• 02.11.13

San Francisco’s Bay Bridge Is About To Become The World’s Largest Light Sculpture

The project, called Bay Lights, involves 25,000 LEDs that will flash out a pattern that won’t repeat for two years.

San Francisco’s Bay Bridge Is About To Become The World’s Largest Light Sculpture

San Francisco’s Bay Bridge is the dollar store version of the famed Golden Gate Bridge: it’s a bridge that transports cars, sure, but it’s less attractive and prone to breaking at inopportune times, like in the middle of earthquakes and occasionally just for no reason. Before the Bay Bridge closes down this summer for final touches on the new, safer eastern span, the bridge is getting gussied up by artist Leo Villareal, who is individually programming 25,000 white LED lights to generate an endless series of sparkling patterns across the structure.


When the $8 million Bay Lights installation flips on in March, Villareal’s laptop-controlled algorithms will be the focal point of the bridge. Each light is controlled individually; no single pattern will repeat for the entire two-year lifespan of the project.

The idea for the Bay Lights, which will be the world’s largest light sculpture upon its completion in March, came from Ben Davis of communications firm Words Pictures Ideas (the firm works with local transit agency Caltrans). Davis wanted to celebrate the bridge’s 75th anniversary back in 2011 with something that would make it shine in comparison to the naturally beautiful Golden Gate Bridge. A friend tipped him off to Villareal’s work with light sculptures–his most famous project is the Multiverse LED light sculpture at the National Gallery of Art in Washington–and Davis was in.

“I got a request from Ben to create a simulation of my dream project on the Bay Bridge,” says Villareal. “I created a one-minute animation not really knowing if that would ever happen or not. I do a lot of proposals and simulations of things. It ended up working out, and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe they’ll let us do this.'”

The Bay Lights construction process was grueling, Electricians spent months carefully installing the LEDs on vertical suspender cables connected to the 1.8-mile suspension bridge that goes between Treasure Island and San Francisco (the under-construction section of the bridge isn’t part of the display) while attached to harnesses.

A big sticking point for Villareal was not distracting drivers. So the lights will only shine between dusk and midnight, and they won’t be seen by people driving across the bridge–though the lights will be visible to anyone passing under the structure.

And as for that electricity bill? It will cost $11,000 annually, all privately funded (and according to one prediction, will bring in nearly $100 million to the local economy).

While Villareal is constantly working on algorithms, he doesn’t know what the project will look like until it goes live. “A lot of the process is discovery and chance. I may not know in advance what’s going to happen, I may have to wait for the moment until something compelling occurs. I’m selecting moments, refining moments through software, displayed in the end in a random order, a random time,” he says. “Having a sense of that discovery and allowing it to reveal itself is one of the most exciting parts of the piece.”


Bay Lights goes live on March 5.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.