A few years ago, watching pedestrians walk past drab walls under a downtown freeway, some creative minds in Sacramento latched onto a bright idea that has become an artistic movement.
Lighting experts are turning buildings, bridges and underpasses around town into canvasses for dynamic civic light art, ranging from riverlike waterfalls to dancing lights that mimic the aurora borealis.
“It’s using light as a paintbrush,” lighting designer Michael Sestak said.
Working for a developer client, Sestak installed a multihued light show under a railroad crossing last fall at the entrance to the new McKinley Village housing project. He also designed a lighting system that highlights the elegant contours of The Barn event center on the Sacramento River in West Sacramento.
In the case of McKinley Village, the lighting offers way-finding and a bit of promotion, Sestak said: “This is the front door. Come see.” At The Barn, a Friday night outdoor party site that might otherwise be hard to find, the uplighting makes it visible from across the river or on Tower Bridge a half-mile away.
Other light displays serve safety functions. City officials say the “northern lights” in the K Street pedestrian tunnel to Old Sacramento push light into the tunnel’s corners, making the passage safer, as well as sending the message that strollers are about to enter an enjoyable district.
Some of the lighting simply spotlights a dramatic building, like Sestak’s work on the historic governor’s mansion in midtown that otherwise would disappear from the visual landscape at night.
The movement reflects a city that wants to encourage nightlife. Night light shows in cities around the globe have become more common with the arrival of LED lighting technology, which is less expensive and can be choreographed using computer programming and Wi-Fi.
The most recent light show in Sacramento popped up three weeks ago on the pedestrian bridge spanning the rail tracks between Sacramento City College and the Curtis Park area.
A series of red and gold lights – city college colors – bathe the span’s arched iron trusses, making it viewable like a glow stick from a distance.
The bridge’s light show will be changeable, city officials say. The lights may shine pink during cancer awareness week; red, white and blue on the Fourth of July; or twinkling white during the winter holidays.
The man behind that display and several others around town is Sompol Chatusripitak, a city electrical engineer who has begun to moonlight as the city’s civic light-as-art specialist.
Jerry Way, his former boss, is impressed with Chatusripitak’s technical and artistic skills.
“He is to lighting what Herbie Hancock is to music,” Way said.
Way, who is currently working as an assistant to City Manager Howard Chan, said the cost of doing LED displays on city projects is minimal because Chatusripitak’s in-house talent means the city doesn’t have to pay an outside artist.
Chatusripitak once wanted to be an architect and artist, and does watercolor painting as a hobby. A few years ago he and others got the idea of enlivening the Interstate 5 overpass at Richards Boulevard with some type of special lighting. He created a cascading blue and green waterfall effect on the concrete walls, outdoing city officials’ expectations and ending up with a piece of public art.
A few years later, the city called on him to come up with what he calls an aurora borealis lighting effect at one end of the K Street tunnel headed to Old Sacramento.
“Instead of drab infrastructure, the city has been interested in making our projects a part of the community, to make the city as livable as possible,” Chatusripitak said.
He’s excited and a little surprised to be able to do something more creative in his job. “I’m just a dumb engineer who would like to make things more interesting for our customers,” he said.
Chatusripitak says he would like to do some lighting, if his bosses allow, along 12th and 16th streets, where they dip under the rail crossing heading in and out of midtown.
Another group is exploring the possibility of adding similar changeable lighting to the Tower Bridge.
Sestak said he has his eye on two yet-to-be-built bridges, one the city plans to build from the downtown railyard development to West Sacramento and another between the two cities at Broadway. In both cases, Sestak says, the cities should incorporate dramatic lighting early in the planning process.
Ultimately, light shows across the city can be choreographed, all of them going pink during cancer awareness week, or purple, say, on opening night of the Kings basketball season.
“It celebrates civic pride,” Sestak said. “The possibilities are endless.”