Mood Lighting

June 25, 2008


The artist Christopher Pekoc, glimpsed attending the Preview of the new film about his work, The Beauty of Damage, inside the Peter B. Lewis building designed by Frank O. Gehry. Photo © 2008 by Laura Bidwell

Its next time again.

What is the effect of the environment, the presentation, the “ surround, ” and the resulting mood these create in the experience of a work of art? In my view, it can make it or break it. You know this is true. You hate bad lighting. You cringe at the coughing lady next to you at the concert. You get frustrated trying to glimpse the masterpiece through the blockbuster exhibition ’ s stifling crowds. We are often told not to touch the art; It is fragile. Therefore, it needs to be properly presented in order to be fully enjoyed.

Take the other night, inside the Frank Gehry building, for the preview of the newly completed (and probably now to be expanded) film on the artist Christopher Pekoc. The lesson is simple. Presentation is everything. The process of filmmaking is a complex series of decisions and depends upon succesful problem solving. Even after the film is done, the beat goes on.

To have a preview inside of such a disorienting and remarkable space is a privilege. I had documented the birth and construction of this building for several years so, for me, it was like returning to the womb. For many of the guests, it was a first time wonderment. Case Western Reserve University really took this premiere seriously and created a magnificent event. There was champagne and exotic hors d ’ oeuvres. Moving spot lights projected shapes of colors on the undulating white walls. They brought in High Definition projection. They “dressed up” the interior of the Peter B. Lewis building with a red carpet runner. They had covered the many handrails in the building with red velvet, which reminded me of those long evening gloves women wore in the 1950’s. Dressing up the building struck me as sort of like putting ribbons on a Brancusi – a rare folly for a festive occasion reserved only for the lucky few who happen to own a Brancusi. A cellist, at the foot of the stairs, played Bach ’ s moody cello sonatas which echoed throughout the building. The message was clear, “ What you are about to see and hear is something important and really special. ”

Our task was to turn the largest and most beautiful classroom in the building into a movie theatre. Frank had explained to me that the building was designed with “canyon” light in mind. Architects love to play with light and top-light is one of their favorite toys. For this building, the skylights are little slits often hidden from direct view or only seen through reverse crevasses past towering slopes of walls. In the Peter B. Lewis, Weatherhead School of Management building, you often feel as though you are in a canyon looking up at little slivers of sky. Our classroom/movie theatre was no exception.

Frank tucked a skylight high up in this room and there was just no way to physically get to it. It was astonishing how much light came in through this little crack. It flood lit a curving white wall which became a giant reflected light “soft box” for the room. Without covering up that skylight, a darkened room, at seven o’clock on a summer evening, was not going to happen. No dark room – no magic.

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One of the classroom towers inside the Peter B. Lewis Building at CWRU

When we arrived to set up the projection inside one of the classroom towers, I went right to the curved crack to see if they had been able to cover it from the inside. A feeble attempt had been made to clamp a black cloth over only about 20% of the windows. It was a good effort but in no way successful. The deceptive tilts of the curved walls, as they met the floor, would not allow a straight shot with a ladder. It was uncanny. It was if this skylight was literally beyond our grasp. Then I remembered the computer modeling I had seen of the building. All those thousands of “irrational” curves. In order to build them you use the computer and an aerospace software called CATIA to “rationalize” the curves into “rule-developable surfaces.” Finding the straight line inside the 3D curve is the hard part. Sometimes you need a whole bunch of straight lines to define (ahem – rationalize ) the curve but if you use enough of them you can figure out a way to build it.

What this meant was that one straight-line ladder would not be our solution. We would have needed dozens of ladders cobbled together as a scaffold to do the job. This was not practical. Hmmmm.

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The "Fred & Ginger" office building in Prague

What about blocking the skylight from the outside? This was easier said than done. Gehry had created the classroom towers (the office name for them was “the Buddahs”) so they sat inside the building on top of giant beam-like tripods. The towers look like chopped off Brancusi shapes sitting on three legged stools. (The original design of these towers was inspired by the “Ginger” part of Frank’s “Fred & Ginger” building in Prague and Ginger herself originally hails from the design of Peter Lewis House unbuilt living rooms – but that is another story which is told in the film we did about the house, A Constructive Madness . ) The classroom towers sit inside the building and create the canyons. Getting to that skylight would be like scaling a canyon wall! They are beyond the reach of even the tallest scissors lift. How the hell do you get there from here? There must be a way.

