SAN FRANCISCO -- Month after month, motorists traveling across the Bay Bridge have watched as the dazzling new eastern span takes shape high above San Francisco Bay.

But come March, the old western span will grab the spotlight from its newer, flashier cousin.

Work is proceeding to fit the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge with a coat of 25,000 white LED lights, transforming the gray workhorse into a shimmering, undulating light sculpture.

Project organizers say the $8 million, privately funded project, set to sparkle nightly beginning March 5, is the largest sculpture of its kind in the world -- some four times larger than the permanent light installation on the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Lights will flicker on and off, and dim and brighten in waves and pulses on the 1.8-mile span between San Francisco and Treasure Island. The installation will be in place for two years.

"I think people will see the bridge in a new way," said Leo Villareal, a New York light sculptor who is writing the algorithms for software to activate the lights. "I think it will reinvigorate people's view of this iconic bridge that people live with all the time and take for granted."

Villareal said he hopes to capture the energy and flow of cars, ships, tides, winds, fog, fish, water and birds, converging in one place.

"This is not like taking a video and translating it into light," he said. "This is abstract art."


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Since September, expert electrical crews tied into harnesses have been working late at night to install the lights on the span's vertical cables.

The sculpture will be visible only from the north side of the bridge, most easily to those walking along the San Francisco shoreline. The lights are positioned to be invisible to bridge motorists -- a restriction aimed at preventing driver distractions.

Project organizers picked Villareal for the job because he is a leader in the field of light sculpture. He has exhibited light installations in several major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Relying on the increasing power of computers and the minimal power needed by LED lights, the Bay Lights sculpture will consume only about $11,000 worth of electricity over two years.

Yet the light spectacle project will generate an estimated $97 million in extra income for the region by attracting more visitors to the waterfront area just to view the lights, estimated Illuminate the Arts, the nonprofit group organizing the project.


Courtesy of thebaylights.org

Organizers expect the visual excitement of the light installation will add to the energy of the San Francisco shoreline along with the America's Cup sailing championship in San Francisco Bay, and the late 2013 opening of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.

"The sculpture will provide another attraction and reason to visit the area," said Amy Critchett, the executive producer of the Bay Lights project.

The sculpture was to debut in 2012, but delays in securing permits and raising funds forced a postponement, Critchett said. Many agencies wanted to weigh in on the project to ensure it wouldn't cause problems to the bridge or environment.

Among the concerns, the U.S. Coast Guard wanted to make sure the lights wouldn't confuse ship captains on foggy nights. The navigation agency eventually signed off, and the last of the permits was approved in August, allowing work to start in September.

"This group has done it right in planning this project," said Bart Ney, a spokesman for Caltrans.

Illuminate the Arts has raised all but $2.3 million of the $8 million project cost -- enough to proceed with the project while fundraising continues, Critchett said.

Bay Lights plans to sell naming and dedication rights to each of the 25,000 lights for prices starting about $50 apiece. Donors can purchase and dedicate lights to themselves or as a memorial to loved ones, Critchett said.

Villareal said he is not disappointed the outdoor art project is scheduled to be removed in two years.

In 1976, artist Christo Javacheff installed a giant fabric fence across 24 miles of Marin and Sonoma counties. It was up for just 14 days.

"Two years is a long time for a project like this to be in a public space," Villareal said. "It's technically possible to have a longer life, but that's not for me to say. There would have to be a strong showing of public support to even consider extending it."

Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.

Bay lights sculpture
To view a computer simulation of a giant light sculpture on the Bay Bridge's western span, go to http://thebaylights.org. The same website also contains information about donating to the project or making a contribution to dedicate a light to a loved one.