Light the Way: Three Exemplary Outdoor Projects

Light the Way: Three Exemplary Outdoor Projects

Light Bridges
Midway Plaisance, Chicago
James Carpenter Design Associates with BauerLatoza Studio and Schuler Shook

Since it was built, the Midway Plaisance has divided the cloistered campus of the University of Chicago from the adjacent Woodlawn neighborhood. In spite of their proximity, the two often feel worlds apart: the one, a bastion of Neo-Gothic academic buildings, while the other is a mixed-income residential neighborhood. Now, as the university expands into Woodlawn with new residences and academic facilities, bridging that divide has become a priority for the university in supporting quality of life for students, faculty, and staff. The effort is complicated by the fact that the Midway, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, is part of the city’s treasured parks system. Changes will be scrutinized.

The university turned to New York–based studio James Carpenter Design Associates, known for their innovative use of lighting and glass, to design something that would help unite the two areas of the university without intruding too much on Olmsted’s parkland. Light became the obvious means of achieving that balance. “They’re intended to be thresholds of light, primarily visible at night, that add clarity to the crossing,” Carpenter said.

Working with Chicago-based landscape architects BauerLatoza and lighting designers Schuler Shook, Carpenter’s Light Bridges, currently under construction, will traverse the Midway at Ellis and Woodlawn avenues. During the day, lighting for the pathway has a subtle presence, while at night it glows with a robust physicality, hence the name Light Bridge. The effect is achieved through a series of smart design moves. Linear LEDs wash the handrails and guardrails as well as the retaining walls in light, and a series of LED spotlights set in the sidewalk throw light upward.

The most distinctive elements of the Light Bridges are the “light masts,” vertical columns with varied illumination. A metal halide fixture shines light up and outward through a light pipe—a tube with reflective film—to a mirror at the top of the column that bounces light back down. The light pipe allows the single fixture to illuminate the entire light mast, which is wrapped in a series of metal rods surrounded by horizontal bands. These give the column their form while also acting as light diffusers. The horizontal bands are spaced variously so that light levels are diminished in the middle of the column and heightened at the top, making the Light Bridge visible from a distance.

“The Light Bridges are part of a larger plan to illuminate their buildings and streets,” Carpenter said. “They are trying to center activities, to use light to give them a special character.”

Alan G. Brake


Pappajohn Sculpture Park,
Des Moines
Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects with RDG Planning & Design

Built in an underused two-block park in downtown Des Moines, the Pappajohn Sculpture Park came into being when longtime residents John and Mary Pappajohn donated their esteemed sculpture collection to the Des Moines Art Center in 2007. The gift of 26 sculptures, including pieces by Joel Shapiro, Mark di Suvero, and Ellsworth Kelly, was appraised at $40 million. In terms of placing the city on the cultural map, however, the bequest’s value has been incalculable.

Iowa-based RDG Planning & Design collaborated with the project architect Agrest and Gandelsonas of New York to develop a lighting scheme for the 4.4-acre park that would both define a series of parabolic outdoor rooms and also illuminate the sculptures from dusk until dawn.

“Lighting had to complement, not dominate, the site,” said Jonathan Martin, landscape architect with RDG. To eliminate the number of vertical poles in the park, almost every piece of art is lit from the ground. The design team worked with the Art Center to determine how each piece would be lit, making visits to the Pappajohn’s home to see the sculptures in person and test their mockups. Only one sculpture, Jaume Piensa’s Nomade, had specific directives from the artist about lighting. In all, the park contains more than 200 ceramic metal halide weatherproof lamps.

Because the park is completely open to downtown Des Moines, with official hours from sunrise to midnight, visitors are urged to observe artwork at night. “A sculpture that is very playful during the day may take on a more serious tone at night because of the way it’s lit,” said Martin. Unlit pathways eliminate the visual clutter of streetlamps, but also encourage patrons to stray from the path and see the artwork from more than one perspective. Streetlamps on sidewalks around the perimeter provide an ambient glow, just enough for security cameras to monitor park activity. In a setting where harsher lighting could have become a proxy for careful stewardship, instead each sculpture enjoys its own illuminated space within the darkness.

Jennifer K. Gorsche


Chicago Riverwalk Canopies
Ross Barney Architects

When planning the Chicago Riverwalk, city officials realized that without protection, salt and water from bridges crossing overhead could pour down on pedestrians. So Carol Ross Barney and her team decided to make projective canopies that were also visual amenities, animating the shadowy areas under the bridges in addition to providing coverage overhead.

Made of stainless-steel tiles—the lower tiles are brushed steel, and the upper highly-polished—the canopies reflect the shimmer and movement of the river, creating dappled shadows on the Riverwalk. “It adds something contemporary and ethereal within the neoclassical language of the rest of the Riverwalk,” Ross Barney said. Currently in place under the Michigan Avenue and Wabash Avenue bridges, the canopies use natural light during daytime hours to transform the underside of the city’s beautiful, but utilitarian, infrastructure. Others, perhaps in a different form, will be added as additional phases of the Riverwalk are completed.

The reflective surfaces recall a contemporary Chicago icon, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate. While Kapoor’s sculpture pulls the viewer into the skyline and the sky above, the canopies immerse the viewer in one of Chicago’s less appreciated natural features. “You feel like you’re in the river,” Ross Barney said. Unlike Kapoor’s perfect bean, the canopies are slightly wavy with visible seams. As Ross Barney noted, “It helps fragment the painting.”

When the sun sets, light pipes with metal-halide lamps set in the seams of the canopies wash their surfaces with light. Some of that light reflects down to the surface of the water, reversing the daytime effect. Metal-halide downlights provide additional illumination for pedestrians. “The results are very intriguing and fun,” she said.

Alan G. Brake