Entertainment lighting is now a permanent feature of Hong Kong’s waterfront with a choreographed light and sound show — featuring eighteen skyscrapers — that runs nightly throughout the year. Called “A Symphony of Lights,” the $15.5-million extravaganza opened in January, complete with accompanying music and narrative available on the radio or by mobile phone.
The multimedia production is the largest lighting and special effects show ever attempted. It represents a milestone in the adaptation of entertainment lighting techniques for architectural enhancement — a growing development worldwide, made possible by the onslaught of new lighting technologies.
A Symphony of Lights is a public-private venture designed to showcase key buildings along the waterfront of Victoria Harbor through dramatic architectural lighting. It is part of a comprehensive revitalization plan by the Hong Kong Tourism Commission to develop “five major tourism clusters in the territory with a view to enhancing the attractiveness of Hong Kong as a premier tourist destination.”
“Tourism forms a vital part of the economy of Hong Kong, and the harbor is a significant natural asset for the 18 million tourists who currently visit Hong Kong each year,” notes Miles Pepperall of Laservision Macro Media, the Australia-based entertainment company hired as creative and technical consultants for the project. Laservision is responsible for the concept design and production of the show, including its dramatic launch in January 2004, with a spectacular pyrotechnics display put on nightly for a month.
Launching the show, Hong Kong’s secretary for economic development and labor Stephen Ip said the permanent lighting project would “enhance Victoria Harbor’s attractiveness” and “encourage visitors to come to Hong Kong and extend their stay to generate more tourism income.” He described the show as “a proud symbol of our innovative spirit, representing community building, foresight and creativity…our core strengths which help to make Hong Kong ‘Asia’s World City.’”
Laservision managing director Paul McCloskey explains, “We wanted to give the city skyline and buildings a memorable visibility. Our Lighting Plan for the light show does this by lighting up the most spectacular and interesting city architecture in the central harbor area.” According to Pepperall, the company’s study leading to the Lighting Plan “represents the first time consideration was given to exploiting the asset in a highly visible and coordinated way.” He describes the process of implementing the Plan as follows:
Defining the most suitable buildings in a city as overwhelming as Hong Kong was a consuming process. A team consisting of project director Simon McCartney, assisted by lighting designer John Rayment and projection specialist Peter Milne, examined each building individually from a variety of angles to stimulate viewing from popular locations. The most prominent of these viewing locations is the Tsim Sha Tsui promenade which is located directly opposite the city of Hong Kong.
A priority list of highly visible structures that present well was then compiled. Consideration was given to the lighting techniques which would be suitable for each building in the skyline and the benefit those techniques would have individually, as part of the overall plan. Lastly, the form, texture, architectural merit, and significance of each of the structures were then prioritized, allowing a balanced visual distribution for our final list of selected buildings.
Audiences enjoying the Harbor Lighting Plan will notice that some sections of the city remain dark intentionally. This only improves the impression of the buildings that are lit. The buildings incorporated are well spaced for the most part and generally do not crowd each other. Prior to the application of the Harbor Lighting Plan, many buildings competed with one other in an uncoordinated fashion that ultimately led to overwhelming cases of light pollution.
The overall installation is massive in contemporary context. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), designed by Sir Norman Foster, alone has incorporated 716 intelligent lights, including 450 color-changing fluorescent fixtures in the glass stairwells, Martin Exterior 600s and 200 fixtures on five levels, and nearly a mile of LED lighting around the top of the building. A number of these dominant buildings have had searchlights incorporated in their lighting, creating an “extension” effect which reaches above the city and into the night.
Hong Kong Island is populated with a fantastic diversity of architecture. Due to the individual characteristics of the structures chosen, many of the effects incorporated onto individual buildings such as HSBC, Central Barracks, Jardine House, and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre can be viewed as individual lighting projects. Yet they play a key role in the overall scheme to create one of the most prominent skylines of the world. The dramatic harbor location affords a tranquil and endless reflection of the effects incorporated into the “new look” Hong Kong.
Stage One of the Harbor Lighting Plan included pyrotechnics on ten selected rooftops, which were fired nightly for the first month after the official opening. Firing over water has the advantage that every shot is reflected on the water, doubling the scale of the display. Due to the size of Victoria Harbor, the fireworks were visible from a greater distance than other comparable venues (Sydney at New Year, or London’s recent River of Fire on the Thames).
Lasers were incorporated into the Harbor Lighting Plan to increase the use of airborne special effects. Several buildings along the harbor including International Finance Centre 1 (IFC1), IFC2, and Central Plaza were chosen for projection via laser light, using high-powered 50-watt Stella Ray Lasers installed on their rooftops. Animated beams of light span the harbor, connecting the audience on the Tsim Sha Tsui with the show opposite them.
Among the many issues involving the use of lasers was the potential hazard to either marine navigation or aircraft in the vicinity. As was pointed out, the lasers used for theme shows within the harbor, while extremely bright, have a relatively high beam divergence. The laser effects also vary depending on air pollution and are especially predominant when projected through impurities in the air.
Hong Kong is blessed with a harbor suitable for large-scale events, although the best viewing areas are limited and problematic under stress of high patronage. Current improvements to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade are expected to increase pedestrian capacity in that area. On the Hong Kong side of the harbor, the Wan Chai/Central reclamation will also improve the viewing of events on the waterfront.
A significant issue discovered during the consultancy period was existing light pollution in Hong Kong. The Harbor Lighting Plan aims to reduce the detrimental impact of light pollution by minimizing spill, especially light that escapes vertically and would inevitably be reflected by cloud cover spreading the effects over a far greater area.
The lighting show is managed using controllers specifically designed to synchronize usually incompatible elements of the macro media industry, including lasers, architectural lighting, surround sound, fountains, aqua screens, large-format projection, pyrotechnics, and special FX. “We created the show by orchestrating the play of lights on the buildings. This was done using the Internet with a highly sophisticated master control system (Media-Manager) linked to each of the building’s digital Data-Pump control systems,” explains Laservision’s McCloskey.
Digitally encoded data containing the characteristics of a macro media show are stored in the Data-Pump. This stored data is ready for real time distribution over fiber-fed networks, which are impervious to problems with traditional wire cables including moisture, dry joints, electrical and magnetic radiation, lightning, and electrical spikes.
“Since its launch on January 17,” reports the Tourism Commission, “the Show has been very well received by the tourism trade, visitors, and the local community… The Tourism Commission will organize rooftop pyrotechnic displays again in the future for special occasions.” In addition, the Hong Kong Tourism Board has developed a Guided Architecture Tour, in collaboration with the Hong Kong Institute of Architects, so that “visitors can appreciate historical and modern landmarks with knowledge shared by a local architect.”
Sources for this article include “Hong Kong Harbour Lighting Plan” by Miles Pepperall, the Hong Kong Tourism Commission, and Mondo’Arc magazine (Feb/Mar 2004).