CHALLENGE When the city of Raleigh, N.C., envisioned its new 500,000-square-foot convention center, displaying the building's massive air-conditioning system was not part of the design strategy. But given the building's prominent downtown location with all four elevations in public view, there was no “back of house” space to conceal the HVAC equipment. Left with the mechanical infrastructure sitting on the south façade along McDowell Street where upward of 80,000 cars drive by daily, the team had to figure out a way to hide the equipment with a visually pleasing treatment. The City of Raleigh, with its rich tradition of public art, called on local design firm, Clearscapes, to explore an artistic solution that would screen the unsightly equipment and create a dynamic art feature for the convention center.

SOLUTION Clearscapes principal, artist, and architect Thomas Sayre conceived a screen-like wall that would respond to and interact with the immediate surrounds and the elements. The “Shimmer Wall,” as it has been dubbed, measures 211-feet-long by 44-feet-tall. The installation is made up of 79,464 4-inch-square aluminum panels, which are suspended from a 14-bay aluminum frame. The aluminum panels are a mix of light and dark squares that depict the image of an oak tree, a tie to Raleigh's nickname—the City of Oaks. As the aluminum pieces flutter in the breeze and catch the light, the tree appears to be “alive,” its shape continuously morphing. No high-tech wizardry, the animation is nothing more than a straightforward manual response to wind and sun that satisfies the airflow requirement for the HVAC system.

But the team was not content to have the piece operate only during daylight hours. Rather, the designers wanted the piece to have a nighttime presence, so they created an electrically illuminated system that would stay true to the installation's sense of movement while offering a different kind of sparkling pixilation. Thanks to a $1 million donation from Durham-based semiconductor company Cree, who has worked with the city through the LED City initiative, an RGB light-emitting diode (LED) luminaire provided the right mix of illumination capability and technical control. No public funds were used to build the project. Twenty-eight fixtures measuring 48 inches long, two per bay, are attached to the aluminum frame and backwash the aluminum panels. The fixtures provide a slow fade between colors offering “subtle, artful changes” similar to the sun, Sayre says. The DMX-controlled color loop runs over a period of three to four hours to ensure a “natural” appearance for the nighttime color-changing component. By marrying the ever-changing qualities of natural elements with the subtleties of LED lighting, a sculpted solution for Raleigh's convention center is brought to life.

Project Shimmer Wall, Raleigh Convention Center, Raleigh, N.C.
Design Team Clearscapes, Raleigh, N.C. (Shimmer Wall art installation); Ned Kahn, Sebastopol, Calif. (consulting artist); TVS, Atlanta (convention center design architect); O'Brien Atkins, Durham, N.C. (convention center architect)
Images Provided Courtesy of Cree
Project Size 9,284 square feet
Manufacturers Architecture Alternatives, Beta, Cree, Lighting Science Group