Philly Aglow

The head of Philadelphia's business improvement district set out to bring European-style lighting to Philly's arts district,
by | March 1, 2009
 

The Europeans - they know how to make buildings look pretty at night. That's what Philadelphia's Paul Levy was thinking a few years ago, when he was invited to speak at an outdoor lighting conference in Lyon, France. The first speaker was the lighting director for Malmo, Sweden. The second speaker held the same title for the city of Lyon. Each went on to describe how their cities were retaining artists to create the most elaborate night-lighting schemes for buildings, parks and even rivers. "And here I am," Levy told me, "sinking lower and lower in my chair, hearing what they're doing."

Levy heads the business improvement district for Center City Philadelphia. He's led efforts to shine white floodlights on some downtown building facades and sculptures. What the Europeans were doing, however, went way beyond that, or anything else seen in North America outside Las Vegas. It was a new form of civic high art, taking advantage of advances in lighting technology. Most important to Levy, whose job is to generate foot traffic for downtown businesses, it was tied to outdoor festivals that lured huge crowds of people out into the city on cold winter nights.

Levy's embarrassment turned to inspiration. He set out to bring European-style lighting to Philadelphia's arts district, where South Broad Street is lined with ornate buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries - architecture that gets lost in the street lights at night. The biggest obstacle was selling the idea to building owners. Not only had they never seen the artsy lighting Levy was talking about but he also was asking them to pony up cash to make it happen. They fell in line once they saw a few examples - a church and a couple of performing arts buildings, the details on their facades lit up in bright colors.

On December 17, Philadelphia held its first outdoor light festival. Broad Street was closed to vehicle traffic and thousands of people were treated to a choreographed light show, set to the Nutcracker Suite, Beethoven's 5th Symphony and the theme from the film "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The buildings flashed brightly, with candyland colors rippling up and down the street in sync with the music. All of it was controlled wirelessly, with direction provided by a single laptop computer.

"The technology allows you to do anything," Levy says. "You can have ping-pong lights flashing continuously on the street, although that would be annoying." On regular nights, when there's no music or festival to speak of, the lighting scheme on South Broad changes every 15 minutes. Wiring all the buildings for outdoor lighting cost $2.1 million in combined public and private money; operating costs are kept to a minimum because all of the lights are energy-efficient LEDs. "This is all about how to draw a crowd and create an experience," Levy says. "It's part of branding cities as something special."

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