John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
For the next two years, San Francisco will get to stare at a shimmering, ever-changing galaxy of lights on the Bay Bridge.
The abstract, swirling patterns in Leo Villareal's titanic Bay Lights installation will inspire different mental pictures in different people. Some might see playing among the 1.8 miles of white LEDs the waves of the Pacific Ocean or the furious wildfires that plague California. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has already stated what he expects to divine amid the 25,000 individually programmed lamps: "For me, it's the mustache you'll see every night."
Lee gave the shout-out to his ultra-famous 'stache during a press conference Tuesday a few hours before the kickoff of the Bay Lights, the $8 million photon sculpture that will adorn the western span of the Bay Bridge for the next two years. (Or maybe longer, if people decide they like it there. Perhaps increasing its longevity chances, it will take three painstaking months to disassemble.) Enthusiasm was just pinging off the walls for the 9 p.m. lighting.
As the former director of San Francisco's public-works department, the mayor mentioned his personal desire to see bridges as something other than "heavy pieces of metal that we look at every single day." With this new cloak of light, the Bay Bridge will no longer just be a conduit for some 250,000 cars per day. It will be a "worldwide piece of art," he said. "It's truly a beacon and we're very blessed.”
Attendees were wearing little animated Bay Lights badges that made them look like robots from a '70s TV show:
And the press (myself included) acted like this small sample of Bay Lights was the miraculously found body of Bin Laden:
To complete the Bay Lights took six months of construction work, accomplished at night by electricians sometimes dangling in harnesses hundreds of feet above the water. Because each visit to the bridge's sensitive areas required Homeland Security notification, Villareal perfected the artwork's entrancing blipping far off on a San Francisco pier. It was "almost like tuning a musical instrument," said the artist, who used to work for a Palo Alto research lab and, in a right of passage for any serious tech-art nerd, did Burning Man.
But Villareal also climbed the bridge's towering spans, which provided the moment of clarity needed for the artwork's completion. "It's one thing to make a Photoshop simulation... it's a whole other thing to get up on the bridge and go up there on a cable walk which I've done on several occasions, which has been incredibly inspiring," he said. "I went up on a cloudy day and suddenly the clouds sort of parted, and the light was coming down and hitting the water, and just incredible magic was happening. And I knew that this project would be just fine if I could channel 1 percent of what I was seeing out there in the landscape and the interaction of all these systems into my work.”
Villareal's confidence was shown to be well placed when the artist's crew turned on the Bay Lights around 9 p.m. How? Not a switch, certainly. "PG&E wanted to lend us a switch but we thought it was kind of old school," he said, "so we're using a laptop tonight." The quilt of LEDs swirled in mesmerizing eddies before crowds of rain-slicked gawkers gathered along the waterfront. Here's what San Francisco residents will see every night from dusk until 2 a.m. until 2015:
Some grainier footage as viewed looking east from the Embarcadero: