Let There Be Lights: Phoenix Park Bridge Display Ready to Shine

Tom Giffey, photos by Tom Giffey

GREEN SCENE. Passersby admire the newly installed LED lights on the Phoenix Park pedestrian bridge. The 172 computer-controlled fixtures are capable of producing 252 million colors. The lights will be officially unveiled in a public performance at 7pm Thursday, Oct. 12. After that, they’ll be illuminated nightly.
GREEN SCENE. Passersby admire the newly installed LED lights on the Phoenix Park pedestrian bridge. The 172 computer-controlled fixtures are capable of producing 252 million colors. The lights will be officially unveiled in a public performance at 7pm Thursday, Oct. 12. After that, they’ll be illuminated nightly.

For a split second, the pedestrian bridge in Phoenix Park went dark, and a handful of people crossing it shouted in confusion. In a dazzling moment, their dismay turned to wonder as the bridge was bathed in gradually shifting color – from emerald to sky blue to indigo and beyond – as 172 computer-controlled LED fixtures turned the 526-foot bridge across the Chippewa River into a massive light sculpture. It was after 8pm on a Wednesday evening in late September, but there were still a handful of passersby in the park, and many of them paused to admire and snap cellphone pictures of the colorful display orchestrated by lighting designer Jason Jon Anderson with the help of a laptop computer.

“This is another great example of campus, community, and private  dollars working together to do something great.” – Jason Jon Anderson, lighting designer, on the Phoenix Park bridge lighting

It was only a small taste of the capabilities of the new lights, which were installed on the converted railroad bridge over the summer as part of a $400,000 donor-funded effort. The project – officially known as The River Lights at Phoenix Park – will be officially unveiled at 7pm Thursday, Oct. 12, with a public performance that will show some (but not all) of the array’s capabilities. After that, the lights will be active each day between half an hour after sunset and 11pm. They’ll turn back on at 5am until sunrise for an early-morning display.

“If you think of this as a light sculpture, the light can move in various ways,” explained Anderson, who among other things services as production director for the Eaux Claires Music & Arts Festival and production manager for Bon Iver. Colors can ripple from one end of the bridge to the other; it can loop around the bridge; it can pulse in time to music. Each fixture includes red, blue, green, and amber lights, and can be programmed to create a mind-boggling 252 million color options. Essentially, the limits of what can be done with this light sculpture are the limits of an artistic programmer’s imagination.

And the emphasis here is on artistry. This is not a gaudy, casino-style display. The light is directed at the structure of the bridge itself, bringing out the character of the century-old steel beams and the huge concrete piers that hold it up. The light dances on the rippling water below, drawing attention to its ever-changing character. Even during a simple demonstration of the lights’ capabilities, the effect is mesmerizing.

The project is a joint effort by the Rotary Club of Eau Claire, Downtown Eau Claire Inc., UW-Eau Claire, and the City of Eau Claire, as well as hundreds of donors large and small. “This is another great example of campus, community, and private dollars working together to do something great,” Anderson noted. Fundraising is ongoing to cover the final $60,000 of the project’s cost. Contractors from B&B Electric worked over the summer to install the lights, leading to frequent closure of the footbridge. Now that the work is complete, the bridge is again fully open.

“I was exceptionally nervous before we turned them on,” admitted Anderson, who is also assistant director of conferences and event production at UWEC. Because of the metal plates needed to attach the lights to the bridge’s beams, the fixtures are 8 to 9 inches from the bridge’s surface instead of the 6 inches originally planned. Thankfully, the change didn’t impact the quality of the light, he said.

Depending on where they are placed, the fixtures shine light horizontally, vertically, or at an angle along the steel beams. The project was designed to be “dark sky” friendly, meaning it minimizes wasteful light pollution. “There is no light on this project that physically goes into the sky,” Anderson explained.

Images: Jason Jon Anderson
Images: Jason Jon Anderson

Programming the lights isn’t a simple process: It takes about an hour of coding per minute of performance, and Anderson is the only one punching the keys for now. However, he’ll be teaching a theatrical lighting course at UWEC in the spring semester, instructing students how to use the software that controls the lights. Eventually, students will be running the show. In fact, after next year they’ll be able to look upriver from the now-under-construction Confluence Arts Center to see their imagination brought to life. While architectural lighting design is a growing field, it’s never been a specific academic discipline anywhere, Anderson said, which means that UWEC students will be getting a truly unique opportunity. Eventually, he envisions programmable lighting on the exterior of the Confluence Arts Center, in Haymarket Plaza, and on the proposed Haymarket bridge as well. He also hopes that if the city and its residents take a liking to the illuminated bridge they will consider installing similar lights on other bridges in Eau Claire.

Anderson expects the bridge to be synchronized with fireworks on Independence Day and New Year’s Eve. At other times, it could be illuminated in time to music or lit with particular colors or patterns on behalf of sponsors.

Whatever the display, Anderson advises the viewing public to look at the bridge from a variety of vantage points and distances. As with any work of art, this sculpture will give viewers a different impression based upon where they stand.

Ultimately, Anderson wants the community to take a shine to the lights, especially after not being able to bike or walk on the bridge for months. “All I hope is that people walk away and say the inconvenience was worth it,” he said.

If you want to learn more about the project or make a contribution, visit LightItUpEC.com

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