San Francisco Light Arts as expressed in the Salesforce Building top floors at night, as seen from the Embarcadero, Pier 14 entrance
San Francisco Light Arts as expressed in the Salesforce Building top floors at night, as seen from the Embarcadero, Pier 14 entrance

Author’s Note: This article “Light Art Sculptures Proliferate in San Francisco” is a stand-alone article on my website. Further parallel articles are often chapters in my two main travel guidebooks/ebooks on California. They are Northern California History Travel Adventures: 35 Suggested Trips and Northern California Travel: The Best Options. All my travel guidebooks/ebooks on California can be seen on my Amazon Author Page.

By Lee Foster

A relatively new art form now proliferates in San Francisco. It is called “light art,” meaning the use of light to create art sculptures, at night. The City itself is a dark canvas. Consequently, light art has emerged as a major form of artistic expression in San Francisco in recent years. There are currently more than 40 permanent or temporary light art installations in San Francisco.

One of the newest additions is the top of the Salesforce Building, the tallest building west of the Mississippi. My photo has a caption. It reads “San Francisco Light Arts as expressed in the Salesforce Building top floors at night, as seen from the Embarcadero, Pier 14 entrance.” This new light arts form explodes and evolves as opportunities to show light art unfold.

Bay Bridge Most Dramatic of All

The most dramatic of all these installations is Leo Villareal’s The Bay Lights, permanently lighting up the west section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. This highly popular “temporary” illumination in the past emerged later as a perennial visual joy. To sum up, The City fathers and mothers wisely responded to popular demand that this art work become permanent.

Artists created many other major light-as-art installations in the City. They are compelling to view all year, but particularly in the December holidays period. Moreover, December is the darkest time of the year, the winter solstice. As a result, humans seek some message of illumination regarding their condition.

Here are several installations to consider year-round, but especially in the holiday period.

Pier 14, East of the Ferry Building

Pier 14 is the first large public pier east of the Ferry Building, only a short walk. This pier is  a pedestrian walkway. It amounts to your finest and first place at which to enjoy light art in San Francisco. From the end of this pier, you can see up close the wonderful illumination of the Bay Bridge.

However, during the holiday period, stand at the end of this pier and also look back at the San Francisco skyline. During the holidays, the Embarcadero Center Buildings are lit up like boxy Christmas gifts.


The Bay Lights, on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

Leo Villareal's light art sculpture, "Bay Lights," on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge West Span
Leo Villareal’s light art sculpture, “The Bay Lights,” on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge West Span

Villareal set a high bar for competing light artists. He had both the ingenuity and the political clout to arrange a Bay Bridge light display. Subsequently, his work became both a locals and visitor favorite. Certainly, this original and spacious lighting masterpiece is a tour de force.

This undertaking will be seen historically as a parallel to lighting the Eiffel Tower in Paris at night. Villareal presents the world’s largest LED light sculpture. It is about 1.8 miles long and 500 feet high. In short, he has programmed individually about 25,000 LED lights. Firstly, this light sculpture celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge birth (1936). He honored the bridge with a never-repeating and dazzling display of light. The lights hang on the vertical strands of steel cable holding up the bridge. Subsequently, the temporary installation became iconic. In the same vein, citizens called for the light show to be perennial. Consequently, the current installation is permanent.

The Holidays (Only) View from Pier 14 Looking to the Ferry Building and the Embarcadero Buildings

Some Light Arts showing as seasonal, showing up only seasonally, especially in the December Holidays. December is also the darked month of the year, and may inspire dark thoughts in the citizens. At such a time, Light Arts may be most illuminating and add considerable cheer.

If you go out to the end of Pier 14 and look back at the Ferry Building and at the Embarcadero Building, a special Christmas Tree and Boxed Gifts scene appears. Here it is:

San Francisco festive holiday view from the end of public Pier 14 of the Ferry Building and the gift-box look of the Embarcadero Buildings. This view is available to all who walk to the end of this public pier.
San Francisco festive holiday view from the end of public Pier 14 of the Ferry Building and the gift-box look of the Embarcadero Buildings. This view is available to all who walk to the end of this public pier.

