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Seattle Space Needle Receives Modern Lighting Upgrade

Seattle Space Needle
(Image credit: Harman Professional Solutions)

To provide Seattle's iconic Space Needle with a versatile and modern outdoor lighting system, installation specialists LVH Entertainment Systems and lighting designer Erik Crowell with Niteo deployed Martin Professional Exterior Projection 500 and 1000 fixtures. 

Built in 1962 and inspired by the Space Age, the Space Needle is a staple of the Seattle skyline known for its stunning views from the flying saucer-like observation deck. In 2017, the Space Needle announced an ambitious multi-year renovation project that aimed to modernize the visitor experience while also honoring the tower’s history. As a homage to the original concept art from the 1960s, the Space Needle now features a floor-to-ceiling glass interior and expanded glass panels on the upper-level observation deck, which provide enhanced and uninhibited views of Seattle and the Puget Sound.

Seattle Space Needle

(Image credit: Harman Professional Solutions)

However, the tower’s longtime outdoor lighting fixtures, which illuminate the Space Needle nightly, created excessive glare through the all-new revolving glass floor. The Space Needle requested a new, more versatile system that still provided the same iconic lighting for the landmark but also reduced glare and shadows cast through the glass floor for nighttime visitors. To meet these requirements, LVH Entertainment Systems, in partnership with Niteo, installed a cutting-edge and innovative system featuring Martin Exterior Projection 500 and 1000 fixtures that debuted on New Year’s Eve 2021.

“Early in the process for the top hat design renovations, we flagged to the team that by putting in a glass floor and maintaining the existing 1000-watt metal halide lights mounted down at the ground level, even from that height, the visitor experience could be impacted by the glare from those fixtures and light trespass into the space,” said Crowell. “So our goal in redesigning the exterior lighting was to enhance the nighttime visitor experience on the new rotating glass floor while maintaining the iconic design of the floodlighting done by Ross De Alessi, which everybody associates with that nighttime view in Seattle. We started thinking, ‘Well, in an ideal world, what would we do?’ The answer is that we'd light up just the opaque parts of the structure, which were the legs and bottom pan, and we’d trim out all of the lighting that went through the glass floor.” 

Seattle Space Needle

(Image credit: Harman Professional Solutions)

After a series of trials, Niteo found that specially designed gobos that intricately outlined the Space Needle’s structure and blacked out parts where the glass floor was visible would dramatically reduce glare and unwanted shadows in the observation areas. In order to determine each gobo’s unique design, Niteo worked with Jason Davis, vice president at LVH Entertainment Systems, and the installation team to insert a custom designed grid pattern in each projector to clearly map which areas needed to be blacked out. Niteo then used this information to create the gobo patterns in Photoshop. The Martin Exterior Projection Series’ high-contrast image capabilities, wide zoom range, and impressively high output were all crucial features to the success of this installation. 

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“In most projector bulbs, there's a reflector behind it that’s designed to push and scatter as much light out as possible,” explained Davis. “The Exterior Projections instead form the light into more of a tight beam, which allowed us to take a more accurate reading of the grid on the Space Needle. The gobo of the grid was literally as big as a watch face, but we were still able to take something of that size and project it with a high resolution. You can't even read the numbers when you're staring at it in your hand, but the light from the projectors came out perfectly and allowed Erik to be able to surgically remove the light from where we didn't want it.” 

“I think that the solution is about as technical as it gets from an exterior lighting perspective and as nuanced and precise as you can possibly be with an exterior lighting application,” added Crowell. “All creative aspects aside, we had more than our work cut out for us to make it all come together.” 

Featuring a weatherproof design for use on long-term and permanent installations, the Martin Exterior Projection 1000 ensures solid beams and striking washes in any weather condition—necessary characteristics for any installation in the famously wet and overcast Seattle area. The Exterior Projection 1000 also supports full CMY color mixing and remote control via DMX, giving Space Needle staff an easy and safe way to change the lights’ colors for holidays and occasional civic special events. 

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“With the old lighting system, changing the colors of the lights involved somebody physically going up to each fixture and putting a theatrical gel on it to get the color that they want,” explained Crowell. “So the ability to change those things safely and quickly with the push of a button on a screen is huge. The tower’s management brings it up in every meeting how excited they are about that. I don't think they've envisioned a use for all of the capabilities of the Martin projectors yet, but the ability for those fixtures to project patterns and create kinetic moving things along the façade is another tool that they can use during shows on their façade or other special events.” 

Meanwhile, the Martin Exterior Projection 500 offers many of the same features as the Exterior Projection 1000 but in a smaller enclosure, making it an ideal fill light for the Space Needle’s lower legs and curved surfaces. The resulting new lighting system maintains the Space Needle’s iconic nighttime look from the outside, while the glass interior and observation deck’s views are uninhibited by the lights below. Organizers for the Space Needle are pleased with the lighting potential for future events.  

“In terms of the feature set, these Martin lights have the features that other lights are struggling to even incorporate,” added Davis. “They're pretty cutting edge in terms of what they're able to do and they're really high-quality. I think the Space Needle will be in good hands for a long time with this rig.”