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, with the City as the dark canvas. Light art has become a major form of artistic expression in San Francisco in recent years.

The most dramatic of 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 was called back to become a perennial visual joy. This was a wise civic decision.

There are now many other major light-as-art installations in the City. They are compelling to view all year, but particularly in the December Holidays period, the darkest time of the year, the Winter Solstice, when some message of illumination regarding the human condition is widely sought.

Here are 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 has been rebuilt as a pedestrian walkway and can be considered 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, you can stand at the end of this pier and look back at the San Francisco skyline. In the Holiday period, the Embarcadero Center Buildings are lit up with lights like boxy Christmas gifts.

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

Leo Villareal's earlier light art sculpture, "Bay Lights," on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge west span
Leo Villareal’s earlier light art sculpture, “Bay Lights,” on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge west span

Leo Villareal set a high bar for competing light artists when he had both the ingenuity and the political clout to set up a Bay Bridge light display that became a locals and visitor favorite.  Walk out on Pier 14 to witness a parallel to this original and audacious lighting masterpiece, a tour de force.

This undertaking will be seen historically as a parallel to lighting the Eiffel Tower in Paris at night. Villareal presents what is said to be the world’s largest LED light sculpture, about 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high, with 25,000 LED lights that he has individually programmed. The light sculpture originally celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge birth (1936) with a never-repeating and dazzling display of light on the vertical strands of steel cable holding up the bridge. It became iconic, with calls for a repeat performance.

Firefly, Golden Gate at Polk

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, in the Civic Center area. Kahn is an environmental artist who won the commission to create this 12-story kinetic sculpture from 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. The panels are hinged to move freely in the wind. During the day, the effect appears to be as a wave. At night, the movement becomes a vibrant undulation of light because the panels are connected to electric switches that trigger tiny LED lights.

The lights are said to 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

"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 and featuring a night lighting aspect.

This piece was commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission. Where do they get the money? Funds come 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 books, as if in flight. The books resemble birds in motion, as if pigeons have taken flight, with wings in different positions. At night LED lights embedded in the books create changing visual patterns.

This sculpture is said to be one of the first solar power-offset public artworks in California. 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 have fallen from the pages of the books and are in English, Italian, and Chinese, reflecting the nearby communities.

The efficiency of modern light creation sources greatly reduces the energy cost of running a light-as-art sculpture. Incredibly, it is said that the entire Ned Kahn “Firefly” sculpture is so efficient that it uses less energy that one old-fashioned 75-watt light bulb.

The Role of Light Arts

The medium of the past for art has tended to be physical objects, such as sculpted stone and poured bronze, or paint applied to a surface, such as canvas. However, in these modern light-as-art sculptures in San Francisco, new materials and strategies are at play. The light might well be controlled by a computer or the wind. And the light visible at night might itself be saved sunlight, 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 in the City a joy.

See Lee’s four Northern California books/ebooks on his Amazon Author Page.
See Lee’s books/ebooks
on his Amazon Author Page and in independent bookstores, such as Book Passage in the San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco figures prominently in my book/ebook titled The Photographer’s Guide to San Francisco. My main book/ebook on Northern California is Northern California Travel: The Best Options. Those volumes, including some more on California, can be seen on my Amazon Author Page. My further books on Northern California are Back Roads California and Northern California History Weekends. One of my California books, Northern California Travel: The Best Options, is now available as an ebook in Chinese.


  1. It is easy to sign up for an email note for my weekly posts. See the upper right side of the website and “Email Signup for Lee’s New Posts.” You’ll get an announcement with a link every week.


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