Redefining White

January 29, 2013 / no comments

I remember my first trip to Paris, The City of Lights. But, because I’m a lighting nerd, I couldn’t help finding the yellow headlights on automobiles particularly striking. Probably because it was so different from the headlights I was used to in the United States at the time. Today, however, I’m seeing more and more headlights in the blue range as opposed to the standard incandescent halogen range of about 2900K. Do we see better under cool light, or is it simply a function of the electric source generating the light? Up until the 1940’s or thereabouts, ‘white light’ for interior architectural applications has had a predominantly warm cast to it, mostly because it was generated by candles or incandescent sources. Since World War II and the widespread use of fluorescent sources, we’ve seen our interiors take on cooler color temperatures. With the advent of LED light sources, it is more efficacious to generate light in the blue range than in the warm range. Are we looking at an even ‘cooler’ future in architectural lighting?

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Blood, Sweat, and Photons

September 17, 2012 / no comments

A lot of the work we (and all design professionals) do is pretty straightforward. You get plans, discuss the design, produce your layouts, and send it all out for the contractor to build. We walk around the site when it’s all done, but we don’t really get our hands dirty on those jobs, for better or worse. A bit oversimplified perhaps, but that’s the basic process.

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Then there are those other jobs – the jobs where we really are rolling up our sleeves, getting up on lifts, and spending hours on end aiming lighting fixtures. These are the museums and galleries that, without that professional touch, can end up looking like train wrecks if the lighting is not properly aimed. These projects are different from your average office building, school, or hospital in that the lighting design changes throughout the life of the building. You can’t plan to light the Mona Lisa and have the same solution work the next month for a Picasso that’s twice its size and occupies the same space. Where static lighting, like pendants and downlights, is great for a classroom, track is the go-to solution for these evolving spaces. It affords the ability to adapt and change, but it also leaves the door open to lighting chaos at the same time. The contractor can power and hang all those track heads, but who’s going to aim them?

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For galleries and museums, the work is far from done when the contractor is finished. You may think that anyone can get on a ladder and point a track head at a painting, but there’s so much more to it. Is there enough light, too much, good coverage across the piece, enough accent, any unwanted reflections, good fill light, spill onto the adjacent pieces, etc. And the hardest part is that it’s all highly subjective as well. You can easily spend an hour aiming fixtures at one piece of art, nudging, tweaking, lensing, and dimming, to get it just right. Now, imagine doing that 100 or 1000 times and, on top of that, making sure the space looks just as good as the art. This is where a good lighting designer adds value. We work with the curators and technicians to fine tune these installations and bring order to that chaos, to meet their expectations. Our biggest asset is our experience; we know what works and how to do it as efficiently as possible.

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Yes, it means ridiculously long hours spent on ladders and lifts, up near the ceiling where it’s 100+ degrees. We’ve bloodied our knuckles putting lenses on and off and burnt our fingertips grabbing hot lamps because there’s no time to lose. But in the end, it’s all worth it. It just looks so incredibly good when it all comes together and we can actually say, “we did that.”

Photo Credits: Matt Latchford/Lam Partners

Value of Design

July 23, 2012 / no comments

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Fortunately there isn’t an actual checklist or prescribed process that must be followed to create good design; this would assuredly make the architectural process and our built environment rather stagnant and uninspired. Design projects would become repetitive and new boundaries wouldn’t be explored if a prescribed method to achieve good design existed. There may not really even be a universal definition of good design but through the constant exploration of new ideas, new materials and new means for integrating building systems into the fabric of the architecture, high quality design can be achieved.

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Good design is as much about the process of working with others and the quality of problem solving as it is about the beauty of the architectural image that results from the collaborative process. The past experiences and creative thinking of the designer, along with his ability to listen to the client’s vision are what really determine the success of a design project, not pre-determined characteristics.

