Client Menil Foundation

The Rothko Chapel was built on a plot adjacent to the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, to house a collection of paintings by Mark Rothko, and opened in 1971. By the 1990s the chapel was in a bad state of repair. The paintings themselves had deteriorated, and a decision was made to take the opportunity, whilst repairs were made to the structure, to employ consultants to introduce anew scheme for both daylighting and artificial lighting to ensure the long term future of the paintings.

The brief to the consultants, Arup Lighting, was to propose alterations both to lengthen the life of the paintings, and to improve the quality of space for the visitors.

This Case Study is concerned with the natural lighting, with the following brief:

1. To study the existing conditions regarding the amount of daylight and sunlight to which the paintings are exposed.

2. To consider whether this exposure is excessive, in terms of the conservation of the work.

3. To study the visual perception by the visitors, to assess whether the distribution of both daylight and sunlight is impairing the view of the works of art.

The results of this enquiry would pinpoint any shortfalls in the existing daylighting design, and led to suggestions as to how they might be overcome. An extensive survey with both computer and physical models was conducted, and the results showed that the levels of sunlight penetration had been the cause of deterioration in the paintings, and that the daylight distribution caused unsatisfactory viewing conditions for the visitors. New proposals were essential.

By a process of elimination a decision was made that the sunlight entering the space from the existing rooflight should be diffuse and scattered, rather than blocked, and that this could be achieved by diffuse laminated glass with a milky white opal PVB interlayer. The incoming sunlight would no longer have directionality, but an internal fixed shading element would still be required to reduce the quantity of natural light and to avoid the bright skylight becoming a distraction to the visitors, whilst at the same time assisting in directing the light to improve the uniformity to the light received by the paintings.

After a number of options were investigated, this was achieved by a dropped baffle, small enough to allow the full height of the paintings to receive direct daylight, with the addition of a central 'oculus' to provide some daylight to the centre of the space.

The final result can be seen in the accompanying photographs, and this has proved to be well received by the public, whilst obviating future deterioration in the paintings.

The exterior of the chapel after restoration in View of the new rooflight, 2000


View of the dropped baffle as installed in 2000
Interior of the space after the restoration and the new daylighting scheme had been installed


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