Pennsylvania Avenue's Dazzling Power Play
High-Wattage Light Show Turns Stone Facade Into Canvas of Color

By Benjamin Forgey Washington Post Thursday, December 20, 2001; Page C01

Not a whole lot of people are paying attention, but a truly extraordinary light show takes place each day downtown on Freedom Plaza, beginning at dusk. No, no, not the natural wonder that ends every day, everywhere on Earth. Not that show. This one is completely human-made and is, as they say, site-specific. It starts so subtly you hardly notice. The big Corinthian columns on the front of the venerable Wilson Building -- the District's city hall -- seem to turn a vague, gauzy red, and all those allegorical statues above the cornice appear to shift from white marble to a pale, jaundiced hue. Strange. Gradually, in the gathering night, the colors gain in intensity, so that the red columns literally glow in the dark, the yellow statues become weirdly phosphorescent, and everything about the richly ornamented building -- every escutcheon, keystone and lintel -- turns positively incandescent. Amazingly, most passersby -- and there are not that many, even at the end of a workday -- scurry right past with turned-up collars and inward gazes. Every now and then, however, some curious soul will stop short, take a good long look and then slowly pivot 180 degrees, seeking the source of the improbable spectacle. This turns out to be rather like the moment after Toto pulls away the curtain and you realize the Wizard of Oz is just a harrumphing old fake. The source of the magic transformation on Freedom Plaza is simply a slide projector encased in a light box that looks like a Port-a-John wrapped in oilcloth -- or rather, three projectors in three boxes, each focusing on a separate piece of the facade. Then again, when you pause to think about it, these humble fixtures are hardly the point. Plus, what is hidden inside cannot be all that humble -- only an exceptional machine could project light at such intensity over so long a distance -- the registration is so precise that it is almost hard to believe that the colors are not painted on. Claire Carlin, a special-events coordinator with the Downtown Business Improvement District, which financed the unusual display, confirms that the technology is, indeed, a step up from everyday stuff -- using extra-large slides and 7,000 watts of power vs. 300 watts for a normal projector. Carlin points out proudly that this is the first time this system has been deployed in the United States. The (...) Washington displays were coordinated by Arts Opera Promotion, a Paris-based company. Working from original photographic images, German artists Friedrich Forster and Sabine Weissinger created two distinct projections for the Wilson Building -- the color scheme changes every other night, from predominantly red to predominantly blue. (...)

<< back