Fixed Installs

Lincoln Center Sidewalk Studio

As New York City emerged from a long and painful pandemic slumber, media outlets heralded the opening of the newly redesigned David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The concert pavilion – built in 1962, adjacent to the David Koch Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera House – retained its soaring Modernistic façade, but received a major interior revamp. New improved acoustics, and the impending return of the New York Philharmonic two years ahead of schedule caused city-goers to flock back to the square. At the corner of Broadway and 65th Street, visitors witnessed a new feature, Sidewalk Studio, which transformed Geffen Hall’s ground-floor conference rooms and offices into a glittering glass-fronted proscenium for live performances.

The installation was part of a $550-million initiative that Henry Timms, president and chief executive officer of Lincoln Center, proposed to make the arts center more vibrant. “They wanted to make activity within and without bleed together to attract new audiences,” says David Bianciardi, founder of AV&C, a design studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard who joined a collective of artisans and engineers that Diamond Schmitt Architects and Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects entrusted with the makeover. “They wanted this to become a place where a broader community could engage in the performing arts. They used what used to be conference rooms to create a lab for performance, with generative lighting that behaved as a dynamic architectural material. Inside, the lighting had to lend a much subtler effect to the performance, contextualizing the space.”

Sidewalk Studio’s floor-to-ceiling windows offered views into a 1,700-square-foot space backed by an elegant LED media display. The design team at 2×4 created dynamic patterns of color and motion for the new performance venue, brought to life by AV&C generative software and 5Ten Visuals custom LED fixtures, driven by Megapixel’s HELIOS® Processing Platform.

The environment required lighting that was intuitive to the space, and capable of subtleties of nuance. “We’ve had a really good relationship with AV&C and 5Ten,” observes Jeremy Hochman, co-founder of Megapixel. “Our philosophies about how LED technology and architecture integrate are very well aligned. They wanted to use HELIOS as a platform and as a communication backbone, even though their fixtures were not crazy resolutions. They needed to have stability to drive this system, to allow them to focus on the art and the creative integration of this project’s execution. Once we understood the level of integration they needed, the physical constraints, and the visual requirements, that’s where it clicked. It was a very mutually beneficial relationship.”

Sidewalk Studio’s glass-fronted gallery, combined with its feeling of an intimate internal space, posed multi-layered challenges for the LED display. “The primary distinction was ‘inside/outside,’” notes David Bianciardi. “These are algorithmic, generative pieces, with a dozen or so engines. [Their] various parameters control coloring and pacing. The library of generators creates variations they need for seasonal events, or for rental patrons who might want the wall to display their brand colors. It was a very dynamic and tunable part of the space.”

To explore possibilities for lighting installations, AV&C created mockups and projection experiments. “We set up a projection mock-up in our studio and introduced behaviors to show its potential,” says Bianciardi. “This couldn’t be considered signage like Times Square, but it had to function as a piece of artwork seen out of the window at night. Inside, it needed to behave in a way that slowed and quieted down so that the audience could be in the space. To accomplish that, we knew we needed to build custom fixtures.”

5Ten Visuals – AV&C’s neighbor in the Navy Yard and a frequent collaborator as a custom LED solution provider – developed lighting specifications that took into account artistic and technical requirements. “The LED fixtures had to have a dual role,” relates 5Ten Visuals commercial director Norah de Bekker. “There were going to be performances inside, which they wanted to integrate with the acoustic paneling wall. It had to be able to attract people from outside to give a sneak peek into the building, as well as give people inside a sense of activation. We had to make the space come to life now and again. But the lighting also had to disappear when the moment required.”

Conceptual renderings depicted Sidewalk Studio lighting as particles of bronze-colored lights flowing in wave-like stripes across the acoustic wall. 5Ten investigated methods to realize the design in LEDs. “The hardware had to be capable of an extreme dynamic,” notes 5Ten Visuals director of design and engineering Ben Price. “We had to create a product that functioned well on a low brightness, but with a high gradient quality, subtlety, and fidelity that felt natural and integrated into the architecture. At the same time, the fixtures had to be able to emit an immense amount of light to grab the attention of viewers outside the space.”

