When I received the initial phone call to discuss the permanent architectural lighting of Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, I was honored and thrilled. The opportunity to illuminate one of the most famous buildings in the world was an exciting prospect, and I looked forward to getting started. Little did I know how long it would take to complete the project.
The dedication ceremonies and the grand opening galas for Walt Disney Concert Hall were held in October 2003. As this was the premiere of the building, we decided to go overboard on lighting and fireworks. When we placed a battery of 2ks along the face of the building and shined them upward, something miraculous happened. As the intense beams traveled up, they caught the edges of each row of curved stainless steel panels, and the edges simply popped. Onlookers believed that we had installed long beads of bright neon bulbs. This theatrical lighting of the building revealed the wonderful complexity of Frank Gehry's design and showed that its many facets would play with light in very special ways. Gehry had said that the building was designed to reflect the lights of Downtown, and it did so admirably. Our lighting and fireworks created spectacular photographs that graced the front page of many worldwide publications.
After the grand opening and with all of our opening gala lighting gone, the building façade was dark. Walt Disney Concert Hall was not illuminated at night and was not intended to be so by design. Guests began to ask the Music Center to turn on the lights, but there were none. As time passed, the requests for lights became more frequent.
The Music Center administration decided to explore various options to illuminate the building. I was called in for an interview with them as I had illuminated the building so many times for their special events. The Music Center is an ideal client — collaborative, imaginative, and patient. We decided that the best way to design the lighting would be through extensive testing, and we decided to keep the entire project under wraps.
I had consulted with James Schipper of Kinetic Lighting on each of the events that I had produced at Walt Disney Concert Hall, so it made perfect sense to hire him to be the lighting designer for the architectural lighting of the building. He has taste, style, and the right sensibilities to satisfy the client. He was the perfect choice.
Schipper and I attended the first production meeting with the Music Center staff, and we learned some simple ground rules. The primary rule was that no light fixtures could be mounted on or under the building. The second rule was that the building must be illuminated with white light. The third rule was that only the east and north facades would be illuminated, and no light was to annoy the neighbors. So our goal was quite straightforward: light the building so it could be seen at night. I used the phrase light reinforcement to describe our task.
My first concern was where to place the light fixtures. We walked the site, I looked across the street, pointed, and said, “There, how about those poles?” The poles were the 50'-tall Los Angeles City street lighting poles along the east side of Grand Avenue between First and Second Streets. These poles are under the control of the Bureau of Street Lighting, and they had to approve the special use. Within one year, we got permission to use those poles as lighting positions — five very important light positions.
The placement of the light fixtures to illuminate the north façade was easier. The Music Center owns the building to the north, The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The roof had already been used as a lighting position for the parking structure that temporarily stood before Walt Disney Concert Hall was constructed. We would use four existing structural positions to mount our fixtures.
Once testing began, we never really stopped. At the Kinetic Lighting facility in Culver City, Schipper demonstrated many color temperatures on some pieces of stainless steel. We also walked the site on a particularly bright moonlit night. The experience and concept of using light the same color as moonlight was making a lot of sense. Schipper knew that there were many fixtures that could use 4000K metal halide lamps, but the actual selection process was going to take some research.
On the first light test, we used a single 1500W metal halide light source strapped to a scissors lift and about 200' of extension cord. That one light brightly illuminated about half of the Grand Avenue façade. We no longer would worry if our light sources were bright enough. In fact, that night we decided to decrease the specification on the fixtures from 1000W down to 400W metal halides. It was time to start searching for the right fixture.
We wanted an architectural lighting fixture with theatrical properties. James said that fixture would have to be capable of providing everything from narrow spot to a wide flood. To control the light, the fixture would need to accommodate accessories including louvers, hoods and barn doors in order to meet dark sky requirements and to prevent glare. The fixtures would have to blend in with their surroundings. The fixtures would have to mount safely and look like the belonged on the existing street lamp poles. The fixture would have to use a 400W metal halide source and have an internal ballast.
We considered many, many fixtures. Some were theatrical fixtures and some were architectural fixtures, but none of them satisfied our specification. By chance, a Cooper Lighting representative invited James Schipper and me to a product seminar in Santa Monica. Their demonstration of the Cooper Invue Vision Flood fixture convinced us that it was exactly what we needed.
We quickly requested a sample fixture to start testing with it. I took the fixture and did a presentation of the fixture for the Bureau of Street Lighting. They liked it. The Vision Flood's die-cast housing, its design and the IP65 rating passed their test. James liked the heavy duty knuckle mount as it would allow him almost infinite aiming flexibility and lock-down strength. The knuckle can handle 3Gs of vibration so you can use it on a bridge like Grand Avenue. Yes, midblock between First and Second streets, Grand Avenue is actually a bridge.
On the third test, we used an actual Vision Flood fixture, and it worked perfectly. James really liked the choice of reflectors, and they could be changed easily in the field. The Vision Flood offers the choice of six optical systems — narrow spot, narrow flood, medium flood, wide flood, vertical flood, and horizontal spot — and almost all were used in the project. We specified four fixtures for the top of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to be painted a very light gray, and ten fixtures for the five lamp poles were painted Bunker Hill Bronze.
As with any important architectural structure, the Cultural Affairs Commission must review the plan. I made the presentation to the Cultural Affairs Commission, and they immediately approved the project. During the presentation, the Commission Chair enthusiastically said to me, “How soon can you get this done?” I promised that we would implement the project as soon as possible.
The actual installation was the most straightforward part of the project. Kinetic Lighting designed and fabricated four custom fixture mounts for the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion roof and painted them light gray to match the fixtures. Cooper Lighting fabricated the five pairs of fixture mounts for the five street lamp poles and painted them Bunker Hill Bronze to match those fixtures.
We hired some electrical contractors and had them do the installations. Once all of the fixtures were in place, it was time to focus the lights. Schipper had spent many hours planning the lights with huge photographs on the walls of his office. The first pass at focus was excellent, but James is a perfectionist, so we spent several days changing focus and swapping optical systems.
James and the team from Kinetic Lighting literally climbed all over the building to check how the lights looked from hundreds of locations on and around the building. They looked for glare, overshooting light or anything that would be considered objectionable. It was a beehive of activity very late into each installation night.
Once the lights were all focused and in place, the timers were set that was it. No ceremony and no press. The building was illuminated, and that was it. A few high fives, dinner, and everyone went home. It was anticlimactic to have worked for 18 months and then just walk away.
On September 16, 2005, we turned on the lights at Walt Disney Concert Hall, and they have been on ever since.
It took months for the media to write about the lighting. The first was under “Arts Notes” in the Los Angeles Times on November 20, 2005. The newspaper then followed with a wonderful article on January 4, 2006, entitled “A Light Touch” by Scott Timberg. Ever since then, the phone has been ringing off the hook.
Mark Flaisher is a producer of special events including concerts, festivals, product launches, openings, and corporate and civic events. His work includes grand openings of Los Angeles City Hall; the Los Angeles Convention Center; and Ontario International Airport; and product launches for NEXTEL and Microsoft.