a bridge in the night

There are special challenges a lighting designer faces when adding light to a section of transportation infrastructure situated in a place of such immensity and surpassing beauty that it dwarfs human activity. Such is the case with a bike and pedestrian bridge right now being constructed in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The sun sets over the Sandia Mountains in a breathtaking haze of watermelon/lavender/orange light…and then a darkness so complete and so rare in our society that it could only be the product of a sensibility. As expressed in the city’s closely enforced night sky ordinance—“it is pleasing to the senses and intellect of mankind to be able to gaze at the night sky with minimum interference from light pollution.”

To flesh out the total picture of the Bear Canyon Bridge site, you must also include: six lanes of heavily-trafficked interstate highway; one dry fenced-in arroyo; and two “gentleman” establishments, one on either end of the bridge. Not a pedestrian in sight, just the occasional sweaty cyclist looking for a way to cross the road.

Our approach was quite simply to use as little light as possible for the most effect. Pedestrians and bikers had to feel safe and see their way across the bridge. The bridge itself had to have a presence in the landscape but not overwhelm the darkness.

Orange-blue dichroic lenses on LEDs integrate into the structure of the bridge so that the sources themselves cannot be seen (which is often what causes distracting glare). The bridge ramps, open to the sky, have lights that point down onto the pathway—right where a cyclist needs it. On the covered bridge area over the highway, uplights bounce off the underside of the roof. These subtly colored lights throw off a liquid glow for those seeing the bridge for miles from the highway, and reflect back down onto the path without reaching into the sky.

The bridge is of simple, elegant design using expanded galvanized metal. The galvanization (like painting silver leaf on metal) is a dream of innate reflectivity -- the bridge will shimmer and gleam even with the most minimal of lighting schemes. During the day, it will change color with the natural light of the sun. 

Structures that are used like this bridge require light. It’s difficult to see how one can get around this. But if the lighting is designed in a manner that is passionately site-specific—if we take into account the mountains, stars, hikers, bikers and other forms of life in the local ecosystem—then there is a shot at using light to add something to a place, not take something away.

Here’s more of the “North Albuquerque Acres and Sandia Heights Light Pollution Ordinance, Declaration of Necessity”. Worth reading and thinking about:

WHEREAS, the regulation of the use of outdoor light fixtures can reduce light pollution and conserve energy; and
WHEREAS, the night sky is an important aspect of our environment; and
WHEREAS, it is pleasing to the senses and intellect of mankind to be able to gaze at the night sky with minimum interference from light pollution; and
WHEREAS, many of the residents of North Albuquerque Acres and Sandia Heights enjoy amateur astronomy, but light pollution interferes with their enjoyment; and
WHEREAS, light pollution interferes with astronomical research facilities which are engaged in the study of planets, comets, stars, galaxies, and satellites; and...