Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies

Let There Be Light

A conceptual design approach allows Studio/lab to shine a light on the Spertus Institute’s educational mission.

Admit to Marcia Lausen that you don’t know much about environmental graphic design, and the Chicago-based principal of Studio/lab responds unexpectedly, “That’s okay, we don’t know much about it either.”

Lausen and her Studio/lab design team are not exactly EGD naifs, but with backgrounds in fine arts, engineering, and graphic design, their portfolio is mostly filled with trans-media projects such as a printed piece for a recent AIA educational summit, an eloquent new identity for the Alzheimer’s Association, and packaging for the Hot Wheels toy brand. The firm hasn’t had too many opportunities to apply its conceptual approach to EGD.

But with the environmental graphics and wayfinding program for the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, Studio/lab makes it mark, self-assuredly melding clarity and poetry.

 “I think it actually worked to our benefit that we don’t have a lot of [EGD] experience,” says Jody Work, Studio/lab’s project manager for the Spertus assignment. “We explored the core beauty of the building and the facade, and translated it to letterforms.” Lausen concurs. “We approached the communication problem not through the mechanics of traditional wayfinding and applied sign systems, but through a conceptual interpretation of the architectural design and the institutional brand identity.”

An architecture of light

The Spertus Institute was founded in 1924, and now comprises three divisions: the Asher Library, Spertus College, and the Spertus Museum. It outgrew its previous 75,000-sq.-ft. home, a 1911 building on South Michigan Avenue. Approximately 200,000 people participate in the Spertus Institute’s wide range of Jewish educational and cultural programming annually. New resources, such as high technology and storage for the Chicago Jewish Archives, also required more—and more intelligent—space. And not only was the old office building struggling to accommodate capacity, but its traditional stack of floors hindered interaction among users and their sense of community.

If recent history is any indication, the Spertus Institute is comfortable taking risks on designers. In 2003, it chose the local firm Krueck+Sexton Architects to design its new building within the Michigan Avenue Streetwall, a parade of buildings in Chicago’s famous Richardsonian and early modernist styles that was declared a city landmark a year earlier. Equally striking, Krueck+Sexton was chosen over three highly regarded competitors: Polshek Partnership Architects, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects.

Krueck+Sexton’s Timothy Tracey, a Spertus project architect with Tom Jacobs, admits that their winning entry to the invited competition bears little resemblance to the finished building. “When we started, we expected the city to require some stone to fit in with the historic fabric.” The ultimate design, though, takes the pulse of the institute rather than historic Chicago. “There’s this wonderful energy inside the organization,” Tracey says. “The new building captures some of that spirit and not only reinforces it, but also inspires it and helps it to grow.”

So while the new 10-story building boasts more than double the square footage of its old headquarters, a 400-seat double-height theater, a children’s center, and a Wolfgang Puck–managed kosher cafe, its most stunning feature is the east-facing entrance elevation, a wall of triangulated facets constructed of 726 pieces of glass. Toward the bottom of this composition, the glass flares into a “skirt” that exposes the building’s structure and functions as an integrated canopy. The animated form evokes the dynamism of the Spertus Institute, and floods the interior with enlivening daylight. 

Liveliness is expressed inside the building, too. Passing beneath the glass skirt and through a glass-enclosed vestibule, visitors arrive in a three-story atrium filled with daylight. The lobby terminates in a large gift shop characterized by a zig-zagging glass wall. A raised plinth, which also serves as a landing for a stairwell leading to the second-floor cafe, overlooks this scene. On the building’s top floors, the architects similarly embrace daylight as well as visual and acoustical connections between users. The museum occupies the penthouse, benefiting from high ceilings and more flexibility in programming.

A tradition of risk-taking

Well before it approved Studio/lab’s collaboration or selected Krueck+Sexton as the architect of its new Michigan Avenue home, the Spertus Institute was identified by a logo featuring a three-fingered flame and the biblical phrase yehi, meaning “Let there be light.” Mark Akgulian, director of design at Spertus, explains that Campbell & Co conceived the logo in 1994 to express the institute’s mission of “carrying the flame of knowledge and illuminating the way to knowledge.”