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Those of us involved in the design industry would like to think that we have a clear sense of what makes good design; certainly convenience, durability, sustainability and beauty are all goals of good design. However, even though meeting the programmatic requirements of a specific project or design challenge is the underlying goal of the project, we know that form must be balanced with function. It’s cliché, but especially in architectural lighting design, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One person’s glare is another person’s sparkle, uniformly lit and appropriately bright could be bland and visually overpowering to someone else. The key is to zero in on the specific needs and wants of the project at hand. Good design must respond directly to the client’s vision and a previous brilliant, successful solution may not be the right approach for a different design challenge with different goals. Design cannot impart a previous message or style onto unrelated context. The design must evolve in response to the specific task at hand and with appropriate language and aesthetics.

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As difficult as it can be to clearly define an image of good design, it can sometimes be even more difficult to convey the value of design. The value of design shouldn’t be diminished based on the project type or scope; there may be a different cost to achieve good design but the value should remain the same. The designer must remember that the value of design has to be a value to the client and not the ideals or objectives that the designer might bring to the table. That value is the service, the collaboration, the listening and the problem solving that we as lighting designers can contribute to our clients to help achieve their visions for the built environment. It is not about having all of the answers and telling the client what they need, it’s about our ability to listen and help the client figure out what they want to achieve. Design is a problem solving process and good design is about solving more problems than just those asked.

As architects and architecturally trained lighting designers here at Lam Partners, we enjoy working in a field that combines art and technology to help realize our clients’ visions. Coming from architectural backgrounds, we integrate seamlessly into the design process and speak the same language. We understand the science of lighting and integrate it with the architecture to paint with light, to artfully craft comfortable, luminous environments and provide value to our clients and their designs.

Photo Credit: Brian Mulloy (1), Jason A. Knowles/Fentress (2), Jordanhill School D&T Dept (3), Stefan Erschwendner (4)

Bill Lam Tribute, IES Banquet (May 24, 2012)

May 29, 2012 / no comments

William Lam

Bill Lam 1924-2012

It is wonderful to be in this room full of people who understand and care about the value of lighting.

I am sure that many of you here tonight knew Bill Lam and were saddened by the news of his passing. Bill was a true legend. He was one of the founders of modern lighting design. Bill was a pioneer, a teacher, a writer, and a great mentor for generations of architects and lighting designers. I suppose you could stay he was a real fixture in our industry, although he wouldn’t like that association with hardware. So I’ll just say he was a shining light.

Here is a little known fact; Bill Lam designed the Pantheon. Well, not really. But he admired the concept. And used it to illustrate an important point…

Before lighting design existed as a profession, and even before there was electric lighting, architects and master builders were lighting designers. They knew how to design with light. With limited resources, they understood techniques for creating wonderful spaces with natural light (the effective distribution of natural light) in ways that enhanced the architectural expression.

When electric lighting arrived on the scene, it was designed in conjunction with natural light and became yet another way to reinforce the architect’s vision. Then, at some point in the post-war boom of the last century, when buildings got a lot bigger, energy was cheap, and fluorescent lighting became widespread, architects began to give up control of the lighting in buildings. Work and school environments became generic spaces where visual comfort was replaced with acres of acoustical tile and uniformly high light levels from lensed fixtures. When the first computers arrived and reflected glare became an issue, these generic spaces went from excessively bright to excessively gloomy.

Integrated lighting? What’s that?!

Throughout Bill’s career, his most enduring message to architects was the need to take back the responsibility for lighting design. Don’t surrender lighting to others who only care about the numbers and who design for the lowest common denominator. His message, like his personality, was clear and persistent: integrate lighting with architectural form. It’s about seeing the light, not the hardware.

Bill’s focus was always on lighting architectural surfaces, including structure, and other features worth highlighting. This meant that the architect had to provide materials and details worth lighting, and also coordinate the mechanical and other systems to create lighting opportunities. It was all about the collaboration and the team process needed to produce the best spaces possible.

Bill considered the design for the Washington Metro one of his finest achievements.

