Light Flight: An Orchestrated Perception

Yang Wang
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, School of Architecture + Planning

Project idea

In this era where the tangible is gradually replaced by the impalpable - newspaper vs. radio, books vs. Kindle, lectures vs. MIT Opencourseware, the movie theater vs. Netflix, etc., where does the traditional museum stand? Since the launch of Google Arts & Culture in 2011 (then called Google Art Project) and other platforms, the stronghold of material public galleries and their raison d’être have never-before been so challenged. The museum as the sole disseminator of knowledge no longer holds true.

But is the corporeal really dead? Could a new museum paradigm be established such that it is more than simply an obsolete institution? The author believes that although the content of a museum seems translatable to the digital realm, the experience of authenticity is not replicable. It is apparent that an atmospheric enthrallment is the last bastion of a unique experience deliverable by the physical museum.

The author believes that an American museum needs a representative architecture that is not, as oftentimes, borrowed from Europe and elsewhere. In this search for national identity, the typology of the skyscraper, which originated in the United States, may be seen as an exploitable form to be incorporated conceptually in a museum.

Atmosphere is best produced by the presence and absence of light. As Louis Kahn puts it, “the shadow belongs to Light.” Daylighting is always an intellection that brings the architects and engineers together to negotiate the trade-offs of an animated daylit experience and its energy footprint. Finding the balance between light and shadow will be an important element in creating an atmospheric path of cultivation.

This project will engage in the development of a new museum paradigm that focuses on the creation of an immersive journey of enlightenment based on a unique mode of American passage complemented by the orchestration of daylight.

Project description

This project started with the ambition of creating a new paradigm for museum design - a conglomeration of a bona fide American architectural form and a forward-looking sustainable framework.

Architecture in America is a patchwork of different cultures and histories, just like the country itself. Art museums in New York City exist in many different architectural styles - be it beaux-arts, brutalism, deconstructivism, etc., yet little is a veritable American architecture. Looking back at the architectural history of the nation, the author’s search pinpointed the skyscraper. The skyscraper was developed in the mid-1800s, first in Chicago, then in New York City. The architecture of the new typology was based on three components: the elevator, the steel frame and artificial lighting. The incorporation of these elements in the proposed design engendered the idea of an art museum that manifests itself as a horizontal skyscraper.

The Horizontal Elevator
A new museum sightseeing mechanism, the horizontal elevator, offers the elderly, the handicapped, young children, tourists short on time, the thrill-seekers, etc., an accessible way of viewing the museum in just under an hour’s time. Yet this avant-garde design is also backed by the simultaneous inclusion of the walkable path. The horizontal elevator offers a new mobility within a museum, and it is readily available to visitors as it is capable of moving close to 1500 people per day. This horizontal elevator technology - MULTI - has been invented by Thyssenkrupp in 2017. Up until now, this technology has not been applied to any completed building. The very first customer to install the MULTI system is at the OVG Real Estate’s new East Side Tower in Berlin, scheduled to be completed in 2020. Nonetheless, this project is a unique proposal in incorporating the technology in the museum typology.

The Steel Frame
An efficient structural system is developed for this museum by using double-curvature elements and reinforcing weak structural areas based on Finite Element Analysis simulations. Furthermore, the use of the steel frame structure allows for great spans, which liberates the space to freely accommodate different programs.

The goal of this design in terms of lighting was to maximize the use of daylight but meticulously program the different exhibitions such that artworks would be lit but not damaged by light. The use of artificial LED lights in areas sensitive to daylight creates a well-lit interior. To achieve this, three different lighting controls were used to minimize lighting energy - manual on/off switch, photosensor dimming, and occupant on/off switch. This resulted in an overall energy use below the median value for museums. Although the lighting and energy calculations are based on simplified models and many assumptions, they still shine light on the potential of the strategy.

The author believes the design of the horizontal elevator is practical as the technology has already been invented and this design is not a what-if scenario. The use of the steel frame allowed for large spans essential for the exhibition of artworks. And the balance between daylighting and artificial lighting is effective based on simplified simulation models.

In this project, the historical heritage of the unique American architecture is manifested while a forward-looking environmental responsibility is also considered. The author believes the design in this project has the potential to create a new museum paradigm.

Technical information

Part of this proposal is based on the utilisation of the horizontal elevator. The basic idea is to allow viewers to see art in a mobile way. The horizontal elevator would encircle the exhibits on the first floor, then reaching the ascension system, it would turn 90 degrees to travel vertically up to the second floor. On the second floor, it will again travel by the artworks and eventually ascend to the third floor. The third and last floor's artworks would be presented to the viewers and the elevator would finally reach the descension system where it would vertically travel to its home position on the first floor.

This horizontal elevator - MULTI - has been invented by Thyssenkrupp in 2017. One hundred sixty years after the invention of the elevator technology, this breakthrough will add a new dimension to architectural mobility. The MULTI elevator allows the elevator cabins to make 90-degree turns, using the linear motor technology utilized in the magnetic levitation Transrapid train.

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