The New NY Bridge, a $4 billion project to replace New York's Tappan Zee bridge, will feature custom LED lighting. Philips Lighting

“Emotive lighting” for infrastructure is the big new thing. Is there a way to embrace LED spectacles without being tacky about it?

Nine bridges in New York will twinkle through the night by 2018. Thanks to thousands of LEDs, spans ranging from the Henry Hudson Bridge in Inwood to the Crossbay Veterans Memorial Bridge in the Rockaways will light up, to dazzling effect, every night—and with special effects for the Fourth of July, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and other color-coded events.

The nine bridges, the first phase of a $500-million overhaul for Metropolitan Transportation Authority–administered bridges and tunnels, will join the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center as New York structures that shine for the big moments. Imagine them all lit up blue and orange to celebrate a championship for the Mets or the Knicks. (Or some other, more likely color-oriented scenario.)               

New York’s bridges in turn will join the ranks of hundreds of bridges worldwide that deploy emotive LED lighting to dazzle residents and draw tourists. The Big River Crossing in Memphis, the Leonard P. Zakim–Bunker Hill Bridge in Boston, the Big Four Bridge in Louisville, and the Little Rock Bridges in Little Rock are a few in the U.S. that have embraced light shows over the last four years.

“I hear that one of the things that inspired [New York Governor Andrew Cuomo] was a visit to Philadelphia, and a bridge lighting down there,” says Jim Anderson, an executive for Philips Lighting. “I also wonder if they also saw some of the things that are happening around the world.”

Screenshot of a graphic showing bridges and towers across New York lit up for July 4. (NYGovCuomo)

London, too, is jumping on the dramatic-lighting bandwagon. On December 8, the Illuminated River Foundation will announce the winner in a design competition to light up 17 bridges across the Thames in central London. The six finalist teams include such art-world luminaries as Leo Villareal, Katharina Grosse, Glenn Ligon, and Cai Guo-Qiang as well as giants in architecture such as Adjaye Associates and Diller Scofidio + Renfro.  

With New York and London on board, this trend isn’t going anywhere soon. As cities, counties, and states update outdated bridges, upgrading their lighting systems to LEDs is inevitable. With that move comes the opportunity to throw in some low-cost civic razzle-dazzle, says Anderson, who is the global market segment manager for bridges, monuments, and building façades at Philips. “If you develop the waterfront, bridges are usually right there, very visible,” he says. “They can help mark a city or brand a city. That’s what we’ve seen all over the world, and it seems to be picking up as well.”

Fancy LEDs at the scale of infrastructure are a new phenomenon. Philips Lighting, which is responsible for lighting installations for at least 100 bridges worldwide, acquired Color Kinetics, a Boston startup, in 2007, and with it several patents on mixing and dimming LEDs to create lighting. New advances in fiber optics and cloud-based monitoring make it possible to orchestrate complicated patterns across tens of thousands of LEDs—not just over a single waterway but across an entire city. To quickly change a city’s colors to those of le Tricolor after an attack in Paris, for example, or to celebrate a Pride parade.

The Big River Crossing in Memphis. (Darius Kuzmickas/Philips Lighting)

Maybe the best-known U.S. bridge to deploy a fancy lighting scheme is the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. Villareal, one of the world’s best-known illumination artists, designed the program for the 25,000-LED installation known as “Bay Lights,” which first opened in 2013.

Not everyone loved “Bay Lights.” The installation drew a tepid response from The San Francisco Chronicle when the system first debuted. Architecture critic John King questioned the substance and rigor of the project. King revisited that opinion in 2014, in part because the city was closing in on a plan to make the temporary light show a permanent fixture—and also because readers called him a killjoy.

King dug in his heels, complaining at the “awkwardness of treating the region’s most robust work of architectural engineering as … a canvas for the visual equivalent of background music.” To no avail: The Bay Bridge is now permanently lit by the patterned twinkling sequences of the Bay Lights.  

“Originally, there was a fair amount of pushback from a number of people in the city about light in the city and creating some sort of gaudy lighting image,” Anderson says. “After Leo delivered that system, people didn’t want to take it down after two years. There was a lot of pushback from people. ‘You can’t take this down, this is San Francisco. This is high tech.’”

San Francisco being San Francisco. (Lucas Saugen/Philips Lighting)

New York has yet to name a lighting designer or outline a contest for its two-phase upgrades. All told, it will involve 11 bridges total, including one bridge under construction, plus lighting in the Queens–Midtown Tunnel and the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel. In a press conference, Governor Cuomo announced some softer infrastructure touches, too, including a fabric “chainmail” draping for steel gantries, tunnel entrances, and parking garages.

New York has an opportunity to disappoint more than just architecture critics with its lighting decisions. Those probably won’t involve animatronic, fire-breathing dragons—like this bridge in Da Nang, Vietnam—but New Yorkers take their bridges seriously. Governor Cuomo describes “boldness” as one of the key characteristics of its forthcoming lighting program.

“You can do a sophisticated job for an area looking for a sophisticated look,” Anderson says.

Cities beyond New York can expect to see more of this coming down the pike. Not just the LEDs, but the profile-ization of civic infrastructure, with more and more structures lit up to celebrate religious holidays and sports championships or express solidarity over terror attacks. The meaning of all these once-special gestures may change once everyone is doing it.

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