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Is a Squall Brewing Around San Francisco’s Bay Lights?

Some 25,000 LED lights lit up the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge last Tuesday. It was a glorious sight on a rainy night, not to mention the talk of the town even a week later.

In San Francisco, public art is part of the atmosphere, and so is controversy. The Golden Gate Bridge is a work of art — much debated and redesigned before it was finally built in the late 1930s.

Coit Tower, atop Telegraph Hill, is the city’s other public art standout. The structure itself is a work of art, while inside, murals from the WPA era — many of them with a leftist political theme — are even more controversial than the tower itself. (In New York, similar depression-era murals at Rockefeller Center done by Diego Rivera were famously destroyed because they were too provocative, too leftist in the 1930s.)

In San Francisco, a bust of murdered Mayor George Moscone was removed from public view because it was seen as grotesque.

Marking the Bay Bridge’s 75th anniversary, the new Bay Lights (which will cost a total of $8 million through 2015) are provoking lots of discussion. But is it a real controversy? The lights themselves shine nightly on the north side of the bridge, and undulate randomly according to a computer program devised by New York artist Leo Villareal. It’s a lovely, lively tapestry, and it can be seen for miles.

The publicity following the unveiling of the project was almost all favorable. You could hear the oohs and aahs wherever you went. Villareal became an instant folk hero. Then, over the weekend, a few letters to the editor began to appear in the local press criticizing the project. And John King, the San Francisco Chronicle’s respected urban design critic, wrote a negative review of the installation.

“Once the novelty fades,” he wrote, “we’re left with a 1.8 mile light show that has little to do with either the structure to which it is attached or the natural setting above which it shines.” He went on: “What ‘Bay Lights’ lacks is what the Bay Bridge has in abundance, a rooted sense of emphatic place.”

King also criticized the designers for letting the lights shine only to the north, facing San Francisco’s more expensive neighborhoods, and ignoring more working class areas to the south. (Incidentally, you can’t see the lights while driving on the bridge, either. That’s for safety, but no one is complaining.)

Reaction to King’s critique came quickly. In a letter featured on the Chronicle editorial page, a reader named Michael Barnes shot back: “King’s criticism sees a Hamm’s billboard (a former local beer) begging for attention and doomed to disappear, and misses the refined enhancement of our perceptions and the comment on the transitory nature of all things.” Barnes, like some of the San Franciscans I’ve talked with, sees “the lights consistent with the transformation of day to night, of bridge to shadow.” That’s pretty hefty art criticism inspired by those flashy lights.

Whether that constitutes a controversy — like much public art around the nation — is unclear at this point. Mostly, people are trying to get a glimpse of the nightly light show so they can decide for themselves if 25,000 LED lights, in place for the next two years, are worth getting upset about or worthy of celebration.

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