I just love the Portland Winter Light Festival. Last weekend brought the third iteration of the event, and it was abundantly clear that I'm not alone in my affections. Note to self: don't go on Saturday night next year! There were so many thousands of people attending the fest, particularly the portions near OMSI, that it made filtering out of 60,000-seat Autzen Stadium on a college football Saturday seem like a ghost town by comparison. I've never seen the riverfront so packed in my 20 years in Portland.
As always, this year's Winter Light Festival was an eclectic mix of works by artists and designers, but since this is an architecture blog, I decided to talk with two architecture firms who designed installations I happen to visit: Hacker Architects and Fieldwork Design & Architecture.
Hacker's design, called "Actias Luna," was a curvy tent-like structure with the shape of what one attendee told Hacker's Jonah Cohen resembled a failed bundt cake. There was a fog machine in the middle and the installation was lit from within, so entering Actias Luna amounted to a brief blur of light and color. But describing the components doesn't do it justice. What's so lovely about the Portland Winter Light Festival is how the exhibits create a little bit of magic. Using a few rudimentary materials they create a brief experience that's all about delight.
"We talked in our first couple meetings about creating an immersive color experience," explains Hacker's Thomas Adamson. "We wanted you to be able to walk into the color blue. We tried to create a mysterious, whimsical experience of being immersed in color." At the same time, he added, the fabric structure curves downward to sort of force people to scrunch. "We wanted to make a challenging space," he said. "The lower side was intended to make people duck and explore it. What surprised me was people went straight to the low part."
Adamson as well as his Hacker colleagues Jonah Cohen and Daniel Childs also enjoyed relaying some of the different reactions they witnessed. "This old couple came out and the husband said to his wife, 'We’re going to get rid of the canopy next to the RV and put up this,'" Cohen recalled. "But the kids were the best because they got into the delight. Especially the fog: how it ebbed and flowed. Sometimes you couldn’t see. You never knew as you went in."
Some adults, as Childs remembers, were harder to convince. "Some were saying, ‘There was nothing in there," he said. "But I also heard someone call it a magical cave. I remember watching this group of teenage girls in there for a half-hour, shooting each other with cameras. The inside was this ethereal, calming experience, like the backdrop of a music video. The colors would wash you from either side, and the fabric made this soft light. The fog sort of calmed everything, but the colors were so vibrant that it lit people’s faces in a neat way."
What's also part of the experience for participating architects and artists is the collaborations that ensue to make the installations and exhibits a reality. "When they got into the whole fabric tension structure, I got nervous. I know how complicated they are," Cohen confessed. "My daughter volunteers at Pickathon and knew the people at GuildWorks. They do these amazing tensile fabric structures. GuildWorks does stuff all over the world. I called up the owner and told him about what we were going to do. After listing to it, the owner, Marc Ricketts, said, 'I’m in.' We just collaborated. We had so much fun. We went out to their shop to look at computer models that look at the forces on the fabric. They could tell me what size PVC pipes we needed to bend properly."
Cohen is also a board member of the Willamette Light Brigade, the organization that now puts on the Winter Light Festival. (The original idea came from Portland State University associate professor Jeff Schnabel, and the artistic director is Chris Herring.) He made a good point about the ongoing funding challenge the event faces. "We’ve been patching this thing together for three years. It’s been a lot of passion and love. We’ve gotten some sponsorship but not nearly enough," he explained. "One thing I’m focused on with next year is to say, 'We’ve proven the viability of this—that people want it, that it will bring out huge crowds—but it’s at a critical point now in terms of viability and financial support.' We think the economic stimulus this brought was pretty big. Our exhibit alone I think we counted maybe 10,000 people who came through over three days. We’re working with Travel Portland and the city to say, ‘Okay, you’ve seen what we can do. We want to take it to a new level of financial viability.’"
In addition to Hacker, I also talked to Fieldwork Design & Architecture, which designed the interactive installation "Lightfall" in cooperation with Solus, Inc. "The hands-on experience is exciting: to actually make something we started drawing, and finding out all the crazy stuff about how it goes together," Fieldwork's Matthew Rusnac told me.
