I used to ask myself the same thing when I first saw that thing being added to the Science Center. Obviously the center's staff wanted to do something to smooth out the boxy lines of the original building, which looks like some kind of intergalactic garbage scow that crash-landed by the side of the Allegheny. But when the funnel-like apparatus was attached to the roof in 1999, it was hard to know what to make of it. It looks a little like one of those radio telescopes that are always pointed to the sky, listening for signs of alien intelligence. Then again, it also looks a bit like a 19th-century hearing aid, which seemed oddly appropriate. It's as if to say that when Pittsburgh wants to hear the music of the spheres, we need an ear trumpet.
It turns out, however, that the sculpture's physical form is only part of the work. By day, it's a somewhat oblique, 66-foot-wide, 44-foot-tall thingy. At night, however, it's a somewhat oblique, 66-foot-wide, 44-foot-tall thingy that glows.
Titled "E-Motion," the sculpture was designed by New York architect Shashi Caan and lighting designer Matthew Tanteri. It's installed on the roof of the center's Omnimax Theater, along with five lamps that project shifting patterns of colors across the sculpture's fabric at night. Most of the time I've seen it, the result is a sort of blue-green wash, though other color combinations are rotated through during the year.
According to the Science Center, the light display unites "the science and art of color, light and form, illustrating how colors subliminally evoke moods and moods evoke emotions." (If you thought moods and emotions were the same thing, you just don't understand science. Look harder.)
The entire lighting program is run with computers, though Science Center press materials note that someday the sculpture may be interactive. In the future, "The public would be able to choose the lighting sequence" from such places as Point State Park and Mount Washington, the Science Center predicts. This is a good idea, especially if we can hook the thing up to an electric keyboard and play music to accompany the lights. That way, we can use the Science Center to talk to the aliens Close Encounters of the Third Kind-style when the mother ship arrives.
Unfortunately, a lot of "E-Motion"'s mystique disappeared a couple years later, when the Science Center installed a series of 12-foot-high letters spelling out "Carnegie Science Center" around the walls of the Omnimax Theater. Suddenly, something that was sort of mysterious and ethereal became just another corporate logo.
The irony is that Caan insisted the logo be added; two years after "E-Motion" was installed, the architect returned to Pittsburgh to ask that the sign be installed. Otherwise, she was quoted telling the city's zoning board in a 2001 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, "[T]he sculpture is incomplete." In those days, officials like City Councilor Jim Ferlo were worried that there were too many corporate signs going up all over town, and that they were ruining the city's skyline. But Science Center officials said the letters had to be huge and lit up, because otherwise they wouldn't be noticed beside the signs going up at Heinz Field.
If you ask me, there's a little nerd-versus-jock insecurity going on here, and the battle over lit-up signs was settled long ago. (Today, aliens visiting Pittsburgh would know just where to do their banking and buy their insurance.) But it's hard to argue with museum officials' enthusiasm about the original sculpture. As the center enthuses, "The light sculpture is fashioned from polyester-based fabric weave with a PVC coating that is both UV protected and flame retardant. It is in the shape of a hyperboloid of revolution!"
OK, so maybe you're not the sort of person who gets excited enough about hyperboloid revolutions to punctuate them with an exclamation mark. Maybe you think a "hyperboloid" is something you treat with a topical cream. Well for you, Einstein, the Science Center has a nice model railroad on display this holiday season. Try not to drool on it, OK?