LEDs have given architects a wonderful new tool for transforming urban space. Just don’t let the multimillion colour choices go to your head.

Jazzing up a public square or corporate piazza used to be simply a matter of new street furniture, more sophisticated paving and a scattering of planters. Now the stakes have been raised, with an increasingly theatrical element to design, especially lighting design.

This trend is partly technology driven and partly the result of theatrical techniques and equipment migrating into an architectural setting. LEDs have played a key role. Their longevity, low maintenance, low energy (though the jury is still out on some efficiency claims) and colour-changing opportunities make them an ideal tool. The trick is to avoid turning every space into a circus. A ‘paintbox’ of 16 million potential colours has been known to go to people’s heads.

Two recent projects are good examples of the intelligent use of LED systems and the different sorts of theatricality they can create. At the Lake of Dreams in Las Vegas the emphasis is on entertainment and spectacle, while at Grand Canal Square in Dublin Docklands the design is intended to encourage users of the space to interact with it.

The Lake of Dreams, which spans 1860m2, is the centrepiece of the $2.7bn Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino. The concept was for a big-budget spectacle, but one that proved colour doesn’t necessarily equal vulgarity. Even in the middle of Las Vegas, of all places, lighting designer Patrick Woodroffe was keen to avoid excess. ‘I’ve always believed simplicity, particularly in colour, is incredibly important,’ he says. ‘It’s very easy for there to be overload both dynamically and colour-wise.

‘We specifically started by saying no dragons heads spitting fire. The idea of the Lake of Dreams is a nice conceit but it meant there was very little that was three-dimensional or specific, it was all about light, projection and imagination. We wanted it to be this rather ethereal space.’

The lake is unique in its use of LEDs and is also the largest ever installation of Color Kinetics’ colour-change lighting systems, containing more than 4000 individually controlled underwater C-Splash 2 units. Bubbles from air compressors turn the water into a translucent canvas for a spectacular light and water show – the entire lake can be filled with bubbles in under 15 seconds. Graphic images are mapped to the LED units and precisely controlled through a DMX network. Intricate patterns can be created to complement the videos projected on to the waterfall behind the lake.

While Woodroffe’s scheme is a spectacle, Dublin Docklands’ Grand Canal project – roughly the same size as the Lake of Dreams – is about humanising the urban environment, allowing people to participate in the drama by interacting with the space. ‘We like the whole idea of the environment where you are part of the story or part of the whole spatial experience, whether you’re immersed in it or interacting with it,’ says lighting designer Jonathan Speirs of Speirs and Major Associates.

Grand Canal Square, where work is ongoing, is in the heart of the redeveloping Dublin Docklands. Daniel Libeskind is designing a galleria and a 2000-seat performing arts centre nearby. The landscape design by Martha Schwartz Partners focuses on three major elements: interactive red light sticks, and red and green ‘carpets’. The former will lead from the theatre and project over the canal, while the intersecting green carpet will connect a future hotel to an existing office block.

The red carpet is paved in a newly developed resin-glass material and will feature glowing light sticks, a metaphor for the ‘bustle’ of the celebrity walkway. The green carpet is calmer, with seating at various heights on the edges of planters interspersed with lawns. The planters will contain marsh vegetation as a reference to the historic wetlands of the site.

The 36 steel poles for the light sticks are 8m high. The red acrylic tubes of the lit sections range from 2.5m to 5m. Sensors on the poles register movement of people, activating the red LED clusters in the tubes above. The red carpet itself is delineated by continuous LED units recessed in the ground, which at night dramatically reinforce the landscape concept. Where the carpet extends over the dock, recessed floodlights create a red halo on the water. Green LED units at the planter bases wash the floor plane as well as illuminating the vertical face of the opposite planter.

‘Our rationale for using LEDs was the controllability element with regard to the sticks, so we could modulate them,’ says Speirs. ‘In terms of the lines of light in the ground and the green carpet, we wanted something that was reliable and with a long life.’

The choice of just two colours was carefully considered. ‘While there was a little bit of debate about the opportunity for celebration in terms of colour we felt it would be unfaithful to the overall concept of the square. It would be adding a level of decoration and visual clutter that just wasn’t necessary,’ he says.

Speirs, whose practice recently completed another interactive project in Bristol, says he is extremely interested in introducing this theatrical element to urban spaces. ‘We’re trying to create an architectural space as a stage – the people becomes the performers in the space which evolves and changes according to what the performer does.’