Art: A luminescent canopy
Wandering through downtown London, Ontario, where trendy restaurants alternate with boarded-up facades and “For Lease” signs, a visitor might make an unexpected discovery: a small pedestrian laneway with a ceiling of multi-coloured lights moving in different directions, creating changing patterns and shapes.
The opportunity to create a landscape feature for mainly aesthetic purposes is rare. The Market Lane light canopy is one such example. Nestled between the Covent Garden Market and Dundas Street (London’s main street), this net of 1,400 LED lights suspended on 13 strings and supported by five steel arches creates dynamic displays with moving, colour-shifting lights. Different atmospheres are created to mark the changing of the seasons, reflecting special holidays and events. Colours range from cool white and blues for winter scenes, to deep, rich greens and reds for the summer and fall displays. Lighting effects vary from slow twinkling stars to a fast race of colour down the laneway.
Market Lane was the site of a national design competition in 2012 by the City of London. A relatively small design project, Market Lane was in a key location and being redeveloped at a pivotal time in advance of the 2013 ISU World Figure Skating Championships being hosted by the city. The light canopy was part of the winning proposal entitled Figure Ground by Joseph Fry, OALA, and his team at HAPA Collaborative, a landscape architecture firm in Vancouver, B.C. HAPA’s proposal for Market Lane displayed a meandering concrete bench and luminescent ottomans along a riverbank garden, with a light sky ceiling as centrepiece. The landscape architects teamed up with EOS Light Media, a lighting and media design firm also from Vancouver, to create the light canopy. According to the jury, this proposal distinguished itself as a leading-edge design that captured the spirit of London and responded to the need for a pedestrian- focused, day and night, all-season urban environment. It also provided opportunities for interaction with the surrounding context and festival activity, and innovatively responded to the community’s aspirations for Market Lane.
In 2014, Fanshawe College opened its new Centre for Digital and Performance Arts (CDPA) in the Howard W. Rundle Building, with a door on Market Lane. Although the building construction started concurrently with the completion of the lane and created some challenges, it also offered opportunities. The programmable light canopy is controlled by a computer that is housed in the CDPA building next door. The city and the college have a partnership agreement in place to coordinate the programming and maintenance of the light canopy. Planned for the fall of 2016, theatre arts/technical production students will have the opportunity to create their own designs and light shows as part of their class curriculum using MADRIX software. This opportunity to program the light canopy in a real-life situation for specific requests in conjunction with the partnership agreement is unique.
The system can also be synched to music. This was tested during the last Nuit Blanche/Dundas Street Festival event in June, 2015, by Craig Blackley, technical support for the theatre arts program. For the occasion, the large side doors of the so called “Black Box” (where students experiment with theatrical performances and backstage technical support) were opened onto the lane and two DJ performances played out of the Fanshawe College Stage. According to some festival goers, Market Lane was alive and pumped up! The DJs‘ music was linked with the light canopy pulsating along with the rhythm and bass. “Everyone here at the Centre looks forward to the new lighting display that continues to greet us when we arrive and leave the building,” says Blackley. “It’s quite often that people will stop to view the lighting display and take pictures as well, even more so during live events being held outside.”
In a 2013 interview with the London Free Press, Joseph Fry compared the site to a kind of urban acupuncture. His view was that, just like acupuncture — where a needle can pinpoint a specific area in order to heal the whole body — this specific design intervention on a very small site can help revitalize the entire downtown.
And he might be right. Three years later, the City of London is planning to redesign the first five blocks of Dundas Street into a seamless flexible street called Dundas Place. In addition, the Dundas Street Festival is expanding from one to three days, from September 16-18, 2016. And that’s not all. The Back to the River design competition is proposing a new vision for the Thames River, and SHIFT: Our Rapid Transit Initiative is rethinking how Londoners move around the city. These plans are all complemented by the many new residential buildings and businesses being added to the downtown core.
Downtown London is changing. Boarded- up facades are being replaced by a new generation of businesses and schools targeting young bright minds. While the original idea was to generate an aesthetically pleasing community space, one might connect the dots and say it is now clear that the unique light canopy is also serving a higher purpose: illuminating the way for a brighter future in London’s downtown.
TEXT BY JULIE MICHAUD, OALA, WHO HAS WORKED IN THE ENVIRONMENTAL AND PARKS PLANNING SECTION AT THE CITY OF LONDON SINCE 2004.