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The Bay Bridge, San Francisco, USA

Issue 73 June / July 2013 : Architectural : Bridge

CLIENT: The City of San Francisco LIGHTING DESIGN: Leo Villareal

Light artist Leo Villareal is an LED pioneer, using LED light as his principle tool he has recently completed the lighting of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the biggest public light artwork in the world.

“Everyone is born a genius, but the process of living de-geniuses them,” Buckminster Fuller once said, a man who, by anyone’s standards except perhaps his own, retained and expanded his genius despite the notable hindrance of 87 years of life.

Fuller was a 20th century da Vinci, a revolutionary thinker, who’s inherent desire for world peace was based upon his belief that the entire planet was but a single archipelago surrounded by a common sea. His talents ranged from mathematics to metaphysics, he was an educator and a designer, a field in which he created perhaps his best-known invention, the geodesic dome.

The dome, which can be most memorably seen at the Eden Project in Cornwall, or forming the famous centrepiece at the Epcot Centre at Walt Disney World in Florida, is an eco friendly and sustainable structure, formed from geodesics that intersect to create triangles, which rise upwards into a perfect sphere, a solid structure with all its stresses and tensions flawlessly balanced.

Invented in the middle of a housing crisis in the United States, the dome produced an equality of shelter, anyone could build them, with simple materials and basic know-how, and many did, from hippies in communes to the American Air Force.

In “Your Private Sky”, one of his many books, Fuller said of his creations that he “built like nature builds,” and if you look at the cell like skin that forms a geodesic dome, you can’t help but think of those grainy images caught in microscopes of multiplying amoebas and protein shells, the Fibonacci sequence and patterns of DNA, the ingredients of life. It is fitting then that the renowned LED light artist Leo Villareal, who recently designed the largest light installation in history, The Bay Lights, on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, is a devoted acolyte to the church of Fuller and has recently created a version of the geodesic dome, out of that other vital ingredient for life on earth, light.

The 30-foot tall illuminated sculpture features two nested geodesic spheres comprised of 180 LED tubes arranged in a series of pentagons and hexagons. The sculpture, which emits a warming red glow, is lit by individual pixels located within the tubing and placed 1.2 inches apart. Each pixel is capable of displaying 16 million different colours, colours that can be directly controlled via Villareal’s laptop.

Titled Buckyball the piece is a constantly changing light artwork, comprised of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons and is a recreation of the Buckminsterfullerene, a carbon particle that could well have provided the seeds for life on earth. When the particle was discovered in 1985 it was found to be similar in form to Fuller’s geodesic dome from decades previous and was named in his honour and has since been nicknamed the “Buckyball”.

Villareal’s Buckyball was up until recently installed in Manhattan’s airy Madison Square Park, where the sculpture’s constantly changing hues, combinations of colour programmed at random, lit up the park throughout the winter months. With benches placed strategically around the sculpture, spectators were invited to take a few moments to be both warmed by the light and hypnotised by its changes. The Buckyball itself sits upon a plinth, like a statue of old, this tiny particle magnified and highlighted for the role it plays in our continued existence, a park green statue surely just as equal to veneration as a George Washingon, a William Gladstone, or an Abraham Lincoln.

Villareal has spent his career harnessing the multitude of creative options offered to an artist by LED, and his creation of a lighting design for the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, the Golden Gate’s lesser-known younger sister, is a case in point. The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which stretches from downtown San Francisco, over Treasure Island and into Oakland, lacks the stirring terracotta red that marks out the Golden Gate against the seemingly constant blue of Frisco’s Pacific horizon, but it is just as graceful.

The project was conceived both to mark the bridge’s 75th birthday and to celebrate the re-opening of the structure’s eastern span, between Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco, after a comprehensive refit. It was also hoped that an eye-catching project with a large scope and an impressive look would win some attention away from the Golden Gate.

Eight times the size of the impressive light show that marked the centenary of the Eiffel Tower the lights stretch 1.8 miles across and reach a height of 500 feet. The project is the world’s largest LED light sculpture and features 25,000 white LED lights that produce a never repeating, dazzling display, individually programmed by Leo Villareal.

This vast project took the light artist nearly two and a half years to put together including six months creating a 3D and Photoshop rendering, an activity challenging enough, but nowhere near as hazardous as the installation of the lights themselves, undertaken by a number of skilled technicians in possession of the necessary nimble coordination complimented by a steady head for heights, who worked through the night during the winter months of 2012.

Villareal’s design was careful to be respectful of the bridge’s architecture and impressive natural setting, while ensuring that his design was not lost amid the splendour of the atmosphere, instead he aimed simply to create something that allowed people to see the bridge in a new way.

Titled simply “The Bay Lights” the light presentation is comprised of non-repeating light patterns and algorithms on the western span of the bridge that offer an interpretation of the evening at hand, be it the traffic patterns, the weather, or simply the buzz that sometimes can be felt emitting from a lively and thriving city like San Francisco.

It was decided that the best lighting technology to use for the project was the Philips Color Kinetics eW Flex SLX in a 4200 Kelvin correlated colour temperature, a product chosen because it was thought best suited to dealing with the sometimes turbulent weather patterns found in San Francisco bay. The Philips Color Kinetics eW Flex was also chosen because of the ease it could be fitted onto the bridge, utilising 48,000 bridge clips, and the range of programmable and date features offered.

