Form and Function: On the new lights near Preston Gardens

Sometime last week, I was crossing a stretch of St. Paul Street right by our offices in The Sun building when I was caught by surprise.

Looking south, a series of LED lights had been installed under a viaduct cutting through Preston Gardens, a long, grassy strip of a park wedged between Mercy Medical Center and The Standard on one side and office buildings, apartments, and hotels on the other.

With its multiple tiers, curved stone staircases, and brick walls, the park is an ornate little patch of green among the skyscrapers of the city's center, but it's not particularly inviting at night. However, the simple addition of streaks of light cutting across the ceiling of the underpass turned this stretch from something unnoticed to a space that's sleek and modern. And visually appealing.

The installation of a few lights is hardly Earth-shattering, but it's a simple-yet-effective design trick that's transformative, giving new meaning to an already-existing place.

Naturally, that was the goal of the Downtown Partnership, the group responsible for the LED display.

As Michael Evitts, vice president of communications for Downtown Partnership, explains it, the underpass was a "dark and gloomy place, even on the sunniest of days." Adding lights would potentially make this area more pedestrian friendly.

Rather than throw up any old lights, the group, working in conjunction with the Department of Transportation, decided to come up with a design that also catches the eye.

"LED lights were installed in an alternating pattern so that the beams start out bright on the sides closest to the walls and become more diffuse as their light extends into the middle of the underpass, adding a textural quality to the light," says Evitts of the design. "The roadway above is angled, which gives the light pattern an added dimension. The beams look angular but it's really the geometry of the front and back edges of the tunnel that creates that impression."

It almost looks aqueous, like the wiggling lines of a pool are reflecting up on the curved stone. Or like something that would be seen in a sci-fi movie set in the future. Though the lines are finite, they create ribs for the underpass and make it appear like the road will be covered for longer than it actually is.

This is not a new design idea, but it is somewhat striking to see it in Baltimore.

"Here in the U.S., we're not as good at using light to visually reinvent our infrastructure, particularly bridges and tunnels, in the same way they do in places like Denmark, Paris, or London," says Evitts. "Hopefully, we're getting there."

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