This year marks the centennial of the now-ubiquitous LED—the light-emitting diode. But it's taken until the last decade for LEDs to develop to the point where architects can exploit their technological and aesthetic advantages at a large scale.

Eric Höweler and Meejin Yoon are partners in Boston-based Höweler+Yoon Architecture. Their first lighting design was on a very public stage: The pair won an international competition for an outdoor interactive installation beneath the Parthenon during the 2004 Athens Olympics. Their solution, White Noise White Light, required a hands-on approach. Höweler and Yoon prefabricated the curving fiber-optic fixtures in Boston themselves, soldering the circuit boards and producing the plastic housing and polycarbonate cover plates. “Because it was temporary, we felt it was OK,” explains Yoon. It was only a 30-day installation, and there was no warranty.

The experience and publicity that Höweler+Yoon gained from the Olympics project have led to new commissions and further explorations in up-to-the-nanosecond lighting technologies. Yoon explains that the four-person office approaches lighting as architects. “In our discipline, people are trained to be fearless,” she says. “They think they can do anything. If you work component by component, you can figure it out.”

LIGHT HELIX, Washington, D.C., Spring 2008 A Washington, D.C., law firm has commissioned Höweler+Yoon to design a light installation within a six-story-tall spiral stair. “They wanted something technologically affirmative, attractive, and light-based,” says Höweler. The solution, centered in the stair's 6-foot-wide opening, is a wire helix that supports a series of 6-inch-long LED fixtures with a pixel at each end.

There are four wires that—in addition to providing structural support—supply power to the LEDs and send a message to each pixel controlling on/off and color functions, depending on programmed signals sent from sensors. Höweler and Yoon plan to activate the lights based upon movement on the stair. “If you take two steps forward, one step back, the lights will flicker and trace you,” explains Höweler, who refers to this sort of interaction as a “digital shadow.” “It tempts you to deploy your body in specific ways,” he says.

Both Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler teach architecture at MIT. Access to the school's milling machine facilitates their firm's research.
Both Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler teach architecture at MIT. Access to the school's milling machine facilitates their firm's research.

Will Pickering, principal of Brooklyn, N.Y.–based Parallel Development, is the firm's go-to technology consultant. “Will is trained as an artist,” says Höweler. “He has incredible skills in programming and fabrication—metal fabrication and electronics fabrication.” The proposed colors for Light Helix are a direct result of Pickering's interest in developing an RGB LED pixel that can display of millions of colors. (RGB refers to the red, green, and blue color language of TV and computer monitors.)

The method of sensing movement for Light Helix is still being developed, also in collaboration with Pickering. A passive infrared (IR) sensor is one possibility. “Passive IR measures difference—for example, temperature,” explains Yoon. “It calculates what's normative, then reacts when there's change.” Another option is to integrate a pressure sensor in each tread, which would produce a higher resolution response to movement on the stair. Either way, the controller will be a custom product. “Because we can't find a product that does what we want it to do, we develop our own electronic thing,” says Yoon.

Höweler stresses the fun of interaction with the light. “It's digital narcissism,” he says. “You fall in love with your image, which is being broadcast to you.”

LIGHT DRIFT, Boston, Spring 2008 Höweler+Yoon's Light Drift promises to be an on-water, high-tech ballet of artificial, jellyfishlike plastic pods, illuminated by solar-powered LEDs. The units will be tethered to one another and anchored to the harbor floor. A 9-foot difference between low tide and high tide in Boston Harbor will dramatically affect the form of the composition. At high tide, the cables will tighten, and the pieces will coalesce into something of a grid. Low tide will leave the cables loose, and the pods will spread across the water's surface.

The pod shape is not yet finalized. Initial studies were pillowlike in form; newer variations interlock and play with the patterns possible with the tides. “We're testing different shapes and their performance in the water,” explains Yoon. Each piece will be self-contained, powered by its own photovoltaic power source, battery, and LED light. The solar panel acts as a light meter, charging from the sunlight during the day and lighting the fixture after dark. “We're interested in finding wireless energy—energy that's not plugged into a wall,” says Höweler.

Unlike Light Helix, “Light Drift's electronics are straightforward because it's not interactive,” explains Höweler. While some rubber castings were done for the housing, current material investigations are exploring vacuum-formed PET—also known as polyethylene terepthalate, the same plastic used in milk containers. The concept is to develop a two-part assembly of a translucent material that can be put together with the electronic components in the middle. “We're finding that the things that fail first are the low-tech parts, the mechanical components rather than the electronics,” says Yoon.

LED technology is developing rapidly. Brighter light, better energy efficiency, and even longer life are expected within just a few years. Höweler insists that their work is low-tech because they're working with just a couple of LEDs at a time and are not interested in high-intensity output. But, he notes, “We're doing some interesting things in terms of integration into environments.”

Light Drift's success will rely on how it creates the surreal impression of a luminous, gelatinous substance floating on the water's surface. “If we could figure out how to make a bioluminous jellyfish,” says Yoon, “we'd be happy.”