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Bill applied principles of visual perception to inform decisions about what should be illuminated and why. The principles that he developed and stood for, we take for granted today. Bill may not have invented indirect lighting, but he took it to a whole new level in his quest for glare free environments. Lighting surfaces, like ceilings and walls, expand space and create the perception of brightness, resulting in visual comfort and interest.

Bill was a big advocate for energy efficient lighting design way before it became a popular or a mandated thing to do. He promoted ambient/task solutions and fought the lighting establishment to reduce illuminance standards. The lighting standards we use today are the result of the criteria that Bill fought for and won years ago.

Bill was also a creative designer who could work at any scale. Early in his career, he designed several ingenious pieces of furniture. One of his tables is in the Museum of Modern Art. He was the first to experiment with and produce vacuum formed plastic shades for light fixtures. For the Montreal Expo in1967, Bill created a lighting master plan, which involved a huge array of tethered weather balloons floating over the expo, to be illuminated by spotlights at night so they could be seen all around the city.

Bill’s interest in using indirect lighting was stymied by a lack of available products. So he became a manufacturer of indirect lighting systems and founded Lam Inc in 1951. He developed some of the early modern fixture designs that became classics for schools and offices, establishing a new standard of quality for millions of spaces throughout the country. Some of you will remember the old Lam profile wall valence fixture. Other classic Lam fixture designs included a variety of extruded aluminum uplights and the original hockey puck, which you can still find in gyms and indoor tennis clubs.

In 1959 Bill changed his role from a designer/manufacturer to an architectural lighting consultant. During the course of his career, he collaborated with architects, landscape architects, and urban planners on several thousand projects all over the world. His legacy also includes innovative approaches to building systems and effective strategies for sunlighting design. For those of us who were fortunate enough to work for Bill, he left a lasting impression, sort of like a branding iron! There is a certain distinctive Lam Way of approaching lighting that characterized Bill’s work and can be traced through all of those who worked for Bill.

Some of the principles that Bill promoted have become standards in our industry for describing good lighting.. His lighting principles were illustrated in his 2 books; Perception and Lighting as Formgivers for Architecture, and Sunlighting as Formgiver for Architecture.

We take these principles for granted today.

  • Light the things you want to see and need to see.
  • Put the light where you want it.
  • The quality of illumination is more important than the quantity.
  • Maximize the visual signals, minimize the visual noise.
  • Use lighting for wayfinding.
  • Use task/ambient lighting solutions to save energy.
  • Lighting is applied perception psychology. We see with our brains, not our eyes.
  • Light sources, or apparent light sources, should be things worth looking at.
  • Lighting is like music and food. More isn’t better if the quality is bad. (Our version of that one is: Lighting shouldn’t be an all you can eat buffet in a greasy spoon.)

Industry had Henry Ford. Jazz had Charlie Parker. Food had Julia Child. Lighting had Bill Lam.

Bill was one of those rare individuals who transformed his chosen profession, took it in an unexpected and original direction, and changed the way everyone since has viewed lighting. We embraced the principles he developed. Bill set high standards in his determination to bring lighting back as an integral part of architectural design, making indoor and outdoor environments better with light. In a sense, we are all keeping his legacy alive, and bringing it forward into the future.

He will be missed.

Photo credits: Kwai Lam (c) 2008 (1), O Palsson (2)

What About Colored Light?

April 9, 2012 / no comments

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The rate of growth in LEDs these days is perhaps only exceeded by the rate of growth of colored LEDs. Colored light in itself constitutes a new world, insofar as it is used in a wider architectural context. While destinations like Times Square and Las Vegas (and many rock concerts and laser light shows) have used animated and colored lights for decades, this type of lighting is quickly becoming mainstream and is adding dramatically to the total amount of light in our environments, especially when you take media facades into account. Can we expect colored light to become as ubiquitous as white light? Can our visual landscape handle it? I am both skeptical and intrigued by these recent trends. While there are creative minds out there making the most of it, there’s also a “one-liner” feeling that accompanies many applications, born out of the relative ease of using colored lights and creating effects. Given these competing observations, the topic is definitely worth some critical discussion.

