Light Moves

Light Moves



Museo del Acero
Monterrey, Mexico
OVI Lighting Inc.
Grimshaw Architects

When it was fully operational in the 1960s, Blast Furnace Number 3 in the steelworks in Monterrey, Mexico, was kept at a steady 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. The plant that dominates the landscape of the city was also a crucial part of its economy and culture, so much so that when it closed down in 1986, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a two-year restoration and renovation, what remains of the steelworks has reopened as the Museo del Acero, an institution dedicated to the history and process of making steel.

Furnace 3 is an extraordinary structure, and it is hard to look at the 230-foot-high rust-colored chamber without imagining the molten metal that used to flow out of it. It is an inherently dramatic image, and one that inspired the lighting designers Jean Sundin and Enrique Peininger of OVI Lighting as they worked with Grimshaw Architects on the project. “We started by exploring the idea of a flame and its colors and intensities,” explained Sundin. “Hot steel is central to the idea of the museum,” added Peininger, “and with the metaphor of the flame, we had to understand how it would be read. A person visiting doesn’t need to get the whole story with a single look, but the lighting should convey a clear message.” 


Using light to tell a story is a central part of the way the partners at OVI think about their work. Peininger and Sundin explain how they modulated the strength of the light in the New York Times building’s public spaces to lead people through the space, and how they lit the three stainless steel spires of Pei Cobb Freed’s Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Virginia along their curving surfaces, up to 270 feet. Because of the fiery nature of the smelting process, the temptation with the Museo del Acero was to reflect that drama in the way they lit the building. “It would be easy to make it very dramatic, but it could have been very arbitrary,” said Peininger. “Instead, we explored the logic of the project to come up with a corresponding lighting logic. That involves a dialogue with the architect, supported by the technical data and specifications.”

Using the colors of a flame as their starting point, Peininger and Sundin experimented with a series of fixed LED spotlights and more generalized washes of light created with metal halide fixtures outfitted with colored glass gels. The building’s form is so strong that during the daytime, it needs no amplification, but at night, the amber, orange, white, and violet help to define the individual features of the furnace: ore elevator, barrel, and stack. 

After a few mock-ups, they realized that the furnace’s form and surfaces were so irregular that the installation was going to be tricky: Instead of a traditional plan diagram, they started to use 3D drawings of the structure and include both the fixtures and the angle at which they needed to point.

The Museo del Acero’s purpose is to educate about the process and culture of steel, and as a part of that, it features a regular pyrotechnics show that suggests the incredible energy and intensity that goes into the smelting process. It is said to be hugely popular, but it’s a safe bet it doesn’t overshadow the drama inherent in the outline of the furnace itself, picked out in violet spotlights against the dark night sky.

Anne Guiney



Chroma Streams: Tide and Traffic
Kingston Bridge, Glasgow
Leni Schwendinger Light Projects with JM Architects

When Leni Schwendinger of New York firm Light Projects arrived in Glasgow to begin work on the lighting of the Kingston Bridge, she was struck by two things: the powerful current of the River Clyde, the source of Glasgow’s industrial heritage, and the log-jammed traffic above it on one of Europe’s busiest road bridges. She didn’t have to look any further than the juxtaposition of these two great flows for an impetus for her design.

To codify these forces into a structure around which she could build a lighting scheme, Schwendinger looked to the typical systems of measurement. An input for the flow of traffic would be derived from what engineers call “Levels of Service,” or LOS, a measure of volume and speed that ranges from “A” for optimal constant flow to “F” for static gridlock. The strong tidal movement of the river, which cycles through four stages over the course of 11 hours, provided the input for that flow.

The next step was to assign colors to these inputs. “I really like to try and find intuitive color palettes,” said Schwendinger. “So the water will be cool, that’s the first cut, great. And the internal combustion engine will be warm, you know, that’s essentially a no-brainer. You’ve got your cool, that’s the water, you’ve got the warm, that’s the fuel and burning, the heat of the exhaust fumes.”