“We dove deep into researching optical effects of LED lenses,” adds Norah de Bekker. “We studied many different lenses that had the best acoustic color paneling finish. We looked at different diffusers and the effects those had on the LEDs, and how much they reduced brightness. Pixel pitch was another constraint for the site, working with an existing location, so we had to make custom-length strips. We modularized the LEDs in a way that was easy to drive with Megapixel’s back-end system. And when the wall was ‘off’ the fixture had to disappear. That was key. The media had to be built into the architecture so when it was ‘off,’ it shouldn’t be visible at all.”

At maximum brightness, the installation used white phosphor LEDs tempered with more definition than was possible using a standard red-green-blue (RGB) pixel palette. “The project team determined that a combination of RGBW – integrating warm white – into the LED package was critical,” says Ben Price. “That allowed the team to design with two different content palettes. And they could blend those to create unique color variants and pastel color ranges while maintaining intensity and punch.”

The physical properties of the LEDs also took into account the needs of the project’s acoustic design team, at Akustiks. “The acoustic consultant wanted to make sure that the lens was not going to impact the acoustics of the room,” notes Price. “From a creative standpoint, 2×4 wanted LEDs to integrate with the environment. We tested different types of lens materials. Acoustically, it was important to avoid hard surfaces, like glass or Plexi. We ended up using a resin-based diffuser on each LED.” The amount of diffusion impacted design criteria. “The size and intensity of each dot was critical. We found a middle ground between using a clear lens, which has a harshness to the eye, and a diffuser, which made pixels appear gray/black in the acoustic paneling. That gave a higher degree of fidelity in shape and form, and the black-level graded the color of the LEDs like a filter.”

The tinted diffuser allowed AV&C to incorporate the lighting fixtures into the broader design features of the space. “The diffuser gave us all the range we wanted with brightness to spare,” says David Bianciardi. “When the pixels were off, any negative space in the imagery read like architectural material. Visually, the materiality of the ‘off’ behavior allowed for a lot of negative space in the content. We use that texture a lot.”

To control the flow of imagery across the array, HELIOS® managed virtual content. Although the Megapixel processor had been built for large-scale projects – such as the MGM Cotai Casino and Resort in Macau, China, which required high bandwidth processing – AV&C and 5Ten were keen to make use of the system’s advanced capabilities. “There were no RGBW LED video fixtures in the market at the time,” says Jeremy Hochman. “A lot of lighting systems have been using RGBW and multiple primaries – cyan, amber, magenta, and other colors. But in the video space, it’s quite difficult to do computationally. That’s why video-driven systems have been less color-quality conscious. Sidewalk Studio was a great opportunity to help 5Ten, using our experience in RGBW and multi-primary lighting. And it was unique in needing high quality while being video-driven.” HELIOS allowed combinations of white phosphor LEDs for subtleties that can only be achieved with RGBW. “That color processing capability was already built into HELIOS. However, we launched a joint engineering project with 5Ten to adapt that color pipeline to their custom fixtures. Together, we developed new hardware that gave a clear delineation of engineering building blocks. That allowed 5Ten to develop their bespoke project, without us having to reinvent the engine under the hood.”

The infrastructure allowed HELIOS to dexterously manage LED controls, despite Sidewalk Studio’s relatively limited pixel count. “Even the name ‘Megapixel’ implies that this is the most capable tool,” says David Bianciardi. “They have the most capacity, the most depth, the most features, the most technical rigor. By the time you count up all the pixels, we were bringing that capability into a paltry little raster. But because we cared so much about bit-depth, color fidelity, latency, and all those criteria, we had a very particular set of needs. By the time we figured out what we needed, we realized there was only one tool to do the job.”

