Downtown View Let There Be Light

It has been 135 years since Thomas Edison patented his first incandescent light bulb.

Such an inventive guy would be delighted with what is taking place in urban lighting as incandescent bulbs are phased out. And phasing out incandescent lighting is not a Communist plot, as some would have it.

Technology has been moving so fast that fluorescent bulbs, which were supposed to replace incandescents, now look as if they will soon be outdated too. Light-emitting diodes are the most familiar replacements. LEDs and even more obscure technological systems promise to reduce energy use and costs.

Lighting advocates—there are such people—are excited about lighting’s new possibilities and are hoping for a new appreciation for it. But Boston might be behind other cities.

Boston has its iconic lighting—think ever-burning gas lamps on Beacon Hill and in parts of Charlestown—that few residents are willing to forsake. It has street and sidewalk lighting, some good, some bad. We have lights that help us find our way at night.

We also have some lighting installed over the past 20 years that celebrates the architecture of a building, a bridge or a monument.

The Zakim Bunker Hill Bridge is lit in such a manner. So are many houses of worship through Historic Boston’s Steeples Project, which restores and repairs churches and provides funds for lighting them.

Light Boston, a group devoted to lighting this city in order to foster night time activity and enhance Boston’s beauty, has been another lighting advocate, helping to spotlight such varied structures as the Old State House, the Chinatown gate, and the George Washington statue in the Public Garden.

Light Boston and another organization, ShiftBoston, are interested in extending lighting in Boston toward even more pleasurable ends, transforming a commonplace structure into a work of art and or being that work of art itself.

European cities have been using lights in such a way. Even Providence has its annual seven-month river extravaganza on selected Saturday nights called WaterFire, using the traditional technology of wood-fueld bonfires.

But no one has done artful lighting better than San Francisco. Light Boston sponsored a talk by Ben Davis, a prime mover behind the high-tech light show on the western span of the Bay Bridge that connects Oakland with San Francisco. “It’s not about lighting a bridge,” he said. “This is about art. That’s different.”

Ben, son of the late Dave Davis, an executive director of MassPort, grew up in the South End, but now lives in San Francisco. The Bay Lights, 25,000 of them flickering in computerized movement, cost $8 million to make and install, but only $30 to power each night from dusk until 2 a.m.

The Bay Bridge was the perfect setting for an illuminating work of art, since it is little valued for its appearance, Davis said. Its engineering was hailed when it opened in 1936, but six months later the mesmerizing Golden Gate bridge opened, and the Bay Bridge was relegated to workhorse status.

The Bay Lights opened in March. They will be removed in two years so the bridge can be painted.

Not all attendees at Davis’s presentation were Light Boston members, but they were all Bostonians. They expressed a certain amount of pessimism about whether such art could be successful in Boston. One person said that possibilities were “constrained” in this city. He predicted that agencies might not be as cooperative as they were in San Francisco.

And one dreamy project hasn’t worked out. ShiftBoston and Light Boston sponsored a competition, Glow, to design a light sculpture in Copley Square. The winning entry, “Crystal Sun,” sought to bring the beauty of the Copley Plaza Hotel’s ballroom chandeliers into the square itself, said Light Boston president Diane Georgopulos. It’s beautiful even on a computer screen. Go to to see it.

But there have been barriers. The cost was more than $2 million and “people are good at saying no,” said Georgopulos.

Moreover, the Friends of Copley Square misunderstood the purpose of the lighting competition, said the group’s vice president, Fritz Casselman. They were under the impression that the winner would be lighting paths and dark corners, making the park safer and more inviting at night.

That’s a common problem in lighting projects—being clear about what the lighting is for.

But a few things are clear. Public art in Boston has recently been pretty much neglected. And lighting will be increasingly part of dramatic and beloved public art, as the Bay Lights show.

Public art isn’t only about art. It is also about money. Davis estimates the Bay Lights will bring $97 million to the Bay Area’s economy. Diane Georgopulos has dreams that include both art and enhancing Boston structures. She envisions lighting every bridge over the Charles as well as other project like Glow. She points to the success of the MFA, the Gardner Museum and the Peabody Essex in raising money as examples of Bostonians opening their wallets.

With a renewed emphasis on public art, she hopes for good lighting everywhere. Davis thinks its possible too. “Money tends to flow to what is valued,” said Davis.

Karen Cord Taylor is a newspaperwoman who now works from her home. Past columns are posted on You can reach Karen at [email protected]

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