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.

'The client wanted the reception area Solarise: A Sea of Colors, by artists Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero, was conceived as a response to architecture and follows their other site-specific works, such as the 2012 Luminous Field at Millennium Park’s Cloud Gate and 2014’s INsite, which transformed the Farnsworth House into a canvas of light and sound. For this most recent endeavor, the partners and founders of the multidisciplinary practice Luftwerk created five distinct light-driven installations at the Conservatory, based on the 1907 building’s design by landscape architect Jens Jensen, who collaborated with Schmidt, Garden and Martin. Jensen’s intention was to create a landscape under glass, “which was revolutionary at the time,” says Bachmaier.

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.”


Chicago Park District

Chicago Park District

Luftwerk Ltd
860 N California Ave 1N
Chicago, IL 60622

Personnel in architect's firm who should receive special credit:
Lead Artist:
Luftwerk (Petra Bachmaier, Sean Gallero)

Architect providing project management services:
Jeremy Olsen, AIA, Studio Director, Olsen | Vranas Design and Build

Rigging and Installation:
Chicago Flyhouse

Navillus Woodworks; CFDevices

Electrical Subcontractor:
Continental Electric Construction Company, Continental Energy Solutions

Landscape: Matt Barrett, Deputy Director of Conservatories, Chicago Parks District
Lighting: Brett Gardner, Founder of RGBLights, Blake Lange and Austin Young, Philips

General contractor:

John Faier
Studio: 312.733.8054
iPhone: 312.961.3800



Completion date:

September 2015



Exterior cladding
Curtain wall:
AGA point-supported laminated glass storefront

Interior ambient lighting: Philips Colorblast fixtures,Philips PAR38

Façade embedded lighting:
Philips, iColor Flex LMX gen2, 14 strands, 48 nodes each, 672 nodes total, mounted via magnets

control: Pharos

Photovoltaic system: (6) SolarWorld PV Modules to create a 5.1kW array, offsetting the entire electrical consumption of the Beacon façade lighting. Array uses Enphase microinverters and monitoring unit.