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Keeping Current

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Imagine having an idea so great that it actually becomes the universal symbol for the good idea.

 

 

Ding! The light bulb! No self-respecting cartoon character can ever think of something good without one suddenly appearing. Yet, despite their potent symbolism, actual light bulbs are now pretty prosaic. Ironically enough, they now far outnumber the fresh insights they sometimes represent. And have you shopped for them lately? Regular, Globe, Fiesta, Indicator. Incandescent, neon, halogen. I haven't even gotten into wattages. If the lights weren't on, I'd probably fall asleep just thinking about it.

 

Fortunately, Duquesne Light has recognized this bulb fatigue. With the help

of Springboard, the Pittsburgh-based architecture design and communications

firm, the company is solving this problem with a pavilion at the Pittsburgh Home and Garden Show, which runs through March 13 at the David L. Lawrence Convention

Center. As the show's primary sponsor, the company has a pronounced mandate to create an extraordinary exhibit among the conventional (in all respects) booths for alarm systems, vinyl siding and window films. "I want to be sure that ours stands out from the crowd and tells everyone what our product is," says Rich Seiber, manager of corporate communications.

 

But in recent years, the company has used very predictable trade-show

booths and a game-show premise from television -- a flickering light of a

particularly uninspiring variety. Too bad, because electricity, expositions and architecture in exciting forms go together historically and in the present. In 1893, millions of Americans saw the first light bulbs of their lives illuminating the stunning Beaux Arts architecture of Chicago's Columbian Exposition. The Westinghouse Memorial in Schenley Park commemorates the achievement.

 

So it's especially appropriate that Duquesne Light went to Springboard. Designers of numerous art exhibitions and museums (among other building types), the firm's exhibition design for Light: The Industrial Age. 1750 - 1900. Art, Science, Technology and Society, at the Carnegie Museum of Art in 2001 engaged the subtleties of illumination with insight and nuance.

 

The Duquesne Light pavilion itself is a partially open assembly of lightweight walls of varying degrees of transparency and translucency. Though compact, each section of wall implies continuity beyond its actual dimensions. A set of "lab tables" occupies the interior space. Each table connects to an outer wall with a slender but energetic curved moulding at its top.

 

An engaging aspect of this pavilion is that rather than aim for the monumentality of a forgotten era, it acknowledges that lighting has become an everyday occurrence, then it works to restore to that experience the wonder and substance that familiarity has stripped away. "We use common, ubiquitous elements in ways that bring more attention to them," explains Springboard principal Paul Rosenblatt.

 

The walls themselves exemplify this approach. Made in one section of a prefabricated storage system, they are off-the-shelf shelves. Here, though, they are unexpectedly enclosed in Plexiglas and lit from within by a delicately composed gaggle of light bulbs. Not simply task lighting, each one contributes to an artful composition as an instance of creativity reaffirmed. The side wall uses a similar approach, but with translucent, corrugated enclosures and a more softly glowing fluorescence as light source.  What seems in the aisle at Kmart like a wanton superfluity -- too many light bulbs -- emerges here as a palette for poetic architectural expression, at least when placed in the right hands.

 

And those hands could be yours. The "lab tables" are inspired by an electrical compressor unit, which gives them their outward-curving forms. They are actually educational stations, each with a hands-on activity relating to electricity. There's a Safety Station, a Conservation Station and an Illumination Station. The favorite might be the Generation Station, in which visitors pedal a bicycle to make enough electricity to light up scenes of Pittsburgh. It's a powerful reinforcement for Duquesne Light, whose sponsorship of illuminated bridges and Christmas decorations seems so matter-of-fact, until you try to do it yourself.

 

Seiber is pleased with the fun, interactive nature of the lab tables. "If you can engage people in some kind of activity, you get more out of the booth and more value out of being here," he says.

 

Rosenblatt is also quite justifiably enthusiastic about his "boutique of ideas about electricity." The artistry and insight that lighting symbolizes have been switched back on.

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