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Lights to dance on the city skyline

Mellon to aim images at arena; UPMC targets sports complex

Tuesday, October 10, 2000

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The French capital of Paris has long been known as the "city of light." Now Pittsburgh, of all places, could make a bid to become the "city of lights."

A major push in that direction will come this week, when Mellon Bank begins an experiment projecting beams of high-intensity light from the top of its Grant Street headquarters onto the dome of Mellon Arena.

Then, in November, the new UPMC Sports Medicine Center on the South Side plans to begin projecting images of footballs, baseballs and basketballs on the side of its cavernous indoor practice center.

The Carnegie Science Center has already erected a lighted cone on its roof, and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust later this year plans to create a "floating triangle" of white light atop the old Horne's store on Stanwix Street, which now houses Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.

The triangle of light will be the trust's second effort at "light" art. Last December a "lightwall," a sequence of horizontal beams of light moving down the side of a building at 713 Penn Ave. in the cultural district, was created.

Mellon's dramatic lighting project will get a test run Thursday evening, said bank spokesman Ron Gruendl. Assuming the new system works, the lights will then be beamed onto the arena dome for each Penguins' home game, starting with the first one Friday.

If you're near the arena sometime after dark Thursday, look at the top of One Mellon Bank Center, at a point just below the large Mellon sign made of green letters. Gruendl said a high-intensity beam of light will be focused down onto the roof of the arena.

Letters 10 feet high will spell out the bank's name. The beams will also show the logo for Mellon Arena and hockey slogans, probably something like "Let's Go Pens," he said.

"It will be a dramatic visual display of graphics. It will be visible. It will enhance the city's skyline," Gruendl said.

Mellon already has a city permit for lighted letters up to 10 feet high but would like to make them even larger and will go before the city's Zoning Board of Adjustment Oct. 26 to to increase the size.

The system also might be used to beam the words "Happy Holidays" on the dome during Light-Up Night and to promote other events at the arena,

The lighting project has elements of both high-tech art and advertising, but Gruendl preferred to call it "branding."

He noted that Mellon has several major office buildings in the vicinity of Grant Street, including the soon-to-open $120 million Mellon Client Service Center and parking garage on Ross Street.

"The upper part of town carries the Mellon brand heavily," he said. The new parking garage will open later this month, with the move into the services center to begin in December.

He said the light display is also "a fantastic way to call attention to the arena," for which the bank bought the naming rights last year.

A long-range projector will be installed early this week atop the One Mellon building. Gruendl called it "an ultra-sophisticated version of a drive-in movie projector."

With the growth of technology and interest, regulation of light beams like Mellon's and UPMC's "is becoming a big issue," said Robert Reppe, a city Planning Department official. But because of the newness of the issue, it's something of a "muddy" area, he said.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center officials plan to put a projector on a pole in a parking lot just west of the large, new indoor practice center on the South Side. By mid-November, they will begin projecting "sports images" and team names on the large exterior wall of the building that faces Hot Metal Street and the new Hot Metal Bridge.

Pictures of various balls used in sports, along with the letters "UPMC" and the names of the Steelers, Penguins and Pitt Panthers will be beamed on the side of the building, said Tony Detre, UPMC associate vice president.

"I think it will be cool," he said. "We want it to be fun, something the community will enjoy. It will bring significant attention to the uniqueness of the facility and be a nice alternative to billboard signs."

He said the images will be "an artistic representation" that recognizes both the UPMC sports medicine program and the many athletes, professional, college, high school and amateur who go to UPMC orthopedic surgeon Dr. Freddie Fu and his medical staff for treatment of twisted ankles, torn ligaments, strained shoulders and other sports injuries.

Heading up UPMC's spotlight program are design director David Seaman and signage coordinator Ray Bishop.

"It's a promotional thing," said Seaman. "Tony was looking for some way to promote the services offered there. It will be tasteful but catchy and somewhat dramatic."

The exact sequence of images to be projected is still being worked out, Seaman said, but the pictures of baseballs, footballs, basketballs and tennis balls may slowly dissolve into the team names and UPMC logo, he said.

The city Art Commission has already approved the proposal for the lighted images. The hours when the images will be shown will be approximately 9 to 11 p.m. in the summer and 6 to 10 p.m. in the winter. Also, the images have been limited to no more than 400 square feet of area on the side of the building.

Spokesman Paul Kovach said the Culturual Trust's "light-emitting diode" will be "a white triangle that will float on a blue-gray background." The triangle will also rotate as it floats. It should start operating later this year.

The triangle follows a project involving a horizontal band of "soft purplish light" that travels down the side of the Mahla building at 713 Penn Ave. That 140-by-140-foot "lightwall" project was designed by New York City architect Richard Gluckman and artist Robert Wilson.

"The idea is to define the Cultural District in space and time by using light as a medium," Kovach said.

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