlighting exteriors, a practice more effective for non-glass buildings.  The lighting became an integral part of analysis and discussion of Seagram Building.

Within the Seagram Building is the Four Seasons restaurant, one of the most famous restaurants in the city.  Designed entirely by Philip Johnson, and decorated with works by Mark Rothko, the restaurant also becomes its own showcase for mid-century art and design.  Here Richard Kelly also offered a clearly articulated lighting plan, including lights for the entrance that recalibrate throughout the day to maintain the same brightness.  Many of the fixtures in the restaurant are not visible, but they work together to create an open yet intimate room for diners.

Bankers Trust Building

280 Park Avenue (between 48th and 49th Street)

Unlike Seagram, the Bankers Trust Building does use setbacks in order to comply with zoning laws, which require a certain percentage of any lot to remain open.  The lobby does again shine more brightly than the remainder of the building though with the use of downlights.  The ceiling matches the lobby in luminosity.  Kelly worked with lighting designer and engineer Edison Pierce to create fixtures which allowed the ceiling to appear to emanate light, as opposed to clearly seeing the fixtures

Chase Manhattan Bank

1 Chase Manhattan Plaza (on Liberty Street)

Designed by the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, this building downtown was the 399px-One_Chase_Manhattan_Plaza_1 sixth tallest building in the world when completed, but more importantly stood out in the area for its use of aluminum and glass as architectural materials.  Its architectural design, with a great deal of open space remaining on the lot and its perfect geometry were indicators of a contemporary change in bank/bank office architecture, which conveyed openness and transparencies, rather than the dark spaces and heavy masonry of the past.  Richard Kelly lit the plaza from nearby buildings in order to ensure safety in the area, and used very functional lighting on most floors of the building.

Michelle Stein is a former Yale Press intern and recent Vassar College graduate.  She lives on the Upper West Side in New York.

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