Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
A bold parking garage installation reflects a city that’s growing up beyond its popular theme parks.
What was supposed to be just another parking lot has become a dazzling display of digital art and the centerpiece of a new town center in Orlando, Florida. By day, The Beacon is a simple steel structure covered in more than 8,000 white aluminum shingles. By night, however, the 60-foot enclosure turns into a spectacle for both locals and tourists, as stunning projections of colorful lights, patterns, and images fill its outer layer.
In one display, what appears to ink slowly seeps in from the top—as if dissolving into a glass of water—and turns the tower black. In another, a school of fish dances across the surface against the backdrop of the deep blue sea. There are dozens more, says Jeffrey “Jefre” Manuel, a Florida-based environmental artist who was the principle designer behind the installation.
The Beacon sits just a few miles from the Orlando International Airport, in the city’s new Lake Nona Town Center, where hotels, offices, and shops are being built. Next to it is a six-story parking garage, which Jefre turned into an equally stunning art installation called Code Wall. Carved into its 264-foot-long wall is binary code that spells out words like inspire, participate, and connect.
As the sun comes around during the day, panels of diochroic glass—which reflects different colors when the sun shines on it—embedded throughout cast a “kaleidoscope” of reds, blues, greens, and yellows onto the wall. At night, carefully choreographed LED lights bring the garage to life.
“I envisioned not only the Code Wall, but also The Beacon, becoming a museum for digital artists,” Jefre says. Instead of painting colors onto the installation itself, he let the lights and shadows of nature turn the garage into a living mural. Jefre sought out the renowned theatrical designer Michael Counts and the 3-Legged Dog production company to curate and compose the particular show that is projected onto The Beacon every night. The idea is to use the tower to showcase the art of various digital artist from around the country.
Originally, sponsors Tavistock Development had just wanted an art piece to put on the central lawn of the town center, but Jefre had a different idea. He wanted to create something that would become a unique landmark for Orlando. He adds that he took inspiration from artworks like the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle, and Cloud Gate (or as some call it, The Bean). “I don’t even have tell you what city they're from [because] they’re strong enough public art landmarks that help define a city.”
Jefre had learned from the developers that the best views in the hotels and offices faced outward because otherwise, they’d be facing a plain parking garage. So, he thought, why not turn the parking garage—traditionally seen as only functional—into the “jewel in the box” of the town center?
Most people know Orlando mostly for its theme parks but, Jefre says, the city has grown up. Over the past decade, Orlando has flourished as a biotech region, with medical schools, hospitals, research institutes, and start-ups moving in. That’s where Jefre’s inspiration came from.
“Two things had come to mind,” he tells CityLab. “One is this idea of communicating the language of technology from an art standpoint, and that was where I came up with the idea of incorporating binary code.” For The Beacon, he found inspiration in the original stethoscope invented in 1816 by French physician Rene Laennec. The particular piece also hit close to home for Jefre, who suffered a heart attack at the age of 35. “That was my first art piece that put me into full-circle thinking about my own heart condition and this idea of medicine.”
The project will be officially unveiled in January, though residents got their first peek of the artwork in action back in November during its soft launch. Both pieces face the south runway of Orlando’s airport, which means for the millions of Orlando’s tourists, The Beacon and Code Wall will be the first things they see when they land, and the last before their planes take off.
That, Jefre says, was a “happy accident.”