Museums' lighting becomes a hot topic. Smithsonian in conflict with architect's plan

When architect Jean Paul Carlhian designed the new Asian and African art museums deep underground on the National Mall, ``kingpins or linchpins of light'' (as he calls them) were an essential part of the concept. But by the time the museums opened last week, museum officials had made some radical changes in that concept. As a result, there was an additional cost of nearly $2.7 million for ``Smithsonian request for changes'' made after construction was under way in the new Sackler Gallery for Asian art and the National Museum of African Art. They are part of the $73.2 million, mostly underground complex known as the Quadrangle on the Mall.

For two of the major linchpins of light, Mr. Carlhian and his associates at the Boston architectural firm of Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson & Abbott had designed two enormous aboveground skylights, each 117 feet long, to bring natural light down into the two museums. This was their solution to the original concept of underground museums done by Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura.

The entire skylight in the African museum has now been paneled over to prevent natural light from interfering with the exhibits. And in the Sackler Gallery, where what had originally been one huge area illuminated with natural light from the skylight, partitions designed for the art displays now block off that light in three out of six segments of the area.

Carlhian, who says he had wanted to counteract the underground problems for viewing because of claustrophobia and loss of light, had also designed huge rose windows, mirrored reflections, and shafts and pools of light to illuminate the museums naturally.

These features were all part of the twin museum complex that had been under construction since 1983 as approved by S. Dillon Ripley, then secretary of the Smithsonian. When Mr. Ripley retired more than a year and a half ago, to be replaced by the new secretary, Robert McC. Adams, the concept of the ``client,'' the Smithsonian, changed. A spokesman for Mr. Adams says he does not wish to comment on the changes: ``In matters of design and building you should speak to his assistant secretary for museums, Tom Freudenheim.''

Mr. Freudenheim says ``His [Adams's] policy, directly and through me, is basically to support the decisions of the people who are paid to run the museum and who understand the collections and the needs of the exhibitions.'' He says that in the African art museum, ``because their opening exhibition is African textiles, they have covered the skylights. You're talking about two museums whose primary materials want to be seen in artificial light; you're not talking about the National Gallery and paintings.''

Freudenheim says that in the Sackler the original ``long trough of skylight,'' on which a diffuser has been placed to block out ultraviolet rays, is in full use. But he says that because of the many small objects in the opening show, the museum's exhibition designer ``took that large space and turned it into six galleries basically, three of which have natural light washing the walls.''

Carlhian says, ``My fears remain that we are underground, and I would like more light to penetrate down.'' He contends that most of the major museums today, from the Tate Gallery addition in London to the Fogg Museum at Harvard and the Frankfurt Museum, ``all have natural light. It is absurd not to have it.'' He is also concerned over another major change in the original concept of light and openness as approved by Ripley, that of a 9,000-square-foot ``Great Hall,'' 90 feet long and 24 feet high, to be shared by both museums for a mingling of cultures and arts, from the Ballets Africains to the National Symphony or a Chinese opera.

But the Great Hall has been cut in half, he says, on Secretary Adams's orders. ``I think it is very unfortunate. The new secretary is, however, my client, and he has a different frame of mind. He wants to give each museum its turf.''

Although the partitions are removable for both the vast skylights providing natural light and for the Great Hall, ``the possibility has not been discussed .... At present nobody feels that way,'' he says.

The present design of the museums' interior, however, has received some criticism in the press. A New York Times critic, Roberta Smith, wrote: ``The underground location and consequent loss of natural light is the price these two museums have paid for their prominent place on the Great Mall, and it is an extremely high one.''

And the Times's architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, wrote, ``Natural light is at a minimum in the galleries, which is unfortunate; in one case exhibition designers actually covered skylights that would have brought natural light down into these subterranean chambers.''

And Washington Post critic Paul Richard wrote that although the twins will be admired and maybe even loved, ``Both of these museums arrive partly maimed.''

Freudenheim says, ``Sure, people like daylight, and the price of going underground is loss of daylight. Every building project, museum, or something else deals in trade-offs, in this case, non-proliferation of more large buildings adjacent to the Mall.''

Experts at two prominent architectural firms that have designed several museums say that substantial design changes after a building is under construction and nearing completion are rare. Architecture is an art, they agree, but it is also a business.

Gerald Gurland, a partner in Richard Meier & Partners, points out that many museum designs fall into two categories: those in which the architect gives the museum ``a universal space,'' a flexible area in which the museum can put in partitions or make changes for exhibition purposes, and a second category in which museums are part of the art. ``These buildings have been designed as a piece of sculpture - something to be viewed as an object by itself.''

But Mr. Gurland adds, ``If a building is up, and someone comes along and says, `I don't like it,' something is wrong with the process in which it was done.''

John L. Sullivan, senior associate of I.M. Pei & Partners, says, ``Making major changes in design during construction is always a compromise, I gather in this case a major compromise, since the whole approach to light is at the base of the architects' whole concept of design. In terms of natural lighting, it is one of the things that engage the general public, make it a more pleasant experience. Something has to be lost, because they don't have this part of the original concept.''

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