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First, I’ll tackle my skepticism. Generally speaking, as human beings, we are conditioned to view things in full-spectrum light, as it most closely resembles daylight. Because colored light is deficient in some parts of the spectrum, it can make many things (like skin and plant life) look unnatural. Given this, it’s hard to use colored light for general illumination. I’m also skeptical of broader use of colored light because it’s visually noisy. Perhaps this is due to our comfort with the way things have been lit “traditionally” (i.e. with white light), but another factor could be that motion or animation often accompanies color. Simple color players make it easy to program fixtures to cycle through a series of routines. So the opposition is not necessarily between white light and, say, red or blue light, but between white and ROYGBIV. It’s also just one step closer to a much “noisier” kind of light: media, which, after all, is just a collection of RGB pixels forming an image. My last hesitation stems from the general lack of imagination with which colored light is most often used. Many installations appear to mostly make use of only a small fraction of colors, and almost always seem to be illuminated at a gaudy 100% brightness. Mixing of colors, subtle shading or highlighting all seem to be nonexistent.

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On a cheerier note, let’s move on to what intrigues me about colored light. I’ll start with the biggest attraction: it’s new, somewhat awkward, and as I mentioned, garish. I’m not totally sure what to make of it. That’s fodder for investigation. Until now, color hasn’t been a big part of the lighting palette. To keep things totally colorless is perhaps to keep us from a challenge or a fruitful new frontier. I might be overly optimistic, but at least it will be interesting to find out.

Another appealing facet of colored light, and all of its cousins, is the way it can be employed deliberately to alter perception. In one particularly alluring approach, many media design firms (like Urban Screen) have used light to create elaborate 3d animations that are mapped onto facades, using projection. Through the deft skills of the artists and the use of light alone, these animations make the facades appear to move. Sure, this is smoke and mirrors and simple illusionistic tricks, but on the other hand, it begs the question of how much of what we know about the world around us is a factor of light. It asks us to consider how much can we change our environment by changing its lighting.

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“Room for One Color”, 1997, Olafur Eliasson, Take your Time, MoMA, 2008

The last reason I’ll give for my interest pertains to all LEDs, not just the color-changing type. The delivery systems of all LEDs are increasingly varied and defy the bounds of traditional vessels. It is now possible to do almost anything, from bending LEDs to sewing them. Delivery materials, like metal mesh, make light spatially maneuverable, unlike it’s ever been before.

While the above gives a sense of some of the pros and cons that surround colored/dynamic lighting, perhaps the most valuable aspects will be seen in the areas outside its current applications. Dynamic, adaptive, and interactive lighting, quite possibly could have important implications for our environments in terms of health, safety, or post-disaster relief. Because of the ability to change and transform perceptions, it may meet demands for locations or situations where conditions change dramatically and often. The flexibility and adaptability of dynamic, colored lighting fits right into a world in which so little is fixed and constant, but if it’s going to be a lasting and worthwhile development, it is important that we find ways to use it deliberately and critically…at least when we aren’t using it just for fun.

Photo credit: Kera Lagios/Lam Partners (1), woosh2007 (2), Vasenka (3), Kera Lagios (4)

CRI and GAI: A New Way to Look at Color Rendering

January 18, 2012 / no comments

In a demonstration performed at Rensselaer’s Lighting Research Center, observers were asked to view a still life of fresh fruit illuminated by different undisclosed light sources. They were then asked to comment on the appearance of the fruit and on their preferences. Three out of the four sources were considered acceptable, the favorite being an RGB white LED, followed by an incandescent lamp. Observers commented favorably on the vividness of the colors of the fruit under the LED source, while the incandescent scored high in naturalness.