Firefly, Golden Gate at Polk, Tenderloin

Light art sculpture "Firefly" in San Francisco
Light art sculpture “Firefly” in San Francisco

Ned Kahn’s Firefly is at 525 Golden Gate Avenue, where Golden Gate Avenue meets Polk Street. This is in the Civic Center area. Kahn is an environmental artist who won the commission to create this 12-story kinetic sculpture. His patron was the San Francisco Arts Commission.

His canvas is the front of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) headquarters. Kahn’s Firefly consists of thousands of five-inch-square, clear polycarbonate panels. He hinged the panels to move freely in the wind. Consequently, during the day, the effect appears to be as a wave. However, at night, the movement becomes a vibrant undulation of light. Importantly, the panels connect to electric switches that trigger tiny LED lights.

The lights mimic fireflies, a threatened species that needs riparian environments for its survival. Firefly is a permanent installation. Stand immediately below the sculpture on the sidewalk and look up to get the full effect of twinkling fireflies at night.

Language of the Birds, North Beach

"Language of the Birds" light art sculpture in San Francisco
“Language of the Birds” light art sculpture in San Francisco

Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn’s light sculpture, called Language of the Birds, is at the intersection of Broadway and Columbus Avenues in North Beach. This is a permanent installation, part of the Civic Art Collection, viewable 24 hours a day. The sculpture features a night lighting aspect.

The San Francisco Arts Commission authorized the artwork. Funds came from a two-percent-for-art program charged to developers. This piece is part of a pedestrian walkway between Chinatown and North Beach. The installation presents open books, as if in flight. As a result, the books resemble birds in motion. In conclusion, they could be pigeons or other species in flight. Wings flutter in different positions. Above all, at night, LED lights embedded in the books create changing visual patterns.

This sculpture is one of the first solar power-offset public artworks in California. To clarify, the sculpture pumps power into the City grid on sunny days.

Pedestrians walking here will notice words in the sidewalk below the books. The words seem to fall from pages of the books. Most importantly, the words are in English, Italian, and Chinese, reflecting nearby communities.

The efficiency of modern light creations greatly reduces the energy cost of light-as-art sculptures. In short, Kahn’s Firefly sculpture is extremely energy efficient. Consequently, it uses less energy than one old-fashioned 75-watt light bulb.

Current Permanent and Temporary Light Art Installations in San Francisco

The tourism folks at keep track of the permanent and temporary light art installations in San Francisco. To sum up, here is the current list as of November 2019:

San Francisco Travel offers a guide to all of the installations and artists at

They recommend some choices in a hand-picked 12 that make for a fantastic light art trail.


The newest additions to San Francisco’s light art collection are:

  • W.F.T., Joseph Kosuth (2019), Bill Graham Auditorium, 99 Grove St. – Permanent
  • Coding, Johanna Grawunder (2019), San Francisco International Airport, Long Term Parking Garage – Permanent
  • Seeing Spheres, Olafur Eliasson (2019), Chase Center, 1 Warriors Way – Permanent
  • Tara Mechani, Dana Albany (2019), Patricia’s Green, Octavia and Hayes Streets – Temporary
  • Grace Light, George Zisiadis (2019), Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St. – Temporary
  • Kaleidoscope, Karina Smigla-Bobinski (2019), Exploratorium, Pier 15 – Temporary


There are six temporary light artworks on view, including:

  • Tara Mechani, (2019), Patricia’s Green, Octavia and Hayes Streets, through 2020
  • Grace Light, George Zisiadis (2019), Grace Cathedral, 1100 California St. through 2020
  • Kaleidoscope, Karina Smigla-Bobinski (2019), Exploratorium, Pier 15, through 2020
  • Nightbloom, Lightswitch (2018), Conservatory of Flowers: 101 John F. Kennedy Dr. Nov. 22, 2019 – Jan. 5, 2020
  • Glow, Various Artists (2018), Exploratorium, Pier 15 on the Embarcadero, Dec. 5, 2019-Jan. 1, 2020
  • Community and Family Trees, Various Artists (2018), Davies Symphony Hall, through 2020

Permanent Part 1

There are 31 permanent light artworks within the city’s 49 square miles, including:

