SAN FRANCISCO -- With thousands of spectators lining nearby shores and countless others watching online, an artist gave life to the world's largest light sculpture Tuesday night.
At 9 p.m., New York artist Leo Villareal threw the switch on 25,000 LED lights attached to the cables of the western span of the Bay Bridge to launch a two-year public display dubbed the Bay Lights project.
Onlookers who braved the chilly weather and a steady drizzle to catch the unveiling were mostly in awe as the lights shimmered and danced through the darkness.
"The lights are very elegant. They add a very scenic and cerebral element to the city," San Francisco resident Mohit Aggarwal said as he watched the display.
His friend Zehra Ashraf said she found the lights fascinating. "I'm planning to come back. I don't think I'll get bored with these repeating patterns."
Nick and Brandon Ondo, two brothers from San Leandro, rode on BART with their bikes into the city to see the show.
"It's great. I'm really looking forward to seeing the lights on the bridge," Nick Ondo said earlier in the evening. "I think it's great they're doing this without spending tax money."
The two brothers planned to meet a large group of other cyclists at AT&T Park for what they called a "bike flash mob," to cruise the waterfront and look for different places to view the light sculpture. The spokes of their bike wheels were wrapped in miniature strings of LED lights, a sneak preview of the larger display to come.
They said they were not going to abandon their plan once the rain eventually fell.
Their friend, Renee Woo, said she was touched by the project. "It makes me proud to live in the Bay Area."
The best viewing spots to see the $8 million privately financed Bay Lights project were on the Embarcadero and other San Francisco waterfront areas north of the bridge. The Embarcadero's wide sidewalks and restaurants offered good vantage points for those lucky enough to arrive early or wise enough to book reservations in advance.
Businesses in the Ferry Building were bustling with customers well before 8 p.m., and tour boats loaded with camera-hugging passengers bobbed in the waters between the shoreline and the bridge.
Priscila Ribeiro was among those who lined up by the railing outside the Ferry Building and gazed off expectantly into the night. Ribeiro, who recently moved from Brazil to San Francisco, had walked from her downtown job to the waterfront to see the show.
"I have no idea what it will look like, but it sounds good and it's free," she said as she waited. "We've been to the Academy of Sciences and many places, and it costs a lot of money to see the sights in San Francisco. It's good to have something free."
Those who did not want to fight the weather or traffic into the city were able to catch a webcast of the lights on www.thebaylights.org.
But for first-nighters, the Embarcadero was ground zero for celebrations. The MarketBar at the Ferry Building marked the occasion with "Illuminated Cocktails" from 7 to 10 p.m.
Nearby Hotel Vitale, which has windows and terraces overlooking the bridge, was nearly booked Tuesday night with friends and patrons of the privately funded Bay Lights who gathered to celebrate.
Gareth Gooch, a professional San Francisco photographer, said he was intrigued to see the bridge lights because he is familiar with Villareal's other light sculptures. He had seen Villareal's artwork at the Burning Man festival in Nevada.
"This art project is amazing," Gooch said as he set up his camera on a San Francisco pier to prepare for the lighting debut. "The Golden Gate Bridge won't be able to keep up with this. The Bay Bridge is usually the overlooked sister, but it's going to shine tonight."
The 25,000 lights pulse and shimmer in non-repeating patterns controlled by software that Villareal designed to interpret the energy and motion of waves, fogs, clouds and fish as well as cars and trucks on the bridge.
The lights will shine from dusk to 2 a.m. nightly for two years until they are taken down.
Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.
For more information, visit www.thebaylights.org