Rainbow bridge

Linda G. Miller / June 06, 2007

Glasgow’s fish must think they are having an acid flashback. Looking up from their watery habitat in the River Clyde at the Kingston Bridge, they are presented with a kaleidoscopic array of blues, reds, greens and more.

Actually, the lights playing on the Kingston Bridge are the artwork of Leni Schwendinger, a New York-based lighting designer and public artist.

At the start of the 21st century, the city council of Glasgow had wondrous plans for the Kingston Bridge. It was to become part of the Glasgow: City of Light initiative that began in 2002 as an art commission. As part of the city’s urban planning program, the council advocates a coordinated lighting program featuring lighting as a form of art. The Kingston Bridge joined a long list of prominent bridges, buildings and monuments that also have been illuminated.

When Schwendinger, who won the commission to illuminate the bridge, first saw the Kingston her immediate thoughts were . . . “slim and graceful in the sunset, but upon closer inspection—an awkwardly finished and proportioned, brutal design.”

The Kingston Bridge, completed in 1969, is one of 19 bridges that span the River Clyde in Glasgow, Scotland. It is composed of two independent parallel carriageways, each one carrying five lanes of traffic. Engineered by W.A. Fairhurst & Partners and constructed of prestressed concrete, the bridge was erected using the free-cantilever method and has a central span of 470 ft. The M8 Motorway, connecting Edinburgh to the Glasgow City Centre, crosses the river via the bridge, making it one of the most heavily trafficked stretches in the U.K., if not the continent of Europe. The bridge was designed to handle 20,000 vehicles daily, not up to 150,000, which is what it experienced in the late 1980s, when commuters were plagued with traffic jams. Structural defects were discovered in 1990. Repairs concluded in 2003, making the bridge structurally sound.

The Kingston Bridge Lighting Art Project is a collaborative venture between the Glasgow city council (involving the council departments of Development and Regeneration Services and Land Services) and Leni Schwendinger Light Projects Ltd. in association with JM Architects, Glasgow and consulting engineer Mott MacDonald. The contractors for the project were Northern Light and James Young Ltd.

Schwendinger has been praised for her ability to fuse light and art. Her credits include “Dreaming in Color,” an installation in the Seattle Center Opera House, and most recently, the Coney Island Parachute Jump.

Light your place

Knowing that Glaswegians like their public art to not only delight the eye but also serve another purpose, Schwendinger sought a way to acknowledge the bridge’s place in the life of the city.

“I walked around looking for the beauty, something grand, something unique,” she said. “I saw the slot between the dual carriageway—open to the sky’s light. The concrete undersides were breathtaking. I decided the canvas for light was under the bridge and reflected in the water.” There is a saying: The Clyde made Glasgow, but Glasgow made the Clyde. Signs of the once-active shipping and shipbuilding business are still evident, but those derelict areas along the river are being regenerated by the Glasgow city council and partners in the public and private sectors into offices, hotels, homes and attractions. But some things never change—like the way the tides ebb and flow, and that piqued Schwendinger’s interest.

A discussion with traffic engineer and transportation planner Sam Schwartz, P.E., known to New Yorkers as “Gridlock Sam,” gave her other ideas. She learned that traffic flow has been codified into levels of service composed of speed and volume. A constant, clear-moving roadway is an “A” while the worst level, a traffic jam, is an “F.” This primer in traffic gave her an insight into traffic patterns and the idea that they could be translated into patterns of light. According to Schwartz, “Bridges frame a city, and an illuminated bridge is a welcoming sight. Having color patterns of light indicate the level of service on the bridge gives a sense of rhythm to the flow of traffic and gives a visual signal to drivers to either cross or avoid the bridge.”

A splash of color

Chroma Streams: Tide and Traffic, as Schwendinger’s work is called, reinterprets the daily, predictable tidal currents of the river and the sometimes-unpredictable traffic patterns on the bridge and presents the information in a montage of color. Sensors are installed on streetlight standards located on the inbound and outbound lanes of the bridge, and the data collected is transmitted every minute to a lighting control board and downloaded into a computer program.

On the banks of the river stand two stainless steel standards, approximately 6 meters high. These sculptural armatures, designed in collaboration with Ian Alexander of the Scottish firm JM Architects, contain high-tech lighting fixtures and are influenced in part by a curvilinear tidal graph drawn by William Thomson, first Baron of Kelvin (1824-1907), a noted Scottish physicist and mathematician.

Schwendinger selected a palette of six colors to represent traffic levels A through F. Colors representing traffic are located in the warm end of the spectrum, starting with a clear yellow for traffic flowing at a normal pace to a strong red/pink signifying a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam. The color palette selected to interpret the cycle of the river was based on the cool end of the spectrum, ranging from pale green to indigo blue.

“My refined palette selection and highly orchestrated programming allows for 144 sequences of unique color mixes,” said Schwendinger. Using the underside of the two parallel concrete arcs of the bridge and its riverine reflection below as her canvas, Schwendinger created an illuminated interpretation of the ebb and flow of the river and the traffic above.

Chroma Streams: Tide and Traffic had its premiere on July 4, 2005, a glowing jewel in Glasgow’s showcase of illuminated sites. The following November the project took center stage at Radiance 05, the city of Glasgow’s festival of light.

“It is our hope that the lighting for the bridge will reveal the heroic qualities of this bridge,” said Alexander, “and allow onlookers to reappraise such a significant structure in the center of Glasgow.”

About the Author

Miller is a freelance writer in New York City and is a frequent contributor to Oculus, the magazine of the AIA New York Chapter. She can be reached at [email protected]

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