Sunday, April 09, 2006

The Night Sky in Philadelphia

Turning on the lights in Philadelphia isn't as easy as it looks.

This weekend's lighting of the old visitor center in Love Park was supposed to be the highlight of DesignPhiladelphia, but it was a big ho-hum, and a major let-down considering it was designed by Klip/Collective, a well-regarded, Philadelphia-based video producer. Klip/Collective came up with the clever idea of turning the cylindrical visitors center into an inside-out Imax theater. The idea was to celebrate Philadelphia's design talent, add a little sparkle to the Philadelphia nightscape, and call attention to the neglected building, which is looking more and more like a disabled spaceship. But the three-minute video loop, which included images based on Eadweard Muybridge's motion studies with Thomas Eakins, was dull and lifeless. For a project that was meant to show Philadelphia how to put on some nighttime glitter, the lights weren't nearly bright enough. By the time you crossed 15th Street you could hardly make them out.

Philadelphia just can't seem to turn itself into the City of Lights, no matter how hard it tries. Take the Cira Center. You have to give the architects at Cesar Pelli's firm credit for trying something different. They dotted the facade of the iceberg-shaped tower with LEDs, instead of going the standard route of lighting the building's crown. The dot matrix might have worked - if there were no people inside to turn on the interior lights or mess with the shades. But, as with most occupied buildings, there are human beings behind those glass walls. Everytime I look at the grid of colored lights, I can't help but think that someone forgot to turn off the construction lights after the building was finished.

The LEDs installed on Boathouse Row have also been disappointing, but for different reasons. They're too perfect - like dentures. Yes, there are no more big gaps, the way there were when the row was lit with incandescent bulbs. But there is no fairyland twinkle anymore, either. It was the simple naivete of the old light bulbs that made Boathouse Row's lighting so charming. Maybe once that twinkle fades in my memory, I'll develop a fondness for the Morse code of LEDs.

And maybe once some of the searchlights ringing City Hall start to burn out, I'll also come to appreciate the eye-searing brightness they cast on City Hall. So far, the lighting project still makes me think of a crime scene. But last winter's colorizing of City Hall's central portal was one of Philadelphia's few recent lighting successes. The color lasted just a month, but it was fun to see the Second-Empire behemoth reimagined as a Victorian tart. Sure, it wasn't as a conceptual and cutting edge as Klip/Collective's treatment of the spaceship, but the saturated, eye-popping colors got you to see the building in a whole new light. Which is all any good architectural lighting job should do.


Blogger amusing said...

Yes! Thank you for highlighting the bleak "perfection" of the new lights on Boathouse Row. It's just flat and lifeless. Remarkable that a different technology has such a deadening effect. Energy/cost savings, yes. But at what price in aesthetics? And that lost little spaceship there. I keep thinking it's time for that to just go away. Does anyone actually visit the visitor's center? It seems part and parcel of a grander Ed Bacon scheme that just didn't quite live up to the dream.

11:26 PM  
Blogger Amardeep said...

I agree with you on Boathouse Row; it doesn't do much for me.

But I like the Cira Center lights... I notice that they have different colors and patterns, which means they should probably be able to keep playing with them. Maybe they should do something similar to what New York does with the Empire State Building, and coordinate color patterns to match holidays and ethnic events.

Of course, its really the shape of the Cira Center -- irregular like an uncut diamond -- that draws my eye to the building every time I make it downtown.

Incidentally, I'd love to hear your thoughts on architecture out in Conshohocken, where I live.

11:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are you seriously critisizing the boathouse row lights for being "too perfect". Girl, I think you have a problem with unrealistic expectations.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i enjoyed the video installation mostly for recreating this wonderful building into a zoetrope. it wasn't very bright, but remember, the windows of the visitors center are tinted and very dark.

i'd like to see more of this on other buildings in philadelphia. it would be nice to have a prominent figure in the city like yourself support more innovation like this.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Stealth43 said...

Are you kidding me? When they colourised City hall, it looked as though it had been arse fucked by a bag of pastel skittles... those really nasty tasting ones.

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pelli's firm didn't design the lighting for the Cira Centre, Cline Bettridge Bernstein Lighting Design did.

8:47 PM  
Anonymous ChistoDoc said...

I can't find any discernable patterns in the illumination of Cira's LEDs. The arrangement appears haphazard -- like a control computer has yet to be programmed. I think the LED chaos detracts from its otherwise very clean and striking form.

12:42 PM  
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