How Illuminate the Arts Can Turn a Bridge and Subway Into Dazzling Light Sculptures

by Jeff Walsh
- May 26 2015 - 6 min read
Courtesy Illuminate the Arts and Stefano Corazza

A few years ago, Ben Davis was sitting at the Ferry Building in San Francisco staring up at the Bay Bridge, in advance of its 75th anniversary, and thinking about its history.

When the bridge opened in 1936, there were regional celebrations, but six short months later, the Golden Gate Bridge opened, and the world’s attention sort of shifted.

“The Bay Bridge fell into this Cinderella role—very hard working, but mostly overlooked and underappreciated,” he says. “I was trying to think if there was some way to let the bridge shine in the region’s consciousness again, and it just hit me like a flash that resonated through my body: It could be not just a bridge, but a canvas of light. And even though it was a daunting notion, I decided I would try to walk it out into the world.”

Davis’ vision eventually became the Bay Lights—a dazzling display of 25,000 white LED lights with a never-repeating flow of imagery. The project by artist Leo Villareal is estimated to have boosted the local economy by $100 million annually and has made the Bay Bridge a focus of conversation again. Temporarily turned off for Caltrans maintenance work, the lights will be permanently back on and in time for the Bay Area hosting of the Super Bowl in 2016.

Courtesy Illuminate the Arts and James Ewing

For Davis, who is the founder, president, and CEO of Illuminate the Arts (ITA), this was another step in a career working with major infrastructure projects. He started on that path with the Boston Harbor cleanup project, and continued to gravitate toward infrastructure projects after opening his design firm in San Francisco. At ITA, he has been involved with the Transbay Transit Center, the Stanford Hospital Rebuild Project, the former Doyle Drive Replacement Project (now rebranded as the Presidio Parkway), and, for many years, managed communications on the Bay Bridge Seismic Safety Project, the largest public works project in California history.

That background gave him the knowledge of how to navigate the complex, interwoven systems of a major infrastructure project, which would seem like a bureaucratic nightmare to anyone unfamiliar with that world.

“It’s funny you call it a bureaucratic nightmare, but it’s what inspires us,” Davis says. “Everyone saying, ‘Hey, you can’t do that’ became its own source of inspiration, even to people inside the system. So it was actually an intriguing and beautiful part of the challenge.”

A Whole New Look at “Street Lights.” For his next challenge, Davis is shifting his focus to San Francisco itself. He wants to bring the same radical vision to focus attention on Market Street, the spine of the city. Eventually, two young artists named George Zisiadis and Stefano Corazza approached Davis with the idea that has sparked his new project, LightRail.

“They approached me with the idea of sending pulses of light up Market Street, which absolutely solved what I was trying to do in a really beautiful way, even though it was an equally audacious idea,” he says. “So I agreed to lean into the challenge with the artists, to see what we could do to make LightRail a reality.”

Courtesy Illuminate the Arts and Stefano Corazza

LightRail is two 2.1-mile tubes of light that will run down Market Street. As part of the project, the old, yellow, sodium-based street lights will be replaced with something more natural and flattering, and the lights traveling through the tubes suspended above the street will indicate the real-time movement of the BART and MUNI public transportation systems below, with color indicating the destination of the trains.

“We’re going to be revealing above what is happening below and creating this connection of worlds,” Davis says. “We’ll be able to understand the movements of trains beneath the street.”

It’s too early to tell how LightRail might change life for public transportation users in the city. Davis is still unaware if you will be able to see if a train is coming down the street with enough time to catch it, or if seeing the light means you are already too late.

Davis says that is secondary to the broader effect of the artwork, which is using light and movement to permeate some of the emotional and economic divides that he feels have created separation on that street for many decades now.

Courtesy Illuminate the Arts and Stefano Corazza

“It will help to unify that street and create a greater sense of safety and community and movement,” he says. “We will help to transform Market Street from this place of hurried passage in the evening to a place of lingering destination. Market Street has a purpose. It has an intention. It has a destiny, and that destiny is to be a heavily used, beloved place for social interaction. It will be fun to see how people use it from the transportation perspective, but I’m really more excited to see how it transforms people’s energies on the street.”

Getting the City on Board. Of course, in the process of creating the light sculpture there have also been hurdles, starting with City Hall. The city’s architectural review committee donned Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets to see immersive renderings—with 3D assets created in Autodesk 3ds Max and the Unity 3D game engine for the visualization—of how the completed project would look, as well as the impact to the historic streetlights that are protected. After that, the team encountered another issue after it was reminded that the fire department needs to raise hook-and-ladder trucks in some areas on Market Street.

“That’s the one thing we didn’t anticipate in advance,” Davis says. “We were sort of reminded and humbled by the fact that, ‘Wow, we thought we have checked every box,’ but we didn’t realize that we might be in their path. But that’s a great learning opportunity for us.”

Historic San Francisco street lights

Once Davis said he would stop pursuing the project until public safety was addressed, that put the fire department at ease and then got them on board to find a solution. As it turns out, the trucks need this access only where there are buildings with heights of less than 75 feet.

To create a model of Market Street and its buildings, point cloud data in Autodesk ReCap was imported into 3ds Max for rendering. In addition to the buildings model, a terrain model with high-resolution aerial imagery was also lined up with the point cloud set. Within a day, the team had a map that highlighted all of the 75-foot-and-under buildings where access would be an issue. They then worked together to build in a breakaway system, so that they can drop the LightRail system to gain access to a burning building where they need to raise their ladder.

The piece of the LightRail puzzle that will determine how quickly the project can proceed is to expedite the retrofit of the yellow lights, because of the antiquated electrical system powering it under Market Street. Of course, to Davis, that is just another challenge—one he thinks is worth the effort.

“Our urban environment provides such an inspirational canvas,” he says. “We are living in the century of the city, so we need to create places where people want to be, want to stay, that create opportunity for socialization where people actually enjoy being out in the world directly experiencing the wonder and awe of the built environment and each other.”

So, where Davis had his first epiphany and the point where Market Street meets the bay, his worlds of light may soon come together when the Bay Bridge again shines with movement and wonder and strands of colored lights flow down into the city.

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