How do you create a thoughtful, dramatic public installation that is simultaneously high-science and curiously low-tech? Studio SC (Seattle) teamed up with the Allen Institute for Brain Science and Perkins+Will to transform a busy South Lake Union corner with illuminated neural “Pathways.”
The installation called “Pathways” was designed by Studio SC in Seattle, for the Allen Institute for Brain Science at 615 Westlake Avenue North. It is essentially a 150-foot-long light box installed on the exterior corner of the building and its imagery represents the scientific research and discovery happening within the organization and the building itself.
The visual imagery of the installation is drawn from brain anatomy and activity and uses LED light sequences to create motion and shifting density. This interpretation of brain activity—the Institute’s work—brings the street to life and questions to mind, encouraging pedestrians to ponder the information processing power between their ears.
The Allen Institute for Brain Science is an independent, non-profit medical organization on a mission to accelerate the progress of life science research worldwide and answer big science questions. Researchers for the institute have literally read minds, examining tiny cross-sections of brain tissues to determine complex cell and genomic functions using high-tech robotic systems, hardware and software.
An international leader in their field, the Allen Institute has contributed resources to scientists and open-science organizations since it’s founding in 2003 by multi-billionaire philanthropist Paul G. Allen. The organization was housed in several buildings spread over the Freemont neighborhood in Seattle, choosing to consolidate into a single 245,000-square-foot structure on Westlake Avenue in 2015.
The Institute challenged the Studio SC team to create an installation that both spoke to their research and communicated their organizational mission while spanning and wrapping a portion of the exterior. The city had a stake in the project too, wishing to activate the corner of Broad Street and 9th Avenue, creating a point of visual interest for pedestrians and vehicular traffic at the busy intersection in a growing part of town.
Low Tech, High Concept
The Studio SC team was inspired by both the anatomy of the brain and the Allen Institute’s use of technology. The human brain contains nearly 100 billion neurons—and no two neurons are exactly alike—making it one of the most complex organic structures known to man. Researchers at the Institute are attempting to understand all of these many components and their functions to combat disease more effectively.
The design team took all of this into account when developing the initial concept. Mark Sanders, Studio SC co-founder describes their goal, “We wanted to give passersby not only a sense of what is going on inside the Institute but also have them pause to think about how their brains process information.”
While the concept lends itself to a digital media installation, that sort of application simply wasn’t in the non-profit budget of the client. The desire to have something that wasn’t static, engaging the public was still present. The answer came in the form of a clever, low-tech solution: color-changing programmable LED lighting. The LED lighting combined with specially designed printed graphics would create the illusion of movement and evoke the image of firing neural pathways.
The imagery was derived from real images of human brain matter, using a variation of a stereoscope of neurons and neural pathways to interpret the complexity of the brain’s activity. To symbolize the different functions of the brain and the Institute, the Studio SC employed white, cyan and magenta arrows, letterforms and numerals to construct the long starburst-like anatomy.
In the installation, the arrows represent neural pathways, but also the Institute’s global dissemination of information between its scientific partners. Binary code portrays the state-of-the-art technology and advanced computational analysis employed by the Institute. Language is represented by letterforms. Altogether, the densely packed symbols create an impression of the human brain functioning.
The physical installation is ingenious in its simplicity. The cyan and magenta graphics were digitally printed on wall covering that was then applied to aluminum panels at the back of the display, while the white graphics are digitally printed on clear vinyl mounted to the second surface of the glazing. Above and below the graphics, 75 four-foot-long and six one-foot-long full-spectrum interior-grade LED lights are installed in six-inch-deep channels. The channels are vented for cooling and the fixtures are positioned to be hidden from pedestrian view.
Because of the constant public visibility of the installation, the team performed exhaustive testing of the combined lighting, glass, graphic applications and materials in varied weather conditions. They also took a great deal of time in determining the pacing of the light sequences for optimal variation of viewing for pedestrians and standing traffic without creating a distraction for passing drivers.
The conclusion the team reached was a color shift every 90 seconds: a 60-second solid color with a 30-second transition. The blue and red colors shift from left to right, but the shift to white is a uniform fade along the length of the wall. As the light color changes, the contrasting printed graphics are revealed or obscured, resulting in a constantly shifting neural landscape.
To express the goals of the Allen Institute while providing context for the piece, Studio SC installed an exterior information panel that hints at the research within. It poses questions such as: What makes us human? How can we better understand disease? What hidden breakthroughs can we discover if we take risks and investigate in new ways?
Seeing is Believing
The work is notable for many reasons, but for Studio SC, “Pathways” was a landmark as their first large-scale public installation. They are pleased to have been able to produce an impactful piece of work that effectively communicated the client’s vision within their budget to include ongoing maintenance. The bottom line wasn’t the only success of this project though.
“Pathways” manages to introduce the public to the big complex themes of brain science in an appealing, poetic way. It illustrates anatomy while simultaneously showcasing the way that the researchers and organization works. Even the name “Pathways” does double-duty: It literally references neural pathways, but also the connections between the scientific community and also the emergent Seattle neighborhood where the Institute resides.
The beauty of the piece is in seeing it up close and in detail, where the letterforms, numerals and marks mingle with the colored light. There’s a good reason for the mesmerizing effect; the brain converts light signals from the retina into data in the first few seconds of seeing something. Michael Buice, Ph.D., an assistant investigator at the Allen Institute clarifies, “There is a difference between what your eyes receive and what your brain sees.”
Project Name: Pathways
Client: Allen Institute for Brain Science
Location: Seattle, WA
Open Date: November 2015
Design: Studio SC
Fabrication: Image Mill
Architect: Perkins + Will
Collaborators: Pacific Lighting Systems, GLY Construction
Photos: Lara Swimmer Photography, Gudmundur Ibsen Photography