The Bay Bridge will never be the Golden Gate. Whereas the Golden Gate is bold and daring, the Bay Bridge is brooding and ever so mysterious. I’ve always felt the Bay Bridge is more representative of the chilling, foggy microclimate of San Francisco—the tone of the city on a quiet day. Yet in the coming weeks, through 25,000 LEDs, the Bay Bridge will become even more indicative of its surroundings.
It’s all part of the Bay Lights project, by media artist and light sculptor Leo Villareal. And while it might sound paradoxical that so many LEDs will actually better connect the bridge to its natural environment, that’s been the plan from the start. For the past several months, Villareal has been working on a series of animations that will treat each of the 25,000 lights as individual pixels. These animations are algorithm-driven, built to mimic the modern environment of the Bay Area—the flow of water, cars, ships, and wildlife.
"I am interested in augmenting what already exists," Villareal tells Co.Design. "I have tremendous respect for the site and want to create something that feels integrated and appropriate. My interest is in creating a focal point for communal experience that highlights one of the icons of the Bay Area."
On one hand, Villareal is one of the most celebrated artists in the world in this sphere of architectural light installations. On the other, he’s taking an immeasurable gamble. We’re talking about Villareal seeing his $8 million invention for the first time: 1.8 miles of bridge, pulsating with the musings of carefully crafted (but ultimately untestable) computer code. And to up the ante, Villareal’s algorithmic patterns have been designed to never repeat during the next two years, meaning things could always go wrong. Yet at the same time, there’s an immeasurable payoff to it all: Each visitor will have a totally unique experience of a classic icon, as the Bay Lights will never look the same when viewed even seconds apart.
"The challenging and exciting part is working out what the artwork will be," Villareal tells Co.Design. "I employ a good amount of chance in the process of creating sequences. Over the next few weeks, the public will witness the testing and debugging phase of the project and eventually the final artwork will emerge."
Following testing, the official lighting will commence on March 5, then Bay Lights will glow every night for two years afterward. But, maybe most remarkably, while the project is estimated to add $97 million to the local economy, the LEDs will sip on just $11,000 in electricity per year.