Transforming the Seattle Skyline: Columbia Center Lights Up the Dark

Posted November 25, 2015

ESI Design Transforms the Seattle Skyline with LED Lights and Experience Design

At ESI Design, our multi-disciplinary teams collaborate in the design of each experience. In today’s blog, two ESI Design team members, Leah Gotcsik, senior content designer, and Michael Luck Schneider, senior audio/visual technologist, talk about how they transformed the Seattle skyline with a new approach to lighting design for the 76-story Columbia Center.


Exterior Lighting: Seattle’s ‘Darth Vader’ Building Gets a Soul

LG: Even though Columbia Center is the tallest building in Seattle, it stood for decades like a black monolith, invisible on the skyline. Locals dubbed it the ‘Darth Vader’ building. We wanted to change that by giving the building a presence on the skyline and connecting it to the community in some way. We kept returning to the word “center” in the building’s name. How could this be a center, a meaningful and relevant focal point for the city? How could we bring the feeling of the city inside to activate the building?

MLS: Designing the lighting program to work as platform for the city to celebrate or highlight the time, weather and holidays or special events seemed like a natural fit. The building structure is really distinctive—three towers with curved façades, each reaching different heights. Focusing on these lines enabled us to use the lighting to work with and enhance the building.

LG: The result is a 21st century “town clock.” Special animations (i.e., changing patterns and pulses of light and color) run every hour on the hour. The color and animation of the lighting can be programmed to highlight special events such as holidays, sports games, festivals and causes.

MLS: The crown lights is also real-time responsive. Specific animations can be triggered from a mobile device so that the crown lighting immediately responds to, say, goals or touchdowns at the nearby stadiums, fireworks displays, or other real-life events.

LG: Not only does Columbia Center now stand as a new, expressive digital-age icon on the Seattle skyline, the new crown lights are even on Twitter. On any given day, Seattle residents and visitors can find out what the color program is by following @columbialights on Twitter. 


Prototyping: VJing at 61 Stories Up

MLS: The crown lighting was part of a broader design approach we prototyped, which included activating the curved walls on each tower with dynamic media. We created a full-scale prototype and fastened it across six stories (floors 55-61) using a window-washing unit. We also prototyped 25 feet of the crown lighting.

Using VJ (video jockey) software, VDMX, we were able to “VJ” the videos in real-time, sampling from a large library of videos to see what worked best on the building. During the final design and production phases, we worked closely with our production partners, Full Flood and 4Wall, to complete the final specifications of the crown lighting. AV&C created the custom software that interfaced the lighting controls.

LG: We did a lot of driving around in a minivan to so that we could view the building from different vantage points and distances, from one block to five miles away. This was invaluable for us. We realized that 1) we didn’t need as much brightness as we thought we would in order to reach our desired level of visual impact, and 2) when you keep parking behind a warehouse in the middle of the night, you’re going to meet some interesting people. People love it when they can ask for the tallest skyscraper in their town to turn purple and it does so on command.


Interior Lighting Installations: Bringing Light and Order to a Confusing Lobby

LG: Columbia Center’s main lobby is disorienting. It has three different elevator bays arranged in a triangular fashion, with different banks reaching different floors and a Sky Lobby that serves as the staging ground for floors 33 and above (though the Sky Lobby itself is on 40). As a result when you walk out of an elevator you can find yourself in a completely different place than you might have expected. At three points of this lobby, shafts connect to the three Atrium levels below. We wanted to create iconic installations for these spaces, to help orient tenants and visitors in the lobby and create an impact from the street, since you can see two of them through the double-height windows of the main entrance.

MLS: We wanted to create forms that flowed from above and continued down into the Atrium. We started with a few sketches exploring the repetition of a single geometric element. In the end, we decided that we wanted to work with lines of light that would shift in response to changes in the external environment. Each sculpture is distinct in shape, yet clearly of the same family in terms of color, light and overall form.


Prototyping: 3D Modeling Lines of Light

MLS: Using algorithmic modeling software, we created multiple iterations and landed on the design of three “Skylights” that worked together, but maintained their own identity. Meanwhile, we were prototyping the actual technology using various resolution LEDs, diffusion materials, and different shapes and sizes of fixture. After multiple iterations, we settled on our optimal design and then began to model the content.

We used a custom software package so we could view and manipulate different content on the 3D model of each Skylight.

LG: Since the exterior crown lighting pushes information out to the community outside, we thought it would be cool to have the Skylights share outside information to the community inside by visualizing real-time weather and astronomical data. One of the sculptures changes color based on visibility, another changes with the temperature and the third reflects the position of the sun and the phase of the moon. In addition to changing color, each sculpture has a set of animations that reflect other environmental factors, such as wind velocity or the arrival of solar noon. And just like the exterior lighting, they “chime” on the hour, with the number of lines of light illuminating to represent the hour.

MLS: Our final programming happened on-site when we could look at the real technology and make the final tweaks of color, speed, and size.

LG: Buildings in Seattle let people use their lobbies and even elevators as public thoroughfares. As a New Yorker, I will never get over that.

MLS: The after-work salmon BBQs on the 61st floor ledge were pretty great. Columbia Center has the best building management team EVER. Without them we never could have accomplished what we did.

Leah Gotcsik

Join The Conversation