The artist Jenny Holzer once used light to project words into the ocean: as the waves broke, letters appeared momentarily on the white wash and then disappeared as the water settled on shore. Rem Koolhaas wrote about massive light masts at the shore of Coney Island in the 1880s that allowed Manhattanites to take part in sublime illuminated “electric bathing.” Architects Robert Mangurian and Mary-Ann Ray proposed lighting steel fire escapes in the St. Louis theater district to transform them into elaborate stencils that cast ornate shadows across blank building façades.

We never set out to work with light and don’t claim to be lighting designers, but many of our projects have started with light projection. Working this way is an escape from the slow and mediated relationship to the city that we normally experience as architects. With light, architecture can be constructed and reconstructed in realtime: surfaces immediately respond through reflection and shadow; geometry is radically transformed with slight adjustments; and colors of light and the city mix with each other to produce unexpected effects.

Our work grew from a desire to engage the industrial operations and artifacts of the city —  things such as stockpiles, tanks, and highways. Light proved to be a medium that can negotiate and even amplify the scale and kinetic qualities of these often dark, peripheral landscapes.

When we projected patterns of light on salt piles, they were most striking on Mexican salt that is directly evaporated from the ocean. The newly formed crystals are bright white and intensify the light by reflecting it. Salt mined from prehistoric oceans in Chile and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is tan or even brown, with sediments that absorb and diminish light. Like Holzer’s waves, our light would appear and disappear as the salt piles rose and fell with each new shipment and winter storm.

In a later project, we observed that while oil tank structures usually look nearly the same from any side because of their cylindrical shape, they became exuberantly animated when projected with light. When we projected a series of lights on a row of tanks along a city block, the images looked most “normal” when you viewed them directly from the light source and would become increasingly distorted as you moved between lights, until suddenly they became recognizable again when you passed by the next light. The anamorphic light turns static architecture into a responsive character.

Most recently, we’ve been illuminating an elevated highway. Its underside creates a rare urban ceiling upon which to cast light into the distance. Like headlights cast onto the road’s surface or low moonlight glancing the sea, the light across such extensive surfaces doesn’t stop; it fades and merges with the ambient environment. For example, when pavement is damp and reflective, the red, yellow, and green of traffic lights aren’t just points but a communicative atmosphere. Light allows a momentary reconsideration of form, movement, and scale. We are testing, one-to-one, new ways of seeing the ordinary elements and structures of the city

Date Monted: 4.5.12 | Duration: 90 day