How A Colorful Glowing Billboard Helped Create An Identity For Pittsburgh's Cultural District
Most Pittsburghers notice the billboard while they’re watching the Buccos on the North Side. Soft light beams from a triangle slowly rotating within a rectangular sign on a rooftop in the downtown Cultural District. No words or pictures float through the display, just the revolving shapes.
When she moved to Pittsburgh seven years ago, Good Question! listener Caren Ieraci spotted the billboard from her seat at PNC Park. The 20-by-40-foot screen looks almost eerie against the bustling crowds and baseball game below.
“It has this floating triangle on it,” Ieraci said. “My first Pirates game I noticed it and no one knew what it was.”
The billboard is called Sign of Light. It was designed by architect Richard Gluckman and artist Robert Wilson in the late 1990s as part of a series of public art pieces for the newly-formed Cultural Trust. When the pair was recruited by Trust Founding President and CEO Carol R. Brown, they were tasked with two main responsibilities: find a way to give the 16-block precinct a distinct identity, and complete one or more projects that fit into the theme.
“The primary thing was to come up with a strategy that any subsequent artist, architect, collaborative team, would work within a frame of,” Gluckman said.
Prior to the Trust’s creation, Liberty Avenue was the city’s red light district. What’s now the main theater stretch was populated with venues that hosted a different, more "adult" entertainment.
Gluckman and Wilson interviewed people who, despite the sketchy downtown vibe, had been patronizing the live theater offerings and restaurants. They discovered that Pittsburghers used alleyways to navigate the neighborhood.
This is part of our Good Question! series where we investigate what you've always wondered about Pittsburgh, its people and its culture.
“People use the alleys, not the main streets,” Gluckman said. “So, the identifier project by the culture trust was to animate the alleys and animate them with light.”
The idea was that light would illuminate these often visited shortcuts, but ultimately give the area a distinct sense of place. They envisioned future art projects in alleys could fit into their “City of Light” theme.
“We wanted to make the pedestrian movement an interesting and pleasant experience,” Gluckman said.
Gluckman and Wilson’s first project in 1999 was Light Wall. Much like a scanner, a bar of light projected onto a brick building at the corner of Eighth and Penn avenues lethargically moved from the top to the bottom. The Light Wall is gone now, but the side of the building at the corner is still occasionally used to project other messages during downtown events like First Night.
The pair moved onto their second piece of art, which they called “external,” something that could be seen from a distance that identified the Cultural District. Sign of Light on the roof of Penn Avenue Place features a leisurely spinning triangle, representing the Golden Triangle and the confluence of Pittsburgh’s rivers.The display uses more than 10,000 LED lights and is covered by a layer vinyl to soften the glow. Gluckman said he remembers testing out the structure’s luminosity in his New York studio.
“We put it up in the window and I kept walking away and no matter how far I got, it really looked bright,” he said.
Little of Sign of Light has changed since its installation. Several other projects in the Cultural District have kept with the theme of illumination. Trust Visual Arts Curator Murray Horne said exhibits like the Cell Phone Disco on Exchange Way, Water Cube at Eighth and Penn avenues and the red glowing Flow display on the Wood Street Galleries are all products of the district’s light motif.
“The more of these projects we do, the better,” Horne said. “It helps to delineate the Cultural District.”
The light-themed pieces also reflect the rebirth of Pittsburgh. Once an economy driven by industry, Horne said the Cultural Trust promoted a new reputation for the city building its arts and theater scene.
“Really, it’s about an identity,” Horne said. “An identity of a city coming out of a depressed period into a rebirth.”
Thomas Edwards contributed to this report. This post was updated at 3:18 p.m. June 21, 2018 to indicate the sign is in the Cultural District, not Trust. It was updated at 3:25 p.m. June 25, 2018 to change a line to the "confluence of Pittsburgh's rivers."