  1. Point Cloud, Leo Villareal (2019), Moscone Center, Howard between Third and Fourth Streets
  2. W.F.T., Joseph Kosuth (2019), Bill Graham Auditorium, 99 Grove St.
  3. Seeing Spheres, Olafur Eliasson (2019), Chase Center, 1 Warriors Way
  4. White Light, Jenny Holzer (2018), Salesforce Transit Center
  5. Day for Night (2018), Jim Campbell, Top of Salesforce Tower, 415 Mission St., Embarcadero
  6. “Hope Will Never Be Silent,” Illuminate (2017), Harvey Milk Plaza, Castro St.
  7. The Seed, Aphidoidea (2017), Jane Warner Plaza, Castro
  8. IIuminavia, HYBYCOZO (2017), Hotel VIA, ground level space at Bar VIA, 136 King Street, South Beach
  9.  LOVE OVER RULES (2017), Hank Willis Thomas, Annie Alley at Mission St., Yerba Buena
  10. Buckyball, Leo Villareal (2016), The Exploratorium, Pier 15 on the Embarcadero at Green St.
  11. Lamp of the Covenant, Dave Lane (2015), Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SOMA
  12. Spiral of Gratitude*, Shimon Attie and Vale Bruck (2015), 1245 Third St., Mission Bay
  13. Monarch, Cliff Garten (2015), Kaiser Permanente Medical Offices, 1600 Owens St., Mission Bay
  14. “…and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea” (Caruso’s Dream), Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn (2014), 55 Ninth St., south of Market St., Central Market
  15. Handsignals*, Matthew Passmore/MoreLab (2014) McCoppin at Valencia St., SOMA

Permanent Part 2

  1. Archipelago*, Anna Valentina Murch (2014), 1001 Potrero Ave., San Francisco General Hospital, Potrero
  2. Ethereal Bodies*, Cliff Garten (2014), 1001 Potrero Ave., San Francisco General Hospital, Potrero
  3. Bayview Rise, Haddad – Drugan (2014), Pier 92 at 3rd Street & Cargo Way, Bayview
  4. The Bay Lights, Leo Villareal (2013), San Francisco Bay Bridge West Span, Waterfront
  5. Lumina, MADLAB (2013), 181 Third St., W San Francisco Hotel, SOMA
  6. San Francisco at Night: Model Art Map, Lisa Gemmiti (2011), W SF Hotel, 181 Third Street, SOMA
  7. Language of the Birds*, Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn (2008), Broadway and Columbus Ave., North Beach
  8. Yud, Daniel Libeskind (2008), 736 Mission St., Contemporary Jewish Museum, SOMA
  9. PaRDes, Daniel Libeskind (2008), 736 Mission St., Contemporary Jewish Museum, SOMA
  10. Skygarden, James Turrell (2007), 90 Seventh Street facing Mission St., Central Market
  11. Ocean Mirror with Fragments, Jim Campbell (2007), Saunders Court, UCSF, Inner Sunset
  12. Anima, Jim Sanborn (2006), Alexandria Real Estate Equities, 1700 Owens Street, Mission Bay
  13. Three Gems, James Turrell (2005), de Young Museum, Barbro Osher Sculpture Garden, Golden Gate Park
  14. Constellation*, Nayland W. Blake (1996), San Francisco Main Library, 100 Larkin St., Civic Center
  15. Untitled (in Honor of Leo at the 30th Anniversary of His Gallery), Dan Flavin (1987), SFMOMA, 151 Third St., Yerba Buena
  16. “monument” for V Tatlin, Dan Flavin (1969), SFMOMA 5th Floor, 151 Third St., Yerba Buena

The Role of Light Arts

The medium of the past for art tended to be physical objects, such as sculpted stone and poured bronze. Moreover, another popular form was paint applied to a surface, such as canvas. However, in these modern light-as-art sculptures in San Francisco, new materials and strategies show their ingenuity. A computer or the wind might control the art. The light visible at night might itself be saved sunlight. The sunlight might be gathered by the art object during the sunny part of the day.

If you’re a local or a visitor to San Francisco, put “light art” of your short list of the fun and rewarding things that make exploration of The City a joy.



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