This post was written by Keith Dawson for UBM Tech’s community Web site All LED Lighting, sponsored by Philips Lumileds. It is archived here for informational purposes only because the All LED Lighting site may go dark at any time. This material is Copyright 2013-2015 by UBM Americas.


LEDs Transforming Cityscapes

Under the spur and inspiration of LED lighting, city skylines are evolving with more rapidity than perhaps at any time since the introduction of incandescent technology 130 years ago.

We took a brief look last summer at the changes LEDs are wreaking on cityscapes worldwide, courtesy of the Archetizer blog. It is becoming evident that these changes are in their earliest stages, and we can look for the pace to accelerate still further as LED lighting becomes more powerful, less expensive, and more pervasive.

(Image: Flickr user InSapphoWeTrust, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license)

The Empire State Building represents the first few stages in this evolution. The building used to be lit with xenon floodlights, and workers could modify the colors projected on the building's top stories only by laboriously changing gel filters on some of the fixtures. When Anthony Malkin, Empire State Realty Trust's CEO and chairman, traveled to Shanghai and Hong Kong early in the century, he was struck by the light displays on skyscrapers there. It took a few years until the available LED technology became capable of implementing the vision Malkin had in mind.

During a half-billion-dollar refresh and energy overhaul, the ESB's landlord installed nearly 4,000 Philips Color Kinetics fixtures. At first they lit the building in its traditional colors of red, white, and blue. The first use of the flexibility afforded by the SSL installation and the front end, a control panel similar to those used to light rock concerts, was for election night 2012, when the ESB's top trended blue or red depending on which candidate was leading at the moment.

From static displays for branding, to static holiday displays, to simple data-driven displays like the one on election eve, the ESB branched out into full-blown animated light shows choreographed to music, beginning with New Year's Eve at the beginning of 2013. Holiday light shows, designed by well-known light artist Marc Brickman, have grown both more elaborate and more frequent.

Competition for eyeballs
Other New York City buildings, some LED-lit before the Empire State was, are vying for attention. In the streets of Manhattan we can expect to see more colors, more light shows, and more press releases as time goes on. One property owner, the Durst Organization, seems to be feeling particularly competitive with the ESB organization.

Durst co-owns and manages the new One World Trade Center, whose proposed lighting we visited last spring. The spotlights illuminating its spire are being tested now in the dead of night, and should go live within a month or so. Durst also owns 4 Times Square and One Bryant Park, the spires of each of which have been LED-illuminated since 2010.

Durst hasn't announced (or perhaps hasn't figured out) what it wants to do with all those LEDs on high. Douglas Durst told that his skyscrapers are capable of light shows choreographed to music, like the Empire State puts on, but that he "doesn't find it interesting." "We'll leave that to Tony," Durst said, referring to the ESB's Anthony Malkin.

But what if Durst coordinated the lights atop his three premiere skyscrapers? What if, over time, property owners got together and synched larger assemblies of LED-lit buildings? What if cities put on events and invited building owners to work together on even larger constellations?

What if light artists could paint on city-wide canvases in real time, putting on the kind of displays pioneered by the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, but on an even vaster scale?

Many of us will probably live to see these visions, and others not yet conceived, manifest on cities' skylines.

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