Diane Mastrull: Philadelphia's Lighting Practice illuminates a growing field

The Empire State Building
The Empire State Building
Posted: January 01, 2013

Alfred Borden was in high school when a light went on about his future - figuratively and literally.

The dream of the Philadelphia boy born in Queens, N.Y., was to work with lighting on Broadway. He got as far as Off-Broadway, working to "create environments for other people to act in," he said.

What he didn't like was its impermanence.

"I figured out pretty quickly that I was more interested in working on designs that last," Borden recalled recently.

So he formed the Lighting Practice in 1989, a Philadelphia lighting-design company of 16 employees and $2 million in annual billings that endures despite a number of significant challenges, the most pressing of which is the potential fiscal cliff and the chill it has put on clients' commitments to capital projects.

"Projects that stop and start, that's a challenge as a business owner," said Helen Diemer, president of the Lighting Practice, which had to eliminate half its staff to survive the recession and the lingering lean times that plague the design-and-build sectors.

Challenging, too, are the ever-changing energy-efficiency requirements and dark-sky restrictions that can put a crimp in creativity.

Yet the small firm just off Independence Mall has been capturing some serious spotlight for its work - from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and Avenue of the Arts in Philadelphia to that grand island of lights to the north, Manhattan.

There, the Lighting Practice worked on the system design - the selection, specification, and placement of lighting fixtures and controls - for a new LED show that bathes the top tiers of the 102-story Empire State Building in a variety of hues. The skyscraper's new look made its debut in November to the choreographed accompaniment of Grammy Award winner Alicia Keys.

In early December, Borden's company wrapped up a project for the Helmsley Building on Park Avenue, where a computerized, multicolor LED lighting system designed and programmed by the Lighting Practice puts on a show that changes every half-hour and is visible from 40 blocks away.

Those projects are a high-profile step up from the Lighting Practice's first major job many years ago: an interior office fit-out of Conrail headquarters in Commerce Square.

After that, among the firm's local big breaks was landing a role in the $2.1 million Parkway lighting project completed in 2004. That involved lighting the facades of nine civic buildings and 14 sculptures and monuments, said Paul Levy, president and CEO of the Center City District, which oversaw the effort.

"We were trying to tell a story with light," Diemer said of the firm's objective. "The idea is this is the museum mile, the cultural mile."

But its initial proposal - projecting images on buildings, such as books on the Free Library of Philadelphia - was considered "a little too edgy, too overt," she said. "Then we took a look at what is unique and interesting about each building to bring to light."

At the library and Family Court, for instance, it was the pediments and colonnades.

In Levy's opinion, the tougher job the Center City District asked the Lighting Practice to handle was the $2.2 million Avenue of the Arts illumination along South Broad Street. The task: coordinating facade lighting on 12 buildings from a range of eras - 1890s to 1920s, 1940s, and '50s - and a modern parking garage.

The Lighting Practice's fee for design work, and to oversee construction installation and perform periodic maintenance over the last three years, has been $234,000, about 10 percent of the total capital costs, Levy said.

"They really have an understanding of the architecture of buildings and how you create a coordinated plan," he said.

That plan, Diemer said, was to get a group of buildings "to dance together."

So much for lighting being just a bunch of bulbs. Indeed, educating plays no small part in her life and that of her colleagues - to their frustration, theirs is a craft that still has to be sold.

"Not everyone thinks they need a lighting designer," Diemer said.

There is a bright side, so to speak. In anticipation of an influx of new patients resulting from the Affordable Care Act, the health-care industry is building new facilities and adding o existing ones - and recognizing lighting as important to establishing "a sense of hospitality," said Michael Barber, another principal at the Lighting Practice.

At the new Capital Health Medical Center in Hopewell, N.J., Barber used halogen lights to illuminate the wall that serves as a backdrop for a waterfall in an outdoor dining area to establish "this magical kind of space."

Other opportunities include casinos and hotels. The latter are looking to "freshen up," Borden said, as the hospitality industry continues its rebound efforts in a still-struggling economy.

Ever the urbanist, Borden sees growth prospects in cities across the nation, as young professionals and empty-nesters continue migrating to them. It might not be the dazzle of Broadway, but for Borden, lighting a city bike trail or the exterior of a train station has impact, nonetheless.

"Lighting is a very expressive medium," he said. "Think of all the things that would change if the lighting were different."


Diane Mastrull:

Founder Alfred Borden explains how his business, the Lighting Practice, has grown in the Philadelphia region and beyond. Go to www.philly.com/business


Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|