Curtain Call

Dec. 1, 2005
LEDs light up Chicago’s theatre district

By Julie Eisele

As the curtain rose on the new Goodman Theatre, the emergence of a revived Theatre District in Chicago's North Loop was cued in brilliant lights.

The facility, on the corner of Dearborn and Randolph streets, is located adjacent to Daley Plaza. In the early 20th century, this area had been one of the liveliest theatre districts in the country. The new Goodman plays a leading role in the city’s ongoing plans to rejuvenate the theatre district.

Founded in 1925, the Goodman repertory company and staff had been housed in a building that was part of The Art Institute of Chicago. The theatre was located in a lakefront building behind the Institute, and its height was limited by city building restrictions. Over time, problems with poor acoustics and theatrical scenery limitations - related to the building’s height - became more pronounced. Theatre personnel also needed additional, updated office space.

In the late 1980s, Goodman officials decided to build a new theatre, forming a partnership with the city and Friedman Properties. In the fall of 2000, the $46 million theatre and office complex was finished and occupied.

“The Goodman Theatre is one of the oldest, longest lasting, non-profit theatres in the city of Chicago. They needed a new home and came to us, as a developer, and asked if we would be interested in a partnership,” says Albert Friedman, CEO of Friedman Properties, one of Chicago’s leading developers, which owns and manages more than 50 properties that encompass over 3 million square feet of space.

Lighting on Cue
The building’s exterior was spectacular, but Friedman was determined to create an added element of excitement, to draw attention from blocks away. “We wanted to make the whole block come alive,” he says. The result: a color-lit glass façade on the front side of the building, animated by a full-spectrum digital lighting program that broadcasts bold hues and color-changing effects. The rotunda alongside the building’s top floor is also rimmed with brilliant color.

LED technology is used on the building’s south face, home to leased office space that is part of the theatre complex. Nearly 200 Color Kinetics® ColorBlast® fixtures light up the façade’s 96 windows with a rich light show, while an additional 240 fixtures encircle the top of the rotunda.

Each window has two lighting fixtures set into window mullion lines, shining color from within the building onto custom-ordered Mecco roll-down shades that are lowered automatically according to preset controls within the building. The shades act as screens that let diffused sunlight into the office spaces during work hours: Office workers can see out, but bypassers cannot see in.

After hours, the shades become the screens for the light show, which produces patterns and surges of color on each shade as they combine to create the overall image. “Each window is like the pixel of a television,” says Brett Gardner of RGB Lights Inc., Chicago. “We tell each fixture what color to be, and whatever cue is programmed, that’s what plays back.” Gardner helped create the lighting program as an employee of Lightswitch Inc., Chicago, a lighting design company that creates programs for live events and architectural settings. He has since founded RGB and is still involved in helping maintain the Goodman’s program.

“The Goodman lighting project was a bold move by the owner. This was a flagship project,” says Rich Locklin, lead lighting designer for Lightswitch. Locklin spent more than a year researching and testing options before finalizing the program’s design. “LED lighting has worked great for this project.” LEDs have a longer lifespan than other lighting options - often up to 10 years - and are low maintenance, he adds.

The system operates a 15-minute animated lighting program that plays continuously from about 8 to 11 p.m., says Friedman. The lighting can also be synchronized with an audio track to create a colorful concerto. The lighting is operated using a Wholehog® lighting console, a control system manufactured by High End Systems, Austin, TX. The console is programmed to run lighting cues that are triggered by an electronic signal. New lighting programs can be written on a laptop and downloaded to the Wholehog console.

Seasonal programs are a regular feature. “We have a number of different programs for Christmas, New Years, [and] the Fourth of July. We can run any type of holiday program,” notes Friedman. “We theme-up the building for various special occasions,” adds Gardner. “The system is capable of doing low resolution graphics on a large scale.”

Shortly after 9/11, the building was illuminated with a patriotic theme. Some of the programs’ effects have included Chicago-based themes, a United States flag, a slithering snake, a rainbow, and a “pong” video game effect. Other effects include abstract designs, geometric figures, and waves of moving color.

Trailblazing Technology
And while LED technology has been fine-tuned in the last several years, the Goodman was a pioneering project in the realm of luminous architecture, drawing attention and inspiring others to consider similar lighting approaches.

“This was the first large-scale LED application for illumination in the United States that I know of,” says Kevin Dowling, vice president for Technology Advancement at Boston-based Color Kinetics, whose products include the ColorBlast product line. “This project has influenced architects and designers, who are giving new thought to what they can do with light. You will see other facades today that mimic or mirror the Goodman,” adds Dowling.

Locklin has also been involved in similar LED lighting projects in recent years. He says that resolution and color output have improved with time, and the use of LEDs for architectural lighting accents is growing in the United States and throughout the world. “We’re always looking for eye candy - some sort of extra appeal. LED lighting offers a new element that creates a unique difference,” says Locklin.

Recently, Gardner’s company worked on a 40-story building in the Middle East. “We see projects where entire buildings are awash in LEDs, or different areas are accented. It is popular because of the efficiency of the LEDs and the amount of pizzazz they can add to architectural structures. They add minimal operating costs and yet offer incredible flexibility,” Gardner says.

LEDs and the Bottom Line
The benefits of LEDs are numerous, lighting experts agree. LEDs are basically tiny light bulbs that fit into an electrical circuit. Unlike some other types of lighting, they contain no filament that will burn out - they are lit by the movement of electrons in a semiconductor material. They are durable and stand up well in extreme weather, and there is no flicker. Another attractive feature, notes Dowling, is that LEDs can beam a specific and intense color without the need for color filters that other lighting methods use.

Using red, green, and blue LEDs on a circuit board, lighting designers can program the colors to mix to create virtually any color - millions of colors - says Dowling. With LEDs, there is no need for dimmer packs, and LEDs typically last much longer than other forms of lighting. The life of an LED is measured in “years, not hours,” notes Locklin. While initial costs are higher than other lighting options, LEDs are more cost-effective in the long run because they last longer and use less energy than other lighting. They also generate almost no heat.

“When you are figuring engineering needs for the building - heating and cooling loads - it’s a plus to know that the heat load from LEDs is negligible,” says Locklin. That’s good news for building professionals who are interested in eco-friendly building products.

“If you have conventional lighting that draws high voltage and amerage, or LEDs that will draw low voltage and amperage, there is going to be a big savings in power use,” says Locklin. It can be difficult to accurately compare LED power use to other sources, but one example indicates that a standard, 50-bulb strand of holiday lights uses 25 watts, while a similar-sized LED strand would use 80 to 90 percent less electricity.

In the realm of architecture, LED lighting is used mainly for façade lighting and accent purposes, primarily in retail, museums, entertainment, and hotel settings. LEDs are also used for items like nightlights, display lighting, pathway illumination, task lighting, and exit signs. Because LEDs are a concentrated light source, the current technology does not offer good options for widespread ambient or primary lighting in an office or home setting, though that could change in coming years.

As for the Goodman, the response to the project has been glowing. Lightswitch received a design award from the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, New York. Furthermore, the Goodman has been designated as a stop for architectural tours in Chicago, and was featured in the book Architecture of the Night: The Illuminated Building.

“I wanted this building to have its own personality,” says Friedman. “Clearly, it does.”

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