"Anyway you look at it, Pittsburghers love light." So boasted the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership last summer, when the display you're asking about was unveiled. And really, who can argue with a statement like that? If you think about it, without light, you couldn't "look at it" any way. ('Cause it would be really dark, see.)
I suspect that as far as the alleyways of Downtown are concerned, many Pittsburghers once preferred to be in the dark. Walking through the city's more appealing alleys is like stepping into a faded photograph of Pittsburgh's past: There are rusting fire escapes, windows no one looks into or out of, old brick walls painted with advertisements for products no one can remember. But the dingier alleys, like the portion of Strawberry between Liberty Avenue and Smithfield Street, were dank and foreboding, often choked with refuse inside and outside of Dumpsters.
The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership took steps to change that back in 2003, when it announced plans to "reclaim" Strawberry Way and four other Downtown alleys.
To do so, they hired the local landscape architects of Klavon Design Associates. The firm designed not only the 100-foot-long series of light panels you mention, but the glowing signage on either end of the alley and some other lighting as well. In June 2003, the PDP described Klavon's work as a light-and-sound spectacular straight out of Blade Runner or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The lighting, the PDP pledged, would "creat[e] new energy and vibrancy by introducing light to the alley's horizontal and vertical surfaces" -- or "the ground and walls," as my people call them. The light would be infused "through illuminated signage and attaching bands of light to structures and embedding light in walkways and paved surfaces." Who knows? These displays could be so visually compelling that they might even distract passersby from noticing that funny smell. Well done, Mr. Spielberg!
But I kid the good people at KDA. The firm has won awards for its Strawberry Way work, and deservedly so. And the PDP deserves credit for recognizing and trying to capitalize on an under-appreciated asset. Alleyways have big-city mystique, and a bit of big-city menace as well. Watch the crowds leaving a concert at Heinz Hall some night and see what happens when they pass the mouths of alleys: Even as their pace quickens, their eyes linger on the darkness. What's going on in there? Drug deals? Public figures engaged in sexual trysts? It could be anything. That's what city living is all about.
In fairness, though, the light bulb didn't go off in the Downtown Partnership's head alone. Using light to transform Downtown has been part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust's agenda since the late 1990s. In an attempt to enhance the area, the organization retained artist and designer Robert Wilson, who in 2000 told an architectural magazine the principles that guided his ideas: "Everything begins with light," he said, a sentiment I'm pretty sure I've heard expressed by someone -- God, maybe? -- before.
"Without light there's no space," Wilson continued. "And space can't exist without time: they are part of one thing."
Talking like that, my friends, is how you get grant money. Indeed, one of the projects Wilson's rhetoric inspired is still visible today from inside PNC Park: It's a sort of luminescent billboard featuring a floating triangle that slides about a field of shifting light.
As for who's responsible for the Strawberry Way project, the PDP, the Cultural Trust and the city's Urban Redevelopment Authority combined to pay $80,000 of the cost. The millionaires of the Duquesne Club, meanwhile, agreed to pay for the electricity the project uses -- just the kind of generosity they're known for. (We can only hope they didn't stiff the valet on his tip to come up with it.) But the largest contribution, some $75,000, came from an anonymous donor. I wish I could shed some light on who he is, but suffice it to say that whatever this shadowy person is up to, he's probably doing it in a different alley these days.