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The interesting part of the experiment was the characteristics of each light source. The incandescent had a CRI of 100, the maximum. The LED source only had a CRI of 40, way below the generally accepted range of good CRI for a light source. How is it possible that observers preferred the source with the lower CRI over a source with a CRI of 100?

To answer the question, first we must look at how we define color rendering. Color rendering is not just CRI. CRI is the color rendering index, and is not always reflective of a source’s ability to render color. Sources with the same CRI can have different spectral power distribution (SPD), and therefore render colors differently. For example, two sources, both with a CRI of 85, might have different short and long wavelengths, so that one source will render reds better, while the other source will render blues more vividly.

In order to define what makes up good color rendering, lighting designers must take into account the SPD of a source, the objects that are being illuminated, and the perception of the viewer.

Because CRI has limited ability to predict a person’s perception, another factor must be taken into account to determine a good luminous environment. That factor is called Gamut Area Index, or GAI. GAI is determined by plotting the chromaticity values of the eight color swatches used in CRI definition for a light source. The area of the polygon created by this plot is that source’s GAI, so the larger the area, the higher the GAI. High GAI is characteristic of a source with good color discrimination and saturation of colors, or vividness. Unlike CRI, GAI can be over 100, but this usually means colors appear oversaturated, and observer’s preference declines. In the experiment mentioned earlier, the preferred LED source had a GAI of 80, while the incandescent source had a GAI of only 40.

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Examples of gamut area indices for various light sources. Each point of the polygon
represents the chromaticity of one of the eight color swatches used in traditional CRI
definition. The larger the area of the polygon, the higher the GAI of the source.

To ensure a good lighting design, designers should choose sources with high CRI and high GAI. The combination of naturalness provided by high CRI and vividness provided by high GAI ensure high viewer satisfaction for warm and cool sources, both at high and low levels of illumination, for either general illumination or accent lighting.

To achieve the best lighting design, one must also take the application into account. The question “what is being illuminated?” is critically important when choosing a light source. If the object being illuminated is red, you would want to specify a source that will render reds more vividly. But if the application is unknown, or will change over time, choosing a source with high CRI (85 or greater) and a high GAI (80-100) is generally the best approach.

Image credits: Alicia Miksic (1), Lighting Research Center (2)

Animation as a Lighting Design Tool

November 28, 2011 / no comments

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No one can dispute that AGi32, Photoshop, and Illustrator are a lighting designer’s best friends, but as we strive to give clients more reasons to demand lighting design, we should be looking at new ways to convey lighting design’s importance.



Many visualization techniques have been adopted from architectural conventions, but, as we all know, light and lighting present different and unique challenges to representation. Given that light is immaterial, dynamic, and ephemeral, designing with light means contending with aspects of time, intensity, and gradients. All these elements elude the static formats of drawings or diagrams. Especially when it comes to daylighting, giving a client a complete idea of lighting performance in a space is almost impossible without resorting to a stupefying series of image after image, calc after calc.

Until a few years ago, animation or video seemed too expensive and impractical for all but the most critical circumstances. Today, however, these are becoming integral tools of our trade. Tools and techniques are becoming available that previously only highly skilled animators and film editors had at their disposal, and they are easier to use than ever before. Software like QuickTime and Photoshop allows easy access to impressive tools for composing ideas into dynamic form. More sophisticated software like After Effects and 3ds Max allows limitless possibilities. Documentation of elements in the analog environment can also be helpful and illuminating. Most digital cameras and phones have video capabilities, making it easy to spontaneously capture anything.

There are a range of out-of-the-box animation tools readily accessible today. Shadow studies are one of the most effective means of beginning a discussion about daylighting strategies with a client. These simple studies can be performed in any number of programs like Google SketchUp, AGi32 , or Revit. Photoshop and QuickTime have functions which allow the user to string a series of still images together to form an animation. For example, they can be used to show design variants, transitions from daylighting to electric lighting schemes, different lighting scenes over the course of a day or night, or the effects of colored light on a space. Programs like 3ds Max, DIVA-for-Grasshopper, and After Effects or Premiere allow even more options.



