How LED Technology Casts City Icons In New Light [Future of Light]

How LED Technology Casts City Icons In New Light [Future of Light]

New initiatives are offering artists and designers a blank canvas for their creative reinvention of familiar cityscapes.

  • 29 september 2013

Imagine your city as blank canvas. Could its essence be captured and brought to life through the use of light?

Emboldened by emerging digital and LED technology, designers are finding ways to do just that. These added controls and functionality  are providing these visionaries with a toolkit with which to spark new conversations around their cities. Whether adding iconic elements to a skyline, communicating information around the local aspects of a place, or re-imagining aging infrastructure, these dynamic displays tap into an infinite palette of colors to showcase the vibrancy of light in meaningful ways. With the efficiency of LED technologies, these installations are able to take place at scale, while still keeping resource usage and costs in check. “Cities are understanding that light is part of their branding and their expression,” explains Teal Brogden, Senior Principal at Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design. “The nighttime vibrancy of the city is something that is really meaningful to all their constituents.”

In a trend we are calling City Branding, PSFK Labs explores how designers are breathing new life into familiar aspects of a cityscape through the construction of highly-visual lighting displays. “The exciting part of LED is its controllability,” says Rogier van der Heide, Vice President and Chief Design Officer at Philips Lighting. “The fact that you can create scenarios, that you can script the light in a city. You can make it brighter when it’s needed or dimmer. Then you can orchestrate the whole central square for a celebration.”


Scripting the light in a city as van der Heide explains is exactly what the Bay Lights project achieves. It is a large-scale light installation using white diode-like pixels to create scenes of mesmerizing fluidity on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. Created by light artist Leo Villareal using Philips Color Kinetics technology, the 25,000 light-emitting diodes will create patterns and forms that continuously morph and move along the bridge’s span or slide up and down its supports. The largely donation-driven project was billed as the world’s largest LED light sculpture: 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high. According to, it is estimated that up to 50 million people will see the Bay Bridge lights project while it is live for the next two years. “It’s possible for almost anyone to engage with [the Bay Bridge lights project],” notes the project’s designer, Leo Villareal at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “It is a remarkable moment for public art. I see this as a template for other projects.”

(Jim Sulley/newscast)

Another example of City Branding is the partnership between Philips Lighting and a famous New York City landmark. The Empire State Building has installed a dynamic lighting system that can change the mast colors in real-time to match the requirements of different events, occasions, and use cases. The technology from Philips Color Kinetics features a new computerized system that will enable customized light capabilities from a palette of over 16 million colors, including pastels, in a variety of combinations. The LED lights will replace the current palette of 10 colors, which currently requires a team several hours to change the building’s nearly 400 fixtures. In addition to greater control and management of the lighting array, the new system will allow Empire State Building operators to better highlight its architectural details.

(Jim Sulley/newscast)

The Empire State Building lighting scheme and Bay Lights Project are breathing new life into their respective cities, offering engaging opportunities for longtime residents and visitors to look at these places through a new lens. It doesn’t seem so far off to imagine city-wide lighting schemes on key buildings and infrastructure changing to communicate local information about a place in real-time.

These examples fall into a larger theme we are calling Illuminated Expression, which explores how scalable lighting technologies are making it possible for individuals, brands and entire cities to visually express their identity and imagination and communicate their vision to the wider community.

The Future of Light series explores light’s potential to improve lives, build communities, and connect people in new and meaningful ways. Brought to you in partnership with Philips Lighting, a full report is available as an iOS and Android app or as a downloadable PDF.


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