Big-Time Techies Want To Turn SF's Bay Bridge Into A Glittering Light Show

A group of artists and prominent tech investors are hoping to raise enough funds to fit the Bay Bridge with 25,000 twinkling LEDs.

As San Francisco bridges go, the Bay Bridge usually gets overshadowed by its more glamorous neighbor to the west, the Golden Gate. But the Bay Bridge is the real workhorse of the two: more than 300,000 cars travel over it every day.

It’s “brains, brawn and beauty,” says Ben Davis, founder of the creative agency in charge of branding the Bridge’s brand-new Eastern Span. Davis is the driving force behind The Bay Lights, a proposed installation that would turn the bridge into a monumental light sculpture. Davis was working on marketing the new-and-improved Bridge when he came up with the idea of a 75th birthday celebration. He enlisted the help of light artist Leo Villareal, who envisioned a year-long installation that would turn the bridge into a 500-foot-tall sculpture, visible from all over the Bay Area.

By design, the duo’s plan is fairly simple. They want to attach 25,000 white LEDs along the steel suspension rods that connect the upper spans to the deck of the bridge. The lights will be programmed to create ambient patterns, and crucially, they’ll face away from traffic - so they won’t distract drivers on the bridge. “Each node will be individually addressable,” explains Villareal. “It’s smart, it’s intelligent, each pixel is controllable but works as a group to create an overall effect.” The 1.5 mile-long bridge will be visible from all over the Bay by around 50 million people, drawing lucrative tourists to areas in the city they might not normally visit. “By conservative estimates,” the creators write on their website, “$97 million dollars will be added to the local economy.”

Though its supporters include SF mayor Ed Lee, The Bay Lights must depend purely on private donations, given recent cuts to the State’s public art budget. It will be inexpensive to power (only $11,000, offset by donated solar credits), but including a months-long installation process, it’ll end up costing around $8 million. To raise the money, the creators turned to their friends and colleagues in Silicon Valley.

“Making the initial pledge was a no-brainer,” says WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. “It’s an investment in San Francisco.” Mullenweg, along with tech investors Adam Gross and Ron Conway, is heading up a drive to encourage tech companies to help cover the outstanding $3 million the group must raise before July 1st.

Davis and Villareal hope The Bay Lights will offer a bright spot (pun intended) in a city and state whose public art budget has been mercilessly slashed. “My hope is that will unleash all sorts of creativity around the Bay Area," says Villareal, "and change the way people feel about what can be done.”

You can find out more about The Bay Lights Tech Challenge here.

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