To heighten the contrast and connection between traffic and water, Schwendinger and her team decided to project her colored lights onto the underside of the bridge, where their reflection would play off the water. This arrangement ran counter to the Glasgow City Council’s initial expectations of just throwing some light around the top or sides of the bridge, but they liked the way it brought the light to the city. The bridge’s high arc soars above Glasgow’s street level, so by casting illumination onto its smooth concrete underbelly, pedestrians could get an eyeful, not just those on the bridge.

The designers divided the lighting scheme into three bands, or streams, of color, one for the river and two for each carriageway. The river band has four modes, one each for the tide flowing in and out, and two more for the half-hour period between the two tides when the water turns glassy and highly reflective. The two traffic bands, one for each carriageway, transition from light yellow for “A” traffic to deep fuchsia for “F” traffic.

To keep track of the top-side levels, the team placed acoustic sensors on the bridge, which monitor the traffic flow in near real time and beam this information through wireless connections to a controller, which then shifts the traffic colors every minute or so. The river band follows the more methodical 11-hour cycle of the river. Because certain combinations don’t work well together, the designers had to create 144 different combinations cued to the different inputs.

The design relies on a dozen 575-watt metal halide fixtures, six on each bank, outfitted with CMY color-mixing systems and mounted on four 20-foot-tall stainless steel stands. These stands are custom-shaped to resemble the sinuous tidal graph of the River Clyde made by 19th-century scientist William Thompson, also known as Lord Kelvin, the developer of the Kelvin system by which light color temperature is now measured.  

Matt Chaban 



Marcus Center for the Performing Arts
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Focus Lighting


The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts has been a cultural beacon for Milwaukee and Wisconsin since its opening in 1969. Designed by Chicago architect Harry Weese, the Marcus Center is Brutalist architecture at its best: bold and unapologetic, composed of a series of angular geometries—great, hulking rectangles—rendered in the poured concrete so typical of the style. Though imposing during the day, every night for years, at about the time when people showed up to take advantage of the entertainment provided by the center’s many tenants (including the Milwaukee Ballet, Florentine Opera, Milwaukee Symphony, and touring Broadway and Off-Broadway shows), the building, in effect, went to bed. Deprived of the sun’s rays, the muscular concrete expanses dissolved into darkness. Recently, the Marcus Center decided to remedy this and hired New York lighting design firm Focus Lighting to give their home new life after dark.

The team at Focus took one look at the strong lines and large, blank concrete surfaces of the building and saw a canvas. “Light paintings,” thought Paul Gregory, Focus’ principal designer on the project. For inspiration, he turned to Wisconsin-born artist Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings, and to the rich colors found in nature. Finding a trove of material there, he decided that the Marcus Center would have not one light painting, but many. Gregory and his team then created 16 different lighting schemes that change every 20 minutes from 7 p.m. through 2 a.m. each night. To keep things interesting, the team carefully choreographed the sequence of the colors, varying the order of the paintings on every rotation. A centralized light control system keeps the whole orchestration running on its own.

The light paintings do more than circulate in varying orders. Each also changes the aspect of the building by highlighting different qualities. As paintings, these light schemes have titles. To use as examples two light paintings inspired by O’Keefe, Red Cannas, composed of warm red and orange tones, softens the harsh lines of the building, while Blue Flower, featuring cool blues and greens, highlights its strong orthogonal lines.

Gregory and his team conducted extensive research and a thorough analysis of the building before concocting the individual paintings. The building was studied from all exterior views, as well as through view ports from within the building. Surfaces were also evaluated by visual importance. “One challenge was to test the amount of light needed to sufficiently light the building without being insensitive to the surroundings,” said Gregory. In the end, the team chose 50-watt LED fixtures, which use red, green, and blue diodes capable of achieving a range of hues by varying the intensities of each color. A total of 906 fixtures were needed, each outfitted with 36 LEDs. Depending on the surface, the team either mounted the fixtures at the parapet to cast light down across the surface, or at the base of the wall to cast light up. Varying these treatments on alternating volumes of the structure helped to highlight the building’s burly sculptural presence.

Danielle Rago