On a train speeding through North Philadelphia at dusk last week, I could see the skyline softly glowing in the distance as we approached. Passing over North Broad Street, the light masts in its median radiated a garish green.
The new Comcast building's illuminated tip topped the skyline. As I got closer, buildings shone red, white, and blue for Independence Day: Park Towne Place's boxy tops, the Mellon building's striped pyramid, the chevron crowns on One and Two Liberty Place, Cira Centre's Lite Brite dots, and glowing bars of intense color on FMC and One Riverside.
If cities reveal themselves at night, what is Philadelphia's spectrum of bright LED night lighting saying?
Cities have long used illumination to communicate commerce and culture, energy and nightlife, atmosphere and spectacle. And people, like moths, are naturally drawn to the light. Major streets, like Market and Chestnut, once vibrated at night with neon and incandescent signs. Our skyline has had steady bright spots, like the PSFS' red letters. As Philly's skyline has grown, more of its tall buildings opt to play with light and color. But too often it's a space left under-designed and underestimated in its potential to create an identity or mood.
Our skyline's increasingly present decorative lighting is illuminated by LEDs, a longer-lasting and more energy-conscious option that also enables vastly versatile color and programming choices.
Thanks to LEDs, Philly buildings can show a dizzying array of color or pattern, from Boathouse Row's silhouettes to the PECO building's scrolling display. PSFS' letters can be any color now. Even City Hall's clock face converted to LED, taking its hue from ghoulish, lightning-bug yellow to a creamy white like the moon.
New buildings increasingly come with built-in bright, decorative LED lighting. And animated LED rainbows are seemingly everywhere, sweeping over Symphony House's crown, framing CHOP's garage sign, and washing South Broad facades.
We may be too blinded by the light to see what's been sneaking up on us. Philadelphia is veering into territory that is somehow tacky and boring at the same time.
It's hard to make a rainbow feel annoying, but Philly manages do this on a nightly basis. I think that's because too many LED illuminations betray a certain indecisiveness, a lack of confidence in a particular lighting scheme or a tired attempt at public space "activation." Or worse, a deliberate attempt to cheap out on lighting design.
My deepest disappointment is the South Street Bridge's light towers, which since 2012 have run a programmed sequence of colorful dots and screen-saver-like patterns of falling leaves or waving American flags. For years they, and we, have been stuck in an amnesic set-it-and-forget-it loop. They are a soulless presence in a city that prides itself on its public art cred.
Choices about decorative public lighting used to be simpler: on or off. But because of LED's rich possibilities, they require us to make more mindful decisions – what color, when, why – and active oversight. Some cities, like Sydney, Toronto, and Hong Kong, use building facades and skyscrapers as the backdrop for elaborate light art projects both temporary and rotating. There are plenty of lighting designers in this town that would jump at the chance to use our buildings as a canvas. We don't tend to do that.
Philly's LED lighting looks most coherent when it is deployed for causes, memorials, playoff games, or holidays. Last month, for example, Boathouse Row was outlined in rainbow colors to celebrate Pride Month. When coordinated, our ad hoc array reads like a city united by interest. Other times our decorative LEDs run on preset programs with the hollow cheer of a Stepford wife's dead smile.
From the street, our decorative lighting is neither dense enough to create a feeling of vibrancy nor coordinated often enough to send a coherent civic message. It's more like incidental Muzak that falls short of creating a distinctive atmosphere for Philly. It makes this wondrous, complex city feel flat.
But what if Philly's decorative light was more artistic or responsive? Imagine if the skyline's lights softly pulsed, like the city's breathing, or played a symphony in light once a night. What if our skyline lighting was color-coded with information, like the time? Or consider the possibilities light artists could bring to interactive facade illuminations, activated by traffic, weather, or street sounds. All of these ideas have been tested in other cities. Ours could be curated by the Association for Public Art or the city's public art director, and overseen by the Art Commission.
Philly's decorative LED infrastructure should give us more than an accidental night sky. It's time we seize its artistic potential to build a more distinctive sense of place. Or turn them off.
Ashley Hahn writes about urban planning, historic preservation, and public spaces.