Another reason we should be looking to new methods of representation is that clients are desirous of information about performance and appearance. As the time of day changes, the lighting and the performance change. Being able to visually convey these changes is extremely helpful to clients, and is a service that other consultants may not be able to provide. Animation may even help us to provide lighting design services in new ways and to fill new market needs.

The economics of animation and video can still be a challenge. It is difficult to set aside time on a project to learn and employ new methods, but while we always have to keep the bottom line in mind, animation can be a more efficient way to convey information. The video format may elucidate questions the client hasn’t formulated or uncover costly issues that might otherwise come up later. Like the saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words,” perhaps, literally and figuratively, a video is worth a thousand pictures.

While it is true that new technologies always involve some level of time invested in learning them, I would argue that it seems well worth it, given the obvious needs in our industry, and these new techniques may eventually make getting your point across to the client more timely and efficient. Animation can help build a client’s confidence in a design, and it can reveal lighting’s capacity to alter the feeling of a space dynamically, in ways that the client may not have imagined.

Image and video credits: Kera Lagios / Lam Partners

Deceptive Simplicity

November 7, 2011 / no comments

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I’ve been thinking about the relationship between simplicity and complexity in design. Why do some design problems initially appear simple but then upon investigation, turn out to be very complex? Why does the solution to a complex problem often, after lengthy analysis, turn out to be the most simple answer? Or why does it sometimes take a very complex technical solution to produce an elegantly simple visible end result?

During the design and construction of a recently completed project, I asked myself some of these questions. Although I don’t have all the answers, this project provides some examples to demonstrate what I’m talking about. The project is the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., designed by Safdie Architects.

Here is one of the design challenges presented to us: make it look like the architectural model – make that translucent roof glow at night. And, oh by the way, you have to light the space underneath at the same time. It seems simple, right? But it’s really complicated.

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We did lots and lots of computer modeling to test out different ideas. Now, you’re probably wondering, why is there a picture of the Lincoln Memorial? Well it turns out, the roof couldn’t be any brighter than any of the surrounding monuments and memorials, so we had to do a complete luminance study and a presentation at the National Capital Planning Commission to show that our roof wouldn’t be any brighter than the memorials.

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Then we had to estimate the transmittance and reflectance of the roof, and it turned out the roof system was going to be in two layers: an outer layer of translucent glass and an inner layer of fabric membrane. So, estimating this was actually quite complicated because of the inter-reflections. We started with back-of-the-napkin sketches and then moved on to tabletop mockups with some of the possible materials for the roof.

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Then we moved on to full-scale mockups, and these had to be done in Germany because that’s where the roof was being built (at Seele, outside of Munich). First we looked at the mockup in daytime to see how the different combinations of possible inner and outer materials would perform.

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Then we tested the different material options outdoors at night with the proposed lighting solutions. And we did visual evaluations of how it looked outside and inside, took all kinds of meter readings, and of course when we were done, since we were in Munich, we had to have a beer!

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So after that very complicated design process here is the solution – really simple: for the interior portions of the roof, linear fluorescent forward-throw cove fixtures. And for the exterior overhangs, in-ground metal halide adjustable accent lights.

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And here’s the visible end result: very simple and elegant. Architectural forms are revealed and the space is well illuminated. I knew we were successful when a visitor said to me, “So, you’re making the roof glow, but I don’t see any light fixtures.”

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Moshe Safdie’s vision was realized, and we’re a good neighbor to the surrounding memorials and monuments. So was all this complicated design process really necessary to reach this beautiful end result? That’s what I’m thinking about. I think it was. All the modeling and mockups and testing and head-scratching gave us much, much more confidence that our very simple solution would work. Without it, I think we would have been inclined to make the solution much more complicated, and in the end, that could have given us a final result that was cluttered and incoherent.

Photo Credits: Safdie Architects (1), Glenn Heinmiller/Lam Partners (2-10)