As it happens, the one other time I've interviewed Rusnac, back when he worked at Holst Architecture, it was also for the design of a tiny project lying outside the normal building industry: Rusnac and Holst designed my favorite of the Partners On Dwelling initiative (better known as PODs), which last year saw a host of local architects design and build a series of tiny dwellings for the homeless, which is now located in the Kenton neighborhood. I asked Rusnac if he saw any or many similarities between the POD project and creating for the Winter Light Festival. "The POD definitely demands a lot more in terms of usability, in details like making sure it’s insulated, fire resistant. In that way it’s quite a bit different," he explained. This installation was more flexible, more exciting in a different way."
"Lightfall" was similar to an exhibit or two I've visited at past Portland Winter Light Festivals, wherein people pass through a space that combines light and hanging streams of material. Lights are changing colors and music is blaring, but as with Hacker's "Actias Luna," the experience was greater than the sum of its parts.
"As we approached the problem, a lot of it with a light installation is how to make light itself tactile, and how to make this a sensory experience. A lot of installations can become too interactive and it begins to fail over a festival, or some other exhibits don’t have a lot of interactivity. We wanted to have a human experience, where people could interact with it, and something that wasn’t too technical," Fieldwork's Caleb Couch explained. "With the strings themselves, they almost have a water-like nature to them. There’s a mass that responds as you touch them. From there, it was just the simple component of placing the LEDs and programming those. That’s that secondary response: it’s a cool blue, this object in space. As you enter in and discover that center piece, it becomes alive. It’s a kind of discovery experience."
As for the hanging material itself, Couch explained that it's a product called Paracord. "It’s used with backpacking or camping. It was a bit of a search," he said. "At first we thought it would be a quarter-inch rope, and it was fairly expensive. We needed thousands of feet of it. We ended up with the Paracord and that wound up working well: the weight of it. It kind of swayed nice in the wind."
The installation was designed to change colors, offering a kind of rainbow experience on a loop. "There’s a base plate that sits in the middle. It’s designed to be concealed," Couch said. "But as you step onto it, it triggers a mother board on the roof structure. Solace helped us program the lights, the rainbow. It would switch from magenta to blue to all of the colors." There was just one problem. "Once there became a few lines, people weren’t stopping to let the program reset." I do confess that I did not experience a rainbow. But the installation did change colors a few times while I was waiting in line and during the 30 seconds or so spent passing through. Even that was more than enough to create that sense of delight. "Lightfall" was about passing through a bright space and the hanging material: becoming just slightly disoriented enough for it to feel like a kind of gentle sensory ride.
I asked Couch and Rusnac one thing I neglected to ask the gang from Hacker: how, if at all, participating in the Light Festival was helpful or educational as it relates to their everyday architecture work for their firms. "It’s kind of a good exercise: taking light, which is so primary in architecture, and seeing what we can do with it," Rusnac said.
Couch was even more specific. "I’m working on a project right now that uses the same acrylic material, for a neurology clinic. Being able to work on it for the Light Festival gave me a better understanding of the material than I had before," he explained. "It’s helping me a lot in terms of knowing how to detail it."
Even so, none of these architects and designers are participating in the Portland Winter Light Festival for practical experience, at least not first and foremost. Instead, I think it goes back to the notion that designers, while as creative as artists, are more focused on serving others, which this experience brings out. "In the modern era of architecture, it can become very ego driven rather than for people who occupy the space," Couch said. "To see little kids run through it and enjoy it, that’s what I found the most exciting."
Of course these were only two out of many, many fun exhibits at the Light Festival, which has now spread to numerous locations (or "hubs") across the city. I got a kick out of "Flamethrower Chandelier" by Ryan Ramage, which allowed one to (as its name suggests) pull a string and see a surprisingly large amount of fire burst out of what looked like a chandelier. Not far away I watched people enjoy "Light Chimes" by Sticky Co. + Little Hexes, which featured a series of circular light chimes activated by human movement. Downtown at a hub in the World Trade Center plaza I found the glowing light sculpture "Stoicheia" by Lilli Szafranski and Jesse Banks to be graphically compelling and beautiful. And that's to say nothing of the hubs on the Park Blocks, Cathedral Park and the Rose Quarter that I unfortunately missed.
Even so, what a wonderful little experience this festival is. During the darkest time of the year, and during a very dark time in our national history, this is a citywide experience that puts a smile on one's face and demonstrates how just a few simple design moves can illicit a feeling: one of kinetics, or surprise, or maybe even a bit of magic.