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How LEDs Have Transformed the City Skyline

Illuminated nightscapes are a new worldwide arena, where global cities will compete for recognition.

LED lighting is transforming skylines all over the world—and architects, city governments, and urban denizens should take note. These illuminated nightscapes promise a new worldwide arena where global cities will compete for recognition.

It's a gradual trend that has reached a fever pitch in recent months. Recent articles from the New York Times and NY1 discuss the LED-ification of two of New York City's landmark skyscrapers: the Empire State Building and the Helmsley Building. Why the intensifying deployment of these powerful lighting systems? Well, for starters, LEDs (light-emitting diodes) are energy-efficient, long-lasting, increasingly affordable, and easily controlled by computer programs. Architecturally, these little lights can significantly change a building's nighttime character, transforming shadowy forms into immaculate performances of infinite color and vivacity.

These exhibitions of variegated light utilize a building's form to its fullest extent. As you can see above, LED performances adapt a building's architecture as set pieces for a theatrical display. The resulting form-tailored performance can produce newfound evening celebrity. The more advanced the LED system, and the better artistry with which its used, the more prominent the architecture (and the owner's investment) becomes.

Hong Kong's nighttime skyline illuminated by LED lights. Photo: Scrolllock via commons.wikimedia.org

In a way, none of this is surprising. Developers and businesses already seek out "starchitects" for their iconographic, recognizable architecture. A big-name designer can produce an instant landmark (and sizable profits). However, these LEDs offer owners the ability to create a landmark without a famous architect's signature. We can now breathe new life and economic value into older buildings that might otherwise fall to demolition and replacement.

The Helmsley Building, designed by Warren & Wetmore in 1929, shows off its new LED light system. Photo: Andrew Dallos via flickr.com

And that's a good thing, right? In some ways, certainly. It gives building owners the means to preserve older structures that might otherwise be a financial burden. However, it also means that many of the buildings in the world's global cities will be awash in the same riot of colors.

We should take note for the simple reason that we place great value on our skylines: Walk into any corner shop and everything from refrigerator magnets to T-shirts will be emblazoned with nighttime urban profiles. Cities naturally transmit their individual identities through their visual topography. These skylines are identifiable by residents and visitors alike. Do we risk that visual identity by coating all cities with the same seductively vibrant palette?

Dubai at night. Photo: viamenmat.org
Shanghai at night. Photo: HéctorTabaré via geolocation.ws

Even if you don't think the subtle visual homogenization of cities alarming, it's undeniable that these LEDs are a new technology being applied haphazardly on a building-by-building basis.

Not that that’s surprising. Historically, technological advances are often followed by an overly zealous, chaotic exuberance. For example, the newly available incandescent light bulb was also exploited to its fullest fantastical potential. But architects quickly found more refined ways to deploy the new devices. Their realization that electric lighting could be integral to an overall design may hold the key to revolutionizing how we treat our urban skylines.

Luna Park, Coney Island, in 1905. Lights were deployed to every architectural surface for full spectacular effect. Photo: via en.wikipedia.org




Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building in 1889. Photos: via mglmarchitects.tumblr.com and creaturesofprometheus.blogspot.com

Louis Sullivan was one architect who readily embrace the incandescent light bulb and fully integrated it into his interiors, elevating the light bulb from an individual utilitarian object to part of a designed whole. Similarly, we can reconsider LED-lit buildings as parts of a collective whole. Though their illuminated forms are under varied ownership, the buildings themselves are still part of a single work of art: the nighttime vista. Moreover, the uniquely digital nature of LEDs means that they can be coordinated on a massive urban scale to produce singular, powerfully memorable displays.

There are hints to the power of color to transform an urban image. Take New York City's recent publicity campaign, which aimed to entice tourists to make the city’s urban landscape their next destination. The campaign’s designers colorized the city's architecture on posters to make the built environment look more inviting and dynamic. These posters work in the same way the coordinated LEDs would: adding a new layer of aesthetic appeal to existing iconic views.

Even more important, the campaign’s selection of airport terminals as its primary advertising area
demonstrates the desire of global cities like NYC to project their unique qualities and identity to a worldwide community. In the age of competing metropolises, the ability for a city to control its image (literally) could be a huge coup in terms of international and local public relations. Imagine these posters not as graphic designs but rather as rich photographs; the impact could be visceral and profoundly communicative.


NYC Tourism Campaign from Amber Shap. Photos: via ambershap.com

Coordinating an entire city's LEDs represents an entirely new public artistic domain, and it will certainly need to be a shared undertaking. Luckily, we already have some available precedents such as Tom Fruin's stained-glass Watertower in Brooklyn. The colorful Watertower wasn’t just an icon aimed to produce publicity and monetary value, but also a genuine cultural project that aimed to improve the quality of life for all the residents who could see it. If arts institutions and community organizations can work together to sponsor colorful public installations such as these, then perhaps cities can reclaim their skylines and find ways to make them their own. Maybe the future will be brighter that we can imagine?

Tom Fruin's Watertower. Photo: Robert Banat via tomfruin.com

This post originally appeared on Architizer, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Zachary Edelson is an Architizer writer and a Master of Architecture student at Columbia University GSAPP.