Akgulian was responsible for Studio/lab’s participation. In 2005, he asked Lausen (whom he knew from her directorship at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Art and Design) to refer firms that could handle Spertus’s EGD. Lausen asked to be considered for the job, and “connected philosophically” with Spertus decision-makers and Krueck+Sexton during an interview, in spite of the studio’s small body of EGD work.

“The client certainly didn’t view this as branding; they saw it as an issue of getting people to the 10th floor. And as I’m sure most architects feel, the architect didn’t want signs all over the place. We’re trying to mediate the interests of both parties,” Lausen says.

Graphics: carrying the flame

To do so, Studio/lab immersed itself in the architecture. “The building is a wonderful expression of light, and we wanted to carry this vision to the points where humans connect with information.” The designers soon latched onto the idea of environmental graphics that mimic the behavior of the Spertus flame. By layering italicized Minion—a font introduced as part of Kym Abrams Design’s revision to Spertus’s graphic standards in 2004—over sans-serif Avenir, the type appears to flicker like candlelight when applied to both sides of the institute’s interior glass surfaces. Moreover, the motif reflects the way Krueck+Sexton’s glass “skirt” overlaps the glazed building skin at the entrance canopy, and can be rendered in tones of black and gray that do not appear garishly tacked onto the architecture.

“Once we had this idea of overlapping letterforms to make a flickering effect, we first cut the letters out of Plexiglas,” Lausen recalls. “Then it became too much about the edges of the Plexi, and not about the flickering. There was too much substance. We understood it could work, and just continued going back and forth with the vendors until we had the right level of transparency.” Such experimentation continued through execution. For example, while Studio/lab went through myriad iterations of layering and kerning the two fonts, Schellhorn Graphic Solutions worked through an equal number of color adjustments and other tweaks in installing vinyl lettering.

Those vinyl applications appear on the crenellated glass walls of the ground-floor gift shop. A variety of quotes run across the shop walls, and help make the glass more visible to visitors perhaps distracted by the architecture.

Perpendicular to the store, on the building’s south side, directories mark the elevator core. “We wanted you to enter and take in the space, not immerse yourself in a map,” Lausen says of the subtle directories. Skyline Design etched floor numbers and major rooms in glass and rubbed them with color (the darker rubbings underscore the floor of that particular landing), and subdirectory information is realized in vinyl lettering. To ensure legibility, the play of letters and the shadows they cast replaces the flickering found elsewhere.

The suggestion of light is perhaps most beautifully rendered at the institute’s entry. Here the designers layered the logo flame and the phrase yehi so that the flame appears entwined with the Hebrew letter aleph. The pairing was photographed, then etched into the glass in a chemical-free process by Skyline Design. "Studio/lab wanted a very wispy, light-and-dark feeling, and we were thrilled we could convey exactly those highs and lows," says Skyline's Debbie Tremblay-Toth.

Behind the ephemeral etching, in the vestibule, is its opposite effect. The name of the building's major donor is rendered in all-caps Minion in aluminum embedded in a terrazzo slab. Together, the two efforts suggest the Spertus mission as well as the permanence of its results.

--By David Sokol, segdDESIGN No. 21, 2008

Jury comments

 “Take away, take away, and take away. And then when there is nothing left to remove, imbue the program with a subtleness of light and shadow that gently animates the graphics. I love the way the program is big without being loud, clever without being gimmicky. I wanted to put my name on this project and claim it for my own.”

“Man’s attraction to light and the power of a flame enamored all the judges. The allure of this project kept speaking to us at a deeper soul level. The integration and interplay of light and shadow on glass transcends you from the entrance, to the lobby, and the vertical circulation architecture. The beauty in the typography and the elegant simplicity are truly enchanting. Thank you for your inspiration…it has left a mark.”


Location:  Chicago

Client:  Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies

Architecture:  Krueck & Sexton Architects

Design:  Studio/lab

Design Team:  Marcia Lausen (principal in charge), Jody Work (project manager/designer), Hillary Geller, Cheyenne Medina, Meeyoung Melamed

Fabrication:  Schellhorn Graphic Solutions (vinyl cutting and installation, consultation), ASI Modulex (standard signs, donor wall), Skyline Design (glass etching), ColorImage (exit map)

Photos:  Tim Wilson, Studio/lab, William Zbaren (exterior)




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