The eW Flex is a versatile strand of individually controllable nodes, which use three wires, two for power and a third for data. Philips Color Kinetics worked closely with the artist to help him achieve his aims. Extra spacing was created between the nodes to accommodate Villareal’s design plan. Nearly 4.5 miles of product was installed on the bridge, which is roughly equal to the total length of the structure, counting both spans.

The lights use 150 to 175 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy while operating for seven hours a night, from dusk until 2am and the the light show is expected to reamin in place for the next two years. The lights will also use 85 percent less energy that other non-LED light sources that could have been used in the Bay Lights project and to further compliment the the project’s already impresive environmental zeal, solar panels are also used to power the lighting design.

It has been calculated that the design, production and installation of the display has cost in the region of $8 million, with only $11,000 being required to power the display year by year. Both of these figures are dwarfed by the 100 million dollars the Californian Department of Transport has estimated will be injected into the San Franciscan economy by the presence of the lights and the two million people who are expected to view them during the project’s life.

What is more the ‘Bay Lights’ have been entirely publicly funded, with the necessary money being raised by donation. Illuminate the Arts, a non-for profit organisation dedicated to the creation and presentation of community-activating public art, and the company behind the Bay Bridge project, has operated a number of innovative fundraising schemes which have encouraged potential patrons to ‘give a gift of light’ and name an LED after a loved one, organisation or cause. So far $6.3 million has been raised enabling the installation, with a further $1.7 million needed to fund the entire project on schedule.

The use of computer programming to create a light show featuring an enumerable amount of patterns and sequences is a theme common to Villareal’s work. Also in 2012, the year the Bay Bridge project came to fruition the artist’s Cylinder II was displayed at the Hayward Gallery in London. The work is comprised of 19,600 white LEDs that hang down from the ceiling and shimmer like the tentacles of a jellyfish caught in the moonlight.

That is just one interpretation of course; the strings act to create a kind of theatrical backcloth, the curtain at the back of old Victorian theatres that would be repainted with each production. The strings form the matrix of a being, which produces endlessly changing evocations, as if the silvery veins that give this artwork form represent a visible cloud of memory, which is randomly throwing out snippets of the life it has been severed from, the viewer witnessing an endless medley of meteor showers, fireworks, falling snow and clouds of swarming fireflies. There is no story to speak off, no narrative to express, these are just random recollections thrown up in the moment.

Reflective rods arranged in concentric circles support this magical creation and these form a skeletal column from which the lights are powered. The lights appear to expand and retract, palpitating and vacillating through different rhythms and patterns. “You don’t feel like you’re watching for something you’ve missed,” Villareal says of the artwork. “It’s never going to repeat the same progression of sequences again. It’s like an elaborate shuffle scheme, which is being reassembled dynamically.”

Villareal once again used LED in 2012 to create ‘Cosmos’ for the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in New York. The work was created in homage to the late Cornell astronomy professor and astrophysicist Carl Sagan, who popularised atronomy and cosmology through his influential telivision show and a number of popular books.

Cosmos is made up of 12,000 energy efficient LEDs that have been affixed to a grid-like framework and placed on the ceiling of one of the most visible buildings on the campus, which can also be seen both on the university grounds and in the nearby town of Ithaca.

The light patterns were programmed by Villareal both in his home studio and on campus where he spent a week in residence observing the atmosphere the artwork would be placed in. In order to create a successful light artwork, sympathetic to its environment, the artist carefully noted the architecture that would surround the piece, the museum building being designed by the famed Chinese architect I. M. Pei who was responsible for the glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris and the stirring John F. Kennedy Library in Boston.

He also noted the weather patterns in the area, cloud movements and even the flocks of geese that fly over Ithaca in early Autumn. All these stimuli and the artist’s reactions to them were referred to in the patterns of light that were ultimately produced, his knowledge of the area the sculpture would be placed in also meant that he did not create something that would deter from what is generally a quiet studious atmosphere surrounded by grass and trees.

“It’s almost like a musical instrument that you have to tune to get just right,” Villarel said of trying to get the piece to mesh with its surroundings. “It’s a process of discovery, because I don’t know in advance what the answer to the problem is going to be.”

The display has since proved popular, with a ‘zero gravity’ bench being installed directly underneath the light work, allowing observers to lie beneath his conjured universe and gaze upwards, alone or with friends, encouraging a communal immersion in the project.

Leo Villareal is often labelled an LED pioneer, a man who took a new form and perfected it into an evocative art form capable of expressing emotion. It is often noted how many colours LED can produce, thousands of hues and shades that no doubt put the capabilities of a paint tin and an easel to shame, but it is also often asked if it is possible to be truly captivated by something that you have to switch on, something transient, something that isn’t a constant window into another time and place, and is instead, like Cylinder II, more machine than personal creation.

What is beyond doubt though is that the LED art produced by Villareal offers an individual experience that traditional art cannot. Whether it is conjuring galaxies in the arched windows of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, summoning up a swarm of fireflies in a dark room in the Hayward Gallery, or leasing a new life to the Bay Bridge, the art is brought to the person, it is easier to find, and is perhaps, easier to enjoy.

Buckminster Fuller once said: “I am enthusiastic over humanity’s extraordinary and sometimes very timely ingenuity. If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone, a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top. I think that we are clinging to a great many piano tops in accepting contrivings of yesterday.”

In his pioneering use of LED, Leo Villareal, the one time sculptor, is looking to the future of art, not the past.


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