Northern Lights: How 3 Cities Brightened Up the Long Winter Nights

Sheila Kim Sheila Kim

The über-creative cities of Montreal, Amsterdam and New York have no shortage of truly original eye-catching public-art installations, naturally. And when the holidays roll around, the cities’ special temporary installations become all about lighting up the night. While the three regions have just recently packed up their winter-season illuminated works, we revisit the innovative concepts they showcased and how each were executed.

Loop by Olivier Girouard, Jonathan Villeneuve, Ekumen, Ottoblix and Generique Design
For the seventh year, Montreal’s Luminothérapie dominated the city’s Quartier des spectacles (Entertainment District) with a light and sound celebration that invited pedestrians to interact with and, in a sense, control the main attraction. For the 2016 – 2017 edition, the winter festival presented Loop, an installation of 13 structures that took inspiration from the old-fashioned optical toy known as the zoetrope.

Photography by Ulysse Lemerise/OSA Images

Conceived by Olivier Girouard and Jonathan Villeneuve, and then produced by Generique Design, Ekumen and Ottoblix, Loop beckoned visitors to sit inside one of 13 wheels, grab hold of a bar lever reminiscent of railway handcars and then crank back and forth as in a rowing exercise machine to reveal illuminated, 20-second-long fairy-tale animations to both participants and passersby.

Neat trick, but how was it done? Generique Design’s Rebecca Murdock explains that the illustrations by Ottoblix (a different one for each Loop structure) were printed onto a vinyl ribbon that was then sandwiched between the walls of the cylinder. These walls were formed with laser-cut aluminum and stainless steel but replaced with tinted sheets of Makrolon polycarbonate in two places to act as windows onto the animations.

When visitors cranked the levers, a series of connected gears, chains, driving rollers and locking axles created the circular motion of the “film” and activated integrated LEDs by SoftBox to reveal the animation. The speed of the images — as well as the frequency of the light flicker and tempo of accompanying music — was determined by the participants as they controlled the lever. Meanwhile, each of the fairy-tale animations also had its moment to shine as large-scale video projections onto the façades of the district’s UQAM Pavillon President-Kennedy and Wilder Building Espace Danse.

Flatiron Sky-Line by LOT
New York City’s Flatiron District is world famous — and named — for its iconic wedge-shaped building at the intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street. So conceiving an attention-grabbing installation in the pedestrian plaza across from the 1902 landmark, originally called the Fuller Building, made for a tricky feat. In the end, the city’s Van Alen Institute organized a design competition on behalf of the Flatiron/23rd Street Partnership for a holiday season display, awarding the commission to LOT for its concept “Flatiron Sky-Line.”

Photography by Brian W. Ferry and LOT

This spatial installation consisted of tubular arches recreating the footprint of the Flatiron building’s trapezoidal galleria. Green LED Lighting Solutions’ LEDs lined the interior of the arches and were controlled using a Crestron system to gradually brighten as the sun went down.

In addition to the visual light spectacle, the arches invited passersby to linger and step into their suspended white-net hammocks by Bliss Hammocks.

Eye_Beacon Pavilion by UNStudio
The Amsterdam Light Festival, which just completed its fifth edition, illuminated the night for nearly two months with 35 installations by international artists, designers and architects. But even the festival’s info and ticketing booth was itself a work of light-art. For the 2016 – 2017 season, the info-booth pavilion was designed by UNStudio in partnership with MDT-tex.

Photography by Janus van den Eijnden, via

Dubbed Eye-Beacon Pavilion, the 230-square-meter [2,475-square-foot] installation drew inspiration from the festival theme of biomimicry, abstractly referencing deep-sea pulsating bioluminescence with focused LED projections from inside a tensile structure partially hanging over the river Amstel.

The structure comprised 250 tensile textile modules of varying dimensions that were meticulously calculated and fabricated to create the illusion of two cubic volumes connected at a twisting point.

UNStudio and MDT-tex designed the modules to attach leaving gaps that offered glimpses of the interior for passersby as well as a visually intriguing pattern from afar. Meanwhile, the LED projections by lighting manufacturer Zumtobel presented gradient color changes that shone through the textiles to produce a glowing lantern effect.

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