“Lighting is such a part of the visual arts – architecture, most of all – that I’m sure the best we can do today will be inadequate tomorrow. I can logically project a great many techniques in lighting to improve people’s lives or to make a house more beautiful, but it’s all theory until we have the record of experience, which we are only beginning to write. – Richard Kelly

Richard Kelly: Pioneers of architectural lighting design - Sheet1
Richard Kelly_©Lucept

A pioneer of architectural lighting design, Richard Kelly established his firm in 1935, even before enrolling at the Yale School of Architecture. An American lighting designer whose new discipline as a lighting consultant was rarely taken seriously. Although, people would gather around to buy lighting fixtures from Richard Kelly. Kelly graduated from school in 1944, and by the 1950s, his work as a lighting designer led to the recognition of the terms such as ‘focus glow’, ‘play of brilliants’, and ‘ambient luminescence’ to describe the peculiar effects in lighting design. 

As a master of qualitative lighting design, Kelly culminated a uniform concept by abstracting ideas from perception psychology and theatrical lighting. In his designs, Kelly used uniform illuminance as the central criteria by breaking away from the rigid constraints of lighting. The question of lighting quantity was replaced by the quality of individual light. As a series of lighting functions, Kelly designed and changed the gear of lighting according to the perceiving observer. He understood the light’s ability to create a sense of visual awareness and to create a space that could evoke a variety of human emotions. Richard Kelly collaborated with architects Louis Kahn, Philip Johnson, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and Eero Sarinen, to name a few, and established a modern architectural lighting context that inculcated the material palette of modernism that reflected the element of reflection – glass, steel, and concrete. 

The three elements that Kelly discovered were always present in his designs. These three elements would naturally change as per the project’s criteria. Kelly was also an advocate for daylighting and believed that natural light would define the space, and artificial light would provide a secondary role in illumination. This approach to lighting design created a balancing act for both interiors as well as exterior lighting design. Looking at a few selected projects of Richard Kelly gives an idea of his theory and philosophy behind lighting design.

Richard Kelly: Pioneers of architectural lighting design - Sheet2
The element of ambient luminescence_©ERCO, Richard Kelly
Richard Kelly: Pioneers of architectural lighting design - Sheet3
The element of focus glow_©ERCO
Richard Kelly: Pioneers of architectural lighting design - Sheet4
The element of play of brilliants_©ERCO

Glass House – Philip Johnson, New Canaan, Connecticut | Richard Kelly

While designing the Glass House, Philip saw a challenge in illuminating the residential space. He wanted to light the box in such a way that the lighting would have an effect on the interior materials as well as the psychology of the inhabitant. Kelly invented the principles of light in the interior and exterior space which he re-utilized in several residential and commercial spaces that displayed large extents of glass and curtain walls. He found the art of lighting the day he designed the lighting for the Glass House. During the daytime, the penetration of natural light in the interior spaces created a continuous visual for the inside and outside. Simultaneously, it created a surprising contrast between brightness and shadow and heaved the eye from one focus to another. To soften this glaze and reduce the contrast between outside brilliance and inside the darkness, Kelly used dimmers in his design to adjust the level of illumination. Kelly believed that the blinds as a means to avoid glare would obstruct the exterior view and eliminate the feeling of spaciousness.

Richard Kelly: Pioneers of architectural lighting design - Sheet5
The Glass House_©Xavio Design
Reflections from The Glass House_©Pinterest
Reflections from The Glass House_©Pinterest
The Glass House during daytime_©Ryan Caron King
The Glass House during daytime_©Ryan Caron King

Seagram Building – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe & Philip Johnson, New York

The Seagram building was designed to use light as a unifying architectural feature. Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s concern for a good building design was the use of material. The lighting design that Kelly suggested was to use a good reflective surface for the light by using light travertine stone for core walls in the lobby rather than a dark marble. In order to get a visual of the lobby from the outside, through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls, Kelly aimed to make the building core glow. He designed a wall washing system using PAR-lamps with the help of fixture manufacturer Edison Price that uniformly illuminated the lobby walls. By using PAR lamps, it essentially made the building seem to be floating as the lights illuminated the ceiling heightened walls. Kelly placed two rows of downlighters on either side of the lobby’s glass walls to define a linear pool of light that allows for a better visual of the glass walls. Another row of lights was placed at the entrance canopy of the lobby that projects a narrow slit of light that illuminates and expands the illumination from the lobby onto the plaza. Developed by Noel Florence for Lightolier, Kelly’s primary contribution to the luminous panel system, with the specifications of warm white deluxe fluorescent lamps, were the standard-issue lights at that time.

_The lobby of Seagram building_©Pinterest
_The lobby of Seagram building_©Pinterest, Richard Kelly
Seagram building_©Archdaily
Seagram building_©Archdaily
The interior lighting of Seagram building_©Pinterest

As Richard Kelly would say, it is difficult to imagine architecture without lighting. His contributions were deeply embedded in modern architecture, yet it has become invisible now. Kelly’s innovation though unknown, changed the era of lighting design for many architects. Richard Kelly worked with numerous modern architectural masterpieces during the 20th century, thus developing mature and mutually respectful relations. Being a practitioner and an educator, Kelly played an important role in shaping modern-day architectural lighting design.

References: Richard Kelly

  1. Richard Kelly: Defining a modern architecture of light [Book]

Available at: https://www.fmsp.com/pdf/Richard%20Kelly_Erco_May07_web.pdf

  1. Richard Kelly: Selected works [Online]

Available at: https://iesnyc.starchapter.com/images/downloads/Richard_Kelly_Grant/rk_works_may07.pdf

  1. Architect Magazine [Online]

Available at: https://www.architectmagazine.com/technology/lighting/richard-kellys-three-tenets-of-lighting-design_o


Abha Haval is an Architect who has a vivid imagination of this world. She believes that every place has a story to tell and is on a mission to photograph the undiscovered whereabouts of various cities and narrate the story of its existence.