As the sunlight disappears over the horizon, the city sets alight with light posts and building lights. This is Milwaukee.
Let there be light.
And God separated day from night, only to realize he made a mistake. Night was too dark. So on the third day, he created a “lesser light to rule the night: he made the stars also.”
We have been adding more light to the night ever since. God made the calm and steady sun and moon. And we’ve created dizzy places like Times Square, Las Vegas and, courtesy of LED lighting, the newly lit Mitchell Park Domes.
We can play God with LEDs because they are cheap (incredibly energy-efficient) and maintenance-free (they last more than 10 years). When hooked up to a computer, they can be played almost like a musical instrument. “They’re set up; it’s all programmable. You can turn this into a planetarium,” Sue Black, the director of Milwaukee County Parks, rhapsodized to the media.
Whether we want to turn the Domes into a planetarium is a good question. LED lights have now been used to transform three important public buildings – the Domes, the Milwaukee County Historical Society and the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts – allowing us to consider their impact.
Local architect Donald Grieb finished the Domes in Mitchell Park in 1967, the same year his mentor, Buckminster Fuller, completed the geodesic dome for the World’s Fair in Montreal. But Grieb never quite got the idea of the dome. He actually made cones, but the name stuck.
In their standby mode, the LED-lit Domes now look like an alien ship from an old Hollywood movie. Each is topped by a halo of modulated light that spins around like the front of the intelligent car in “Knight Rider.” When the light is really amped up, the whole lattice structure of the Domes is outlined in flaming magenta, or blue, or any color, for that matter.
Grieb, now well into his 90s, seems to like the result. “It’s a feeling, you say, ‘Thank the Lord this happened,’ ” he told the press.
According to Marty Peck, the designer of the Domes project, there are customized “light routines.” And the colors are coded. Thanksgiving is red, orange and yellow. In December, the Domes could become poinsettia. For spring bridal bookings, the color scheme could match that of bridesmaid dresses. Nothing is stopping the Domes from becoming a giant mood ring.
It’s a brave new LED world. Perhaps art museums could create their own light routines. Picasso’s blue period under blue light anyone? Soon we may project a hologram and make City Hall into a rocket ship.
I don’t think you have to be a hysterical preservationist to see the problem here. Some artists and architects make something worth preserving. Calatrava would probably sue the Milwaukee Art Museum if it outlined his building with LEDs. Calatrava didn’t forget to light his building. He likes it just the way it is, illuminated from the inside out.
Compared to the Domes, the light show for the Milwaukee County Historical Society has a soft touch. The building was designed by Kirchoff and Rose in 1913 on the corner of Third and Kilbourn and is one of the best examples of neoclassical architecture in Milwaukee. Illuminating the grace of the Beaux Arts windows, making them glow at night, could add beauty.
But in practice, the windows are often garish and oversaturated. The intense color of LEDs often looks like candy or the glow rings sold at Summerfest. For all their vividness, LEDs so far lack the embracing warmth and harmonic depth of incandescent illumination.
The windows would be captivating with just variations and gradations of warm, white light. When I mentioned this to one of the patrons of the Historical Society lighting project, he agreed and pointed out how beautiful and subtle the lighting was at its premiere. If so, it’s degraded into something more tacky.
The fact is, these lighting projects are only instruments. If you install a new organ, you still need a Bach to make great music. So it’s perhaps ironic that our most important music hall is also the site of Milwaukee’s most ambitious light work.
The Marcus Center is now a collage created by three architects and a lighting designer. It was built in 1969 by Harry Weese, an influential international figure from Chicago. At the time, the Performing Arts Center was a major civic achievement and the most completely realized late modernist building in Milwaukee.
Twenty-four years later, Engberg Anderson replaced the original and deteriorating white travertine marble cladding with beige Biesanz limestone. That was a mistake. The building had to be white. It lost its luminosity, becoming duller and more obvious.
Five years later, Kahler Slater did a $20 million rehab of the interior, which made the place more useful, but put a clumsy new entrance on the building that casts an ugly yellow brown light at night. Yet for all of these changes, the Marcus Center still retains the core of Weese’s conception, something the new lighting scheme obscures.
Unlike the other projects, the Marcus Center’s lights are programmed. Paul Gregory of Focus Lighting in New York created 16 distinct lighting schemes that change every 20 minutes or so. The order of the schemes varies in each rotation.
The lighting cost just $1.1 million and runs on only $10 a night. There has never been a cheaper way to transform a building, a fact not lost on Paul Mathews, the Marcus Center president. “Intelligent LED lighting,” he notes, provides “a means to reinvigorate the existing buildings without expensive architectural overhaul.”
Gregory says he was inspired by native Wisconsin painter Georgia O’Keeffe. “The illumination programs strive for the soft blending of light and color combinations often found in O’Keeffe’s gorgeous paintings of flowers,” he says. “It is really a celebration of the beauty found in nature.”
This makes no sense. The spectacular achievement of late modernism was to make art that could finally stand on its own, without any reference to nature. The beauty of Weese’s architectural forms was that they didn’t need a color or theme.
Gregory’s scheme called “Petunia” was inspired by O’Keeffe’s Petunia No. 2 from 1924. Her painting is mostly light steel blue and orchid violet, which are grayed out and quietly luminescent. His “Petunia” lighting is also blue and violet, but looks like a plaid madras shirt on acid. Gregory’s “Autumn Leaves,” inspired by Wisconsin’s autumn colors, is orange. His “Ice” is blue and purple, after Arctic glaciers. Gregory’s colors are reductive and merely assert one color or another. He’s the commercial sign painter’s version of O’Keeffe.
The O’Keeffe connection was probably part of the sales pitch for the project, and was swallowed whole by patrons and the press. New rule: Don’t let anyone from New York, where O’Keeffe made her best paintings, make her into some sort of Wisconsin icon. She left this state in her teens and never looked back. The connection between O’Keeffe and Wisconsin can be found in crossword puzzles rather than art history.
I haven’t seen all 16 “light paintings,” but it’s obvious that some schemes are better than others. Less colors and darker hues are better. When the Marcus Center is mostly dark blue, the building is beautiful and melts into the night.
Lighter tones, though, look mottled. And when the volumes are different colors, the architecture of both the building and the lighting scheme are trivialized. The Marcus Center decomposes.
Gregory would have been better off without all the references. Maybe there is some whimsy in going from “Miami” to “Florence” to “Santorini” (Greece) in half an hour. We become a perpetual tourist in our own city. But would we choose to live with these colors?
Of course, the great virtue of LEDs is that anything can be tweaked on the computer. Think of the Gregory light paintings as a first draft. The less successful ones can be discarded. When technology creates a new medium, you start out with the cheap tricks and then figure out the refinements later.
But will those refinements be better? Mathews has boasted that the new lights can be “aesthetically turned … to coincide with performances, holidays and other special occasions.” Why not color code everything, everywhere, all the time?
One night, I saw the letters MSO projected on the Marcus Center during a symphony concert. Next, someone will have the bright idea to project the sponsors onto the building. So far, the Marcus Center promises to hold the line, but when revenue runs short, a building that has already sold its name might be induced to sell some of its color rights. As the original creator soon discovered, a newly illuminated world is filled with temptations.