Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory is a historic structure known for its extensive botanical collections. For the next year, however, the nearly 90,000-square-foot glazed building will be home to a very different attraction—one that will illuminate the architecture of its contiguous display houses.
Bachmaier and Gallero began discussions with the Chicago Park District in 2011, after the Conservatory was badly damaged during a hailstorm. The city wanted to create a site-specific installation there to celebrate its grand reopening after extensive repairs. The partners received the go-ahead for the project’s final design in March 2015, just one month prior to the reopening of the Conservatory in April. On view for one year, from September 23 through September 22, 2016, this series of installations—named The Beacon, Portal, Florescence, Seed of Light, and Prismatic—is illuminated by 672 LEDs, all powered by a photovoltaic array located atop a nearby building on the grounds.
The first of the Solarise installations is immediately visible as one approaches the entrance to the Conservatory. Aptly named The Beacon, it wraps the expansive glass roof of the building’s Palm House—a vaulted space inspired by a prairie haystack. For this dynamic display, the artists attached rows of the light-emitting diodes to the structure’s steel ribs with magnets, accentuating its skeletal frame. The lighting is controlled by an anemometer, which measures the speed and course of the wind. The effect: patterns of light that mimic the swaying of prairie grass. The color shifts as the spectrum of flora inside changes with the seasons.
The exhibit continues inside, just west of the Palm House, in the Conservatory’s Fern Room. Here Bachmaier and Gallero utilize a series of multifaceted mirrors for Portal, which frames a waterfall designed by Jensen and evokes a reflecting pool, inviting visitors to meditate on their surroundings.
Florescence, located in the Show House next door, is a flora-inspired canopy made up of acrylic “petals” that hug the ceiling. Taking its cues from the red and blue spectrums of sunlight that plants use to photosynthesize growth, this intervention filters the sun’s rays during the day. At night, light from LED banks mounted on the metal framework above casts colorful shadows and highlights the plants below.
From there, visitors move on to Seed of Light in the Horticulture Hall. Created in collaboration with event producer Bill Bartolotta, this graceful chandelier comprises an integrated computer-controlled plumbing system at the top that releases synchronized water droplets onto circular glass trays. Slender pendant fixtures, suspended above, enhance the gentle dripping sound as they illuminate the water and crystalline surfaces, projecting ever-changing patterns and shadows on the floor below.
The last installation, Prismatic, is on the building’s west side in the Desert House. Suspended from the ceiling, it is composed of prism-shaped acrylic spokes that refract the sun’s rays so that they move across the plants in a changing display throughout the day. Illuminated in the evening, Prismatic is accompanied by a sonic component from composer Owen Clayton Condon, who was on hand for the installation’s opening to “play” the conservatory’s desert plants by plucking the hard needles of the various cacti.
The effect throughout the exhibit is beautiful, haunting, and occasionally eerie as one detects the drip of the water chandelier and experiences the dry air of the Desert House. The artists hope that Solarise will bring more Chicagoans to appreciate their landmark Conservatory. “I just want visitors to be enchanted,” Bachmaier says. “Not only by the exhibit but by the Conservatory.”
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