HELIOS cloud capabilities also allowed the client to efficiently monitor quality control. “An LED light bulb is supposed to last twenty years,” notes Jeremy Hochman. “When the odd one goes out, you have to replace it. Until now, there has never been a maintenance-minded platform for LEDs to handle troubleshooting and maintenance. With HELIOS, if there is a physical fault, it’s like a ‘check engine’ light in a car. The user can remotely diagnose the issue so that it can very quickly be repaired. And some of those functions can be resolved remotely, rather than on-site, which saves on physical service calls, and is tremendously beneficial from a time and cost perspective.”

AV&C managing director Katie Hepp and her team oversaw hardware installation at Geffen Hall, which required LED strips to work within acoustic paneling, fitted into existing architecture. AV&C employed a subcontractor to fabricate frames for the LED strips. 5Ten then built attachment brackets and fitted LED fixtures to the brackets. The playback system was located in a centralized control room in a different part of the building, co-located with systems driving AV&C’s high-resolution media canvases in Geffen Hall’s front-of-house lobby.

2×4 and AV&C collaborated closely while developing the visual program for Sidewalk Studio’s media wall. “The primary color was white,” relates David Bianciardi. “The rest of the spectrum was primarily for accenting and highlighting. There’s a lot of bronze and white generative content through the venue that works well with the interiors, with a certain elegance.” The design team created lighting behavior as a generative, mood-setting tool. “Instead of twelve bits of media that played on loop, or twelve fixed lighting programs, we created an instrument that has different tunable repertoires – faster, slower, brighter, colors for Halloween, or for Pride, and so on. We worked with 2×4 to sketch in code and baked design rules into the software that end-users could use to modify that content. Some modes are sound reactive – either keying off what’s happening in the room or playing from a sound file. Lincoln Center, the Philharmonic, and their partners have production designers, lighting and media folks, marketing folks, and lobby managers who can access the content management and creation system. They use the tools with the design rules and flexibility baked into them to support different events, or for when Sidewalk Studio is empty and it’s playing to the street. That’s all in their hands.”

Technical parameters included Underwriter Laboratories tests that ensured safety standards for heat loads, ventilation, and architectural requirements. The COVID-19 pandemic added logistical hurdles to the procurement and creation of high-tolerance hardware. But the performance hiatus at Lincoln Center ultimately allowed the installation to be completed in two years, rather than four, in time for the ribbon-cutting on New York Philharmonic’s new home, October 8, 2022.

With Sidewalk Studio now in its second year of operation, the design team’s foresight in research and development allowed for a high degree of quality control and sustainability. “David and his team saw that an off-the-shelf solution wouldn’t do for what 2×4 wanted for their creative vision,” observes Norah de Bekker. “We figured out how to create that, with controls that HELIOS delivered in the Sidewalk Studio. It was a good match.”

“I’m very happy with the co-development that we did with 5Ten,” concurs Jeremy Hochman. “There is a perspective that some people see HELIOS and think, ‘Whoa! 8K processing! I don’t need anything that powerful for a smaller pixel count.’ Sidewalk Studio proves that HELIOS is scalable. The project used its stability as a platform. It doesn’t matter if we’re running thirty pixels or thirty million pixels, we provide an amazing infrastructure for any project that demands high quality. And when people enter Sidewalk Studio, that technology melts away.”

The collaboration relied on communication spanning multiple disciplines in a unique blend of technology and art. “You have to have partners that are willing to let you see what’s going on and be part of the solution,” concludes David Bianciardi. “This is a space for performing music, so it was a challenge in the fact that it had two huge window bays perpendicular to each other, as well as the fixtures that we introduced. We ended up working with acousticians and design architects to figure out what that sandwich should be. We helped the client understand how impactful a low-res canvas could be, steering them away from any concerns about pixel pitch or image resolution. This was more about how expressive the space could be from a visual material standpoint, and a sound standpoint, allowing negative space between our fixtures to be populated with acoustical material. The technology truly does melt away – it becomes a part of the space and supports the way it performs.”