Randy Burkett Lighting Design

How one firm is shedding light on some of the world's most impressive projects

In 2001, Randy Burkett was asked to light his city’s most spectacular and architecturally dynamic feature: the St. Louis Arch. Now the Midwestern icon is bathed in white light every night through a system of floodlights and 44 lighting fixtures situated in four pits just below ground level. To this day, it is easily one of the most recognizable American landmarks and the most visible project in Burkett’s portfolio. “Looking back on that project, the thing I feel is most successful about it is the way light and architecture can become one,” Burkett says. “You really just say, ‘look at this piece of art.’”

Blending Art and Science

Since its founding in 1988, Randy Burkett Lighting Design has focused on projects such as the Arch—architecturally rich work that allows the team to focus on their interminable goal: blending art and science.

“I could never decide whether I wanted to be an architect or an engineer, so ultimately I found lighting design, and with that I could straddle the fence,” says Burkett, who received a degree in architectural engineering from Penn State. “In lighting, I could be an artist one moment and a nerd the next.”

PULITZER FOUNDATION. Lighting the stark concrete forms that make up Tadao Ando’s design for the Pulitzer Foundation of the Arts required a deft touch. Fortunately, that’s one thing Randy Burkett and his team have. His final lighting design is masterfully subtle in order to showcase the art and architecture.

With four other employees and senior designer Ron Kurtz, Burkett works on an average of 20–30 projects a year ranging from retail to hospitality and including some as extravagant as the Pulitzer Foundation of the Arts, designed by Tadao Ando. “Working with a world-class client and a Pritzker Prize-winning architect on the Pulitzer project allowed us to do what we do best—place an incredible focus on celebrating art and architecture as one,” Kurtz says. “We strive to make them inseparable for every project.”

In a Garden of the Gods

The firm’s recent work on St. Louis’s CityGarden is a reflection of this distinctive design philosophy as well. It also showcases the firm’s ever-growing interest in sustainable techniques. Completed in 2010, CityGarden is a bold public space that spans two city blocks and offers the city a large park, a café, and a world-class collection of artwork including a giant bronze sculpture of Eros by Polish artist Igor Mitoraj.

The art inspired both Burkett and Kurtz from the beginning. “The goal of the project was not just to create a place to display art but to create a park that would be engaging to those in the city, to those who work there, and [to] the larger population as well,” says Kurtz, who served as project manager. “It also had to have a life both by day and by night.”

CITYGARDEN. The sculpture of Eros was just one of the installations that inspired Randy Burkett and Ron Kurtz as they lit St. Louis’s CityGarden. The art was mostly lit with Philips Lighting’s ceramic metal-halide sources while B-K Lighting’s optical-control luminaires were employed for the café.

To create the desired effects, Philips Lighting’s ceramic metal-halide sources were used for most of the artwork in an effort to make the colors as true and as vivid as possible. B-K Lighting’s small, precise, optical-control luminaires and other products also aided the design firm in lighting the environmentally conscious café.

“We needed good light control in order to keep things sustainable,” Burkett says. “On a project like this, it’s not just about energy savings;  [it’s about] controlling glare and spillover. There are layers of controls that turn on and off certain aspects of the park at different times.”

Beneath the Floors of Merchandise Mart

Burkett and Kurtz’s fascination with sustainable lighting has been present in their firm’s practice for more than a decade. In 2006 the designers were responsible for lighting one of the first LEED-CI showrooms in the United States: the Haworth Showroom at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

The groundbreaking interior was not only an opportunity to show off the company’s green lighting techniques but also a chance to once again work with Perkins+Will, a firm that Burkett had collaborated with for the Crate and Barrel headquarters a few years before. “When the firm called and asked if we’d be interested in working with them again while adding a LEED Gold certification to our portfolio, we jumped at the chance,” Burkett says.

MERCHANDISE MART. One of the first LEED-CI showrooms in the United States, the Haworth Showroom in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart includes subfloor displays, so Randy Burkett used special LEDs to draw visitors’ eyes down toward the floor.

Outside of the standards the firm had to meet to achieve the high level of LEED certification, the showroom’s design required some additional technically challenging work. “There are actually displays in the floor of the showroom, so we installed special LED lighting to better call attention to these subfloor vitrines,” Burkett says. “The light throughout the showroom changes frequently, drawing your attention to different vignettes both on the floor and in glass displays. We hoped this would add a sense of dynamic design.”

These impressive and narrative lighting effects were highlighted by 20-watt low-voltage flush-to-floor accent lights and strategically positioned adjustable MR16 accent lights.

The Effects of the Digital Revolution

Since Burkett opened the firm more than 20 years ago, there has been a dramatic shift in the way lighting is integrated into a project, the greatest acceleration in that change taking place in just the past five to six years. The emergence of electronic and digital technologies has made it possible for Burkett and other firms to work faster, more effectively, more efficiently, and—in some cases—less expensively.

“In recent years, the lighting and lighting-control industries have assumed a completely new technological-growth curve, fueled almost completely by the digital revolution,” Burkett says. “Ultimately, it’s about the applications of technology, and that’s where we can start working green. You can employ the latest devices, lighting controls, and other technology-driven equipment and still not truly embrace sustainable practices. Understanding and employing the most appropriate technology to solve the lighting challenge often leads to the most environmentally conscious solution.”

This was certainly true for the firm’s 1999 K Street project, a 12-story LEED Silver structure designed by Chicago architect Helmut Jahn. The firm’s work on the project, including on the backlit lobby ceiling and walls, used LED technologies to their fullest, turning the science of lighting into a true work of art.

“Yann Kersalé, a well-known French artist, was hired to turn the lobby into a piece of light art,” Burkett says. “The idea was to elicit the feeling of coming into an organic, forest-like lobby. What a rare thing in the middle of 20th and K Streets in Washington, DC.” The ceiling and walls, which are all light systems, are meant to feel like one continuous luminous component that is never stagnant and always vibrant. “Each 5’ x 5’ glass panel has a printed-film-back applied—all done in France,” he says. “Each panel is different in a subtle way. Overall, it’s a large, evolving mural, so the lighting couldn’t be the same either.”

Philips Lighting provided a color-changing LED system, which, along with a base fluorescent system, is dimmed continuously and dynamically during the day, when there is ample sunlight, and at night—as well as when the building is not in use. “The client always wanted to reach for LEED,” Burkett says, “so the energy component was important from the beginning.”

Different Strategies for Different Spaces

For each project, no matter how simple or how technological, the lighting design comes from a place of understanding. “We focus on understanding lighting’s role in the built environment,” Kurtz says, “including how it influences those who must interact with it.” Whether at CityGarden, the Utah State Capitol, or its recent high-profile office project for a leading global software developer, Burkett, Kurtz, and the rest of the team bring this understanding, their extensive knowledge, and the best lighting systems to every job.

For Burkett, each of these new projects is a chance to explore lighting with a fresh eye—and to explore his opposing fixations with art and science. “At the firm, we thrive on being able to see how different lighting changes a space, including one’s perceptions of it,” Burkett says. “But at the end of the day, lighting design should always serve as an artistic expression of how the space should feel. Art and science are always included in our projects; it’s just a matter of which one gets weighted the most.”