One of the building’s maintenance guys floats an idea. “What if we drop cloths onto the skylight from above?” Picture yourself above the canyon looking down at a little ledge (the skylight) about two stories down. His plan was to toss drop cloths down and hope your aim was good enough to hit the ledge. “Well, how are you gonna get them outta there when your done?” came the response from one of his colleagues. “We’ll have to attach ropes to them to pull them back out again.” Brilliant!

This was the plan that eventually worked. An unseen maintenance ramp, designed to service the heating and cooling ducts, was the vantage point from where they made the drops. With their hard work and many rope-attached black drop cloths, blessed darkness was achieved. Whew.

To complete the transformation of the classroom into a movie theatre, my friends and colleagues at Commercial Recording brought in a sophisticated Dolby 5.1 studio quality surround system. The room, since it had no parallel reflective flat surfaces, was an acoustician ’ s dream. The result was a surround sound environment – better than most commercial movie theatres. All this ancillary effort, seemingly unrelated the filmmaking process,was in fact crucial to showcase the film to its best advantage. People loved it and the impact of the dark and the sound was enormous.


The Wedding at Cana, a sensual extravaganza of a last supper, by Paolo Veronese,1563

You think this is a special case? Think again. Rewind 500 years. We are now in the refectory (eating hall) of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Veronese has just finished painting a wall-to-wall monster of a painting, the famous Wedding at Cana. Trust me it is a knockout. Napoleon liked it so much he ripped it off the refectory wall and took it back to the Louvre. The architect of the space was none other than Palladio. He is known for his famous windows which bring blessed light into otherwise dingy religious spaces. See now the arched Palladian trademark windows high in the hall. They must have created beautiful light cascading down into the monk ’ s dining hall. But wait a second, take another look. They are all bricked up! Stop the press! Here comes the amazing part. The provocative assertion is that these windows were blocked up during Palladio ’ s lifetime and not only with his permission but by his order. I heard this from our friend Tudi Samartini (see Dec. blog) who says she has seen the documents.

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The Refectory at San Giorgio Maggiore today with the digital reproduction being installed. Outside, the bricked up Palladian windows

If this is true, it is astounding. It means that Palladio modified his building for Veronese ’ s painting! The top light destroyed Veronese ’ s lighting effects inside the painting. He wanted to create his own huge “ window ” at the end of the long dining room. He wanted to create an illusory room where the feast goes on in sacred space! Could he have gone to his friend the architect (remember they collaborated on the famous Villa Maser in Oslo) and asked him to block up his famous windows? If this is true (and it is a big “ if ” ) this is one of the most touching examples of “ presentation is everything ” in Art history. All of this can be witnessed today since a "pixel-to-pixel" life size digital reproduction of The Wedding at Cana has been re-installed in its original location in the refectory.

Other art forms use similar devices to set the proper mood. At Severance Hall, the other night. a special platform was erected to float Opera singers in the space above the orchestra members heads. We will see and hear more Opera at Severance Hall next season, some of it will be fully-staged. It will be interesting to see how they transform the space to create the proper context to support a work of art. The examples of this are endless. How about the presentation of food? How about the museum itself? You must know of others. Post a comment and tell us about them or experiences you have had where the presentation, and all of its details, became crucial to the experience of the work of art. In many ways, it extends the creative process. It is further evidence of how an artist ’ s vision and tenacity does not end with the work of art itself. Often the creativity must spill out into how and where that work is experienced. My cup runneth over.

Until next time, I remain, your


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This just in:

In case you were planning to go to law school and become a high powered attorney you might want to check out these smart recruiting videos Telos recently completed for Jones Day, which is the second or third largest law firm in the world. They have a lot of nice energy and feature some very articulate people. Jones Day Recruiting Videos

Also, for you Gehry fans, La Biennale di Venezia 11th International Architecture Exhibition just awarded Frank Gehry a lifetime Golden Lion Award.


  • Steven Fong says:

    Dear Tom,

    Tom’s recent text is about the commitment to getting things right, and to the tremendous diligence and energy required to make something better than the norm. We all have our favorite maniacal detail freaks- Steve Jobs comes to mind. Would Donald Judd be a fellow traveler? Seems like it.

    However, at the same time, one would not want those whose sole virtue is diligence to be under the aegis of this blog. Because good execution and good ideas are sometimes two different things. I can think of lots of architecture that is well executed but bereft of ideas (ok, conversely, I can also think of lots of buildings that are great ideas but shabbily built).

    Anyway, for a moment lets consider the Salon des Refusés of 1863 as a worthy challenge to the prevailing academicism of its day. Which perhaps sets us up to consider the role of a whole other set of creative impulses associated with modernity. Together with attentive, detailed and committed there is also fast, transgressive, and louche.


