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Feature> Spotlight: MFA Boston
Foster and Partners masterfully controls natural light at the newly opened Art of the Americas Wing.
A system of fixed and motorized louvers allows daylight to blend with incandescent lights.
Nigel Young / Foster and Partners

This project is one section of AN's five-part feature on architectural lighting, "Sharing the Spotlight." Click here to view additional projects.

Art of the Americas Wing,
MFA Boston

Foster and Partners
George Sexton

At the recently-opened Art of the Americas wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, natural light flows through the space at controlled intervals, integrated seamlessly with artificial lighting. In designing the new wing, Foster and Partners worked closely with lighting designer George Sexton to weave together natural and artificial illumination, focusing spaces for both contemplation and concentration.

“Like any art museum, light is both your friend and your enemy,” said Michael Jones of Foster and Partners. With artwork ranging from light-sensitive works on paper to steel sculpture, a full range of responses was required. None of this is unique to the MFA, but the amount of natural light integrated throughout with artificial through a series of ceiling louvers, glass enclosed links, and windows makes the design a standout.

“We wanted to make the building visually permeable from the inside and outside,” said Jones. With period rooms next to painting galleries, which in turn lead toward the generous light-filled Shapiro Courtyard, the transitions from naturally lit space to incandescently lit space needed to be as smooth as possible. “These were carefully orchestrated so there wasn’t a jarring effect, so that it was seamless and generous,” said Sexton.

The courtyard sets the dramatic tone with several layers of light control balanced atop soaring glass curtain walls. The atrium, essentially an income-generating space, needs to function year round. The ceiling layers several systems of light with two bands of Barrisol fabric panels filtering daylight plus dimmable fluorescents to supplement it in winter. Between the fabric panels, submerged tracks hold metal-halide downlights for broad distribution, adjustable tungsten spots for ambience, and low voltage spots for sculpture. Between the fabric bands a customized louver system runs through the court before continuing on through the Twentieth Century galleries on the third floor.

Clockwise from top: Light shows through the glass facade at dusk; diffusers filter natural light in the new wing; Barristol fabric panels filter daylight and dimmable fluorescents in the lobby; the same approach is used in circulation spaces.
Courtesy MFA Boston (top) and Nigel Young / Foster and Partners

The louvers are perhaps the most complex aspect of the design. In the courtyard they are fixed, but once inside the gallery, motorized louvers provide a rare museum opportunity: a view of the sky. The fixed louvers were fabricated by Simplex in Canada, while the motorized components were made by Nysan/Hunter Douglas. In the Twentieth Century galleries the track lights are no longer flush with the louvers, but drop slightly.

As the light-filled courtyard sits just off the central galleries, indirect light floods all three levels. Close proximity to the older buildings also permits indirect light to pour through side windows. Throughout, a color temperature of 3,000 Kelvin is maintained, though the indirect natural light swings from 3,000 to 6,500, meaning even upon repeated visits to the museum, visitors will rarely have the same experience twice.

From the outside, the museum strives for warmth over chilly monumentality. “In order for the building to have an identity, we wanted it to glow from within,” said Sexton. “We utilized wall lighting to give it a residential glow.” The warm light bounces off the back of the gallery walls which sit nestled within the glass box of the exterior curtain wall.

“It’s an iterative process,” Jones said of the collaboration with Sexton. “George would reign us in, telling us when what we wanted to do was absolutely not possible.” Sexton was present for the biweekly meetings with client, architect, and curators. “The result is you have this constant awareness of the light,” said Jones. “It’s just a continuum, you have a constant source but you just tweak the amount at any given time. It’s a gentle flow, so there’s no jumpy breaks, and that was hard to do. People walk around, and I don’t think they realize the engineering that it went through.”

Tom Stoelker