FutureStructure

San Jose, Calif., Unveils Underpass Lighting That Can ‘Sense You’

Sensors built in to highway underpasses will be able to pick up on clues from how fast you are moving to how loud you may be talking on the phone to illuminate the path.

by David E. Early, San Jose Mercury News / December 11, 2015

(TNS) -- From now on, walking into or out of downtown along Santa Clara Street will no longer be some somber shuffling affair underneath a dingy freeway. Now, anyone walking or biking through that concrete cave will be accompanied by a riot of spinning, blinking, pulsing lights all reacting to whatever human traffic is present.

As hopeful Sharks fans head to the SAP Center, the lights on the ceiling under the four lane underpass might throb with a titillating teal. A solitary soul might get spirit-lifting circular visuals while a feuding couple might inspire some version of thunder and lightning.

Or not.

While the lights don't actually read emotions, they could -- by chance -- portray a perfect match as anyone (not in a motor vehicle) goes under sensors and set the overhead lights a-blazing. Caltrans insisted that the blinkers do not include "traffic" light colors yellow, red and green.

"There are up to 35 different light reactions," said visual artist Dan Corson, the creator behind "Sensing You," -- the loved and hated public art display that officially opens Friday night. "The ceiling becomes animated and filled with patterns of light and movement. They are the same patterns happening in technology as we move through space."

The Guadalupe Freeway presentation is a companion piece to "Sensing Water," a block away -- still under Hwy. 87 -- on San Fernando Street. That one, also by Corson, lights up a broad, slanted painted surface that conjures up the contemplative state of water.

Both projects are part of a city inspiration called "Illuminating Downtown," and on Friday, a number of light demonstrations will be open to the public. The newer works, financed by a $600,000 grant from ArtPlace America, are part of an ongoing effort to use art to make the city more presentable, interesting and inviting.

"We got together with people in business, art, architecture and design to think about how art might change our downtown," said Jennifer Easton, San Jose's director of public art, "and light -- both daytime and night -- came to mind."

Easton said the Santa Clara Street "gateway became a focal point as the place to make people feel safe and excited about coming into town." Soon, another connection will be made to the lights through the use of cellphones that will make the underside of the Guadalupe Freeway boogie in an entirely different way.

"Sensing You" is really a visual representation of high tech connections," said Corson," that surround us in Silicon Valley."

Not "Doughnuts"

For months, the prep work accompanying the public art has been the subject of reactions ranging from giddy anticipation to absolute abhorrence.

"I ride through here every day," groused Mike Ames, zooming on a handicap scooter under the looming freeway, "and I have to see nothing but endless, blue circles."

Ames was referring to what looks like dozens upon dozens of floating, huge, blue doughnuts, painted on the underside ceiling and concrete pillars, making amateur art critics pout for months.

"I can't decide if they're doughnuts or tires," said Ames, who also complained about the constant presence of machinery that have been making his speedy, scooter passages more tricky. "I say those round, blue things are just ugly as hell. Personally I'd prefer triangles."

Corson, 51, a Seattle-based, public artist for more than 20 years, comically seethes when he warns, "don't call them blue doughnuts." Public artists can't be "divas," he explained and they also need to be tough-minded. Then, grinning slyly, he said, "I am both a diva and thick-skinned."

To Corson the blue circles are "auras" or "halos" -- perfect partners in his "celebration" of the advent of LED technology. "It has transformed how we see light nowadays and that is very exciting. This whole project is done with fiber optics transmitting the data from each fixtures to another."

Troubleshooting

With the grand opening slated for Friday, Corson spent the last few weeks intensely tackling and hopefully solving a number of nagging, last-minute problems ranging from graffiti attacks to electrical shortcomings. Late on Wednesday evening, only three of the four overpass sections were lit with LEDs, a situation that would ruin the entire presentation. According to electrician and project manager SteveGuyton one thick, slab of overhead concrete did not contain the required amount of voltage.

By Thursday, however, some adjustments had been made to move some needed power and the entire ceiling seemed ready for what is expected to be a gargantuan gathering of gawkers. Only after the whole thing gets up and running will viewers be able to finally decide if they actually love or hate the mildly controversial project.

Easton says Corson's idea was chosen because the city is drawn to public art that helps San Jose stand out. "The Arch in St. Louis, the Golden Gate Bridge, the murals in Los Angeles," she said of magnetic icons. "Cultural tourism brings in more people and dollars than professional sports."

And as for criticism of the project even before its completion, Easton was philosophical: "No one is going to love everything you do. Some like abstracts, others go for boinking lights, running in circles. When it comes to public art, if everyone likes everything you do, then you are not trying hard enough to be creative in your choices."

San Jose Illuminated Artworks open Friday night:

  • Sensing You -- under Hwy. 87 on Santa Clara St.
  • Sensing Water -- under Hwy. 87 on San Fernando St.
  • San Carlos Lantern Relay-- Market and 4th Streets
  • Show Your Stripes -- the 88 residential tower at 2nd and San Fernando Streets.
  • San Jose Semaphore -- top of Adobe Almaden Tower
  • Urban Screen -- south facade of 300 S. 1st Street.
    For more on public art: www.sanjoseculture.org

©2015 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.