  • Paulette Faulkner says:

    I loved reading your description of all the difficulties connected with blacking out the space of such a complicated building ready for the movie presentation. To get the feeling, I ‘googled’ the building and was interested to find the references to Corbusier’s structure at Ronchamp which I visited recently. I could also relate to your reference to the Refectory at S. Giorgio Maggiore which I also love to visit but had never noticed the blocked up windows. You have a huge gift of observation.

    You ask of other examples which come to mind. How about the wonderful landscaped gardens at Stowe House in England opened up by Capability Brown in the 1740s and retaining the picturesque ideal of the monument – temple ( a pun on the family name), thus combining Art and Nature to produce an idyllic retreat? The temples framed by long vistas down which to view them softened by the edges of the lakes. The ‘presentation’ of the gardens to show the architecture to its best advantage.

    Great to read your note about La Biennale di Venezia awarding Frank O. Gehry a lifetime Golden Lion Award. I have been a fan since we visited the Guggenheim in Bilbao and should love to see more of his work.


  • luca says:

    Ciao Tom,

    well, being a photographer always worried of how my images are enlightned in show, I particularly appreciate Palladio’s concern for the Wedding at Cana painting! Huge masters, huge sensibilites and respect.

    I think you are right: presentation is almost everything in a work. It’s the “touch” that can change the destiny of any intention.

    We know sometimes this happens even too often: since we always risk to miss the deep meaning of things hypnotized by their aspect (form, substance…).

    Anyway, there’s nothing to do – at least for us, I mean. Lights and musics make the difference. You don’t need to “understand” them – you just want to feel their decisive power, and possibly beeing swept away.

    I am always looking for an emotional light. And when I find one, I never stop to be surprised what music can do working together with images (I know, it’s the discovery of hot water! but it’ always exciting). Probably, memory is nothing else but a movie. I remember a good expression I’ve red somewhere: we make movies even with a driving mirror.

    I love your way of paying attention to any aspect of art and culture. You have a very sensitive and involved eye, and I think your is a very conscious way of working – technique at the highest professional level and “open soul”.

    Un abbraccio,


    Luca Campigotto is a brilliant fine art photographer specializing in moody, usually black & white, time-lapse cityscapes, taken at night. He lives in Milan but is thoroughly Venetian. – TB

  • Juan Bastos says:

    Dear Tom,

    As I was reading your great article about “Mood Lighting”, I couldn’t stop thinking of a magical time in the breathtaking ruins in Machu Picchu, Peru. I have been there twice. Briefly, in 1978, as a teenager where I wore a plastic poncho because of the unstoppable rain, and in 1998. My partner and I actually decided to spend the night at the hotel, which is situated in one of the most amazing places in the world. We did the reservation six months ahead, and we requested “a room with a view”. There are just a few of those, for some reason. When we arrived to the ruins, after taking the picturesque train from Cuzco, a sunny day welcomed us for my satisfaction. We didn’t mind the number of tourists, because around 5 pm, everyone has to leave except the hotel guests. This is a privileged experience that one shares with happy llamas that are freed around that time to roam around their land. After dinner, we ventured ourselves with a borrowed flash light and had the terrific experience of walking along the ruins by moon light. The ghost city reveled new treasures under this experience. Familiar shapes as windows and paths became alive, with an inner light that flooded the place…or was it part of our imagination? The personal perception that one has while enjoying a special moment, as you said in your article “It is further evidence of how an artist’s vision and tenacity does not end with the work of art itself. Often the creativity must spill out into how and where that work is experienced”. Well, besides being afraid into falling into a cliff, we were ecstatic by how Machu Picchu looked under a different light. One’s imagination kept working and thinking about the people who built it, its history, and its beauty. The following morning we were up at sunrise. Our room window greeted us the day before with the familiar post card view of this lovely place. However, before the sun rise, the city was enveloped in a heavy mist. The Huayna Picchu, the mountain that towers the Ruins, was mostly covered. A magical moment happened then; the sun appeared, and as the first rays hit the ground, the mist started dissolving revealing in a matter of ten minutes the majestic place in all its splendor. The mood had changed in no time at all. One doesn’t need to be on the top of the world to necessarily experience a magical moment. However it taught me to be more aware of sensing the mood while contemplating an artistic form, because sometimes, if you leave ten minutes go by without paying attention in a special place, you can miss a great thing!

    Juan Bastos is an immensely talented painter of portraits and works in Los Angeles – TB

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