When owner Anthony Malkin found his Empire State Building’s dominance of the New York skyline under attack, he turned to Hong Kong for an idea that could dazzle any rival into submission: light.
The 1,200 newly installed lamps now illuminating the skyscraper’s famous spire have brought the most visible change to the Art-Deco building since it was raised over Manhattan at the start of the Great Depression.
The spire — the same one that King Kong climbed in the black and white 1933 movie — had been lit up in some manner since 1956, with colours introduced in 1976.
In a nightly city tradition, New Yorkers would find the spire either in standard white or honouring some special event: blue and white when the Yankees win the Baseball World Series, red and green for Christmas, green for Saint Patrick’s Day, and so on.
But the huge, inefficient lamps installed in the ’70s — each the size of a small table — left only a dull glow on the spire.
And the so-so performance was apt for an iconic building struggling for relevancy in a competitive age.
Downtown, the new World Trade Center was rising on the ruins of the Twin Towers, last year reclaiming its crown as New York’s tallest building.
Nearby at Penn Station, plans were hatched for a new skyscraper that would crowd in on the splendidly isolated position of the Empire State Building.
Also uncomfortably close, the Bank of America tower has become one of a growing gang of Midtown interlopers with their own sky-high light displays.
Malkin knew the centerpiece of his family’s real estate holdings, which he calls “the world’s most famous office building,” could not live on past glories.
“The biggest wake-up moment for me came in 2004 when I went with my older son’s class trip to China,” he told us in an interview in the lavishly restored lobby of the Empire State Building.
“We found ourselves in Hong Kong and Shanghai, and I looked at that landscape and that skyline and I came back to New York and I said, wow, we are behind the times — not just the Empire State Building, but the whole skyline of New York.”
‘It’s not a billboard’
The dream of putting some Hong Kong into King Kong’s spire was born.
It took until last year before the technology, using LED lights, evolved enough, particularly in the power of the basic white. But the result was spectacular.
Where the Empire State Building once loomed discreetly over the twinkling Manhattan nightscape, today’s spire is an all-singing, all-dancing pillar of light, which technicians can programme to almost any combination imaginable.
Instead of the 500 old clunkers, the new barrage of LEDs lamps “throw” light up the spire, reaching further, with greater intensity, and using an amazing 73% less electricity, said Jeremy Day, an engineer with Philips Color Kinetics, which installed the system.
“If you can verbally describe to me what you want your lights to do, we can probably find a way to program it,” Day said, showing off the new installation on a narrow balcony that runs around the 72nd floor.
Before the new system’s debut at the end of November last year, a team of workers would have to climb daily out to the lights and insert the correct filters ahead of nightfall.
Stacks of the huge coloured disks have been left gathering dust alongside battered-looking former lights on the 72nd floor. No one has to go out in the snow and rain carrying the antiquated objects anymore: a click of the mouse from the building’s main computer room downstairs controls every single one of the 1,200 LEDs.
“Each one of these lights are individually addressed. We can actually target each one of these and give it an individual colour,” Day said.
Already, some funky experiments have taken place atop the world’s grande dame of skyscraper architecture.
The lights flashed and pulsed in rhythm to a performance by Grammy Award winner Alicia Keys at the unveiling in November. On election night, the spire showed the vote tally in blue and red as President Barack Obama won a second term.
And this past week, ending Sunday, the public was being asked to vote on Facebook to choose the seven colors that will comprise the building’s standard palette.
But Malkin, who has also spent millions on an environmentally friendly retrofit of the Empire State Building, says there’s no chance of the skyscraper going too far down the Hong Kong route.
“It’s never going to be for a commercial purpose. It’s not a billboard,” he said.
Day also cautioned against going crazy with the tower’s new toy.
“It’s funny. With all that capability, sometimes I think the best looking shows are the simple ones,” Day said. “Nothing stands out to me like when the whole building’s blue.”