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Courtesy of ESI Design

The lights on Seattle’s tallest building flash at us. Why?

Capitol Hill resident Steven Sieden can see the Columbia Center from his bedroom window. The 76-story building is like a monolith, dominating his view.

Late one night a while back, he noticed it “sending out messages.”

A strip of lights atop the building was flashing. Sometimes in different colors.

Who was behind it? And what were they trying to tell him? He did what everyone should do: Ask KUOW’s Local Wonder.

We were curious too. We hadn’t even noticed the lights flashing!

Turns out, like most things in our lives, the lights atop the Columbia Center are controlled by a computer.

And the humans who created this computer live in New York City.

An experience design firm called ESI Design created the LED installation. It was unveiled as part of a remodel in 2015.

“When you drove in from the airport, you didn’t even see the building at night,” said Michael Luck Schneider, lead designer on the project. “With this little touch, the third tallest building on the West Coast has the stature we felt it deserved.”

The Crown Lighting, as it’s named, is comprised of more than 1,000 linear feet of LED lighting. It took about a year to design and install. The ESI Design team worked with the building’s window washing company to put up a prototype. They drove around the city in a minivan, assessing how it looked from different vantage points. They even got to scope it out while riding in a helicopter with no doors.

The effect varies.

If you’re glancing at it from your car on I-5, it’s a subtle pencil line of color tracing the tops of the Columbia Center's three towers. Looking up from the sidewalk, the lights help you appreciate the whimsical, scalloped shape of the building. Who knew the Columbia Center was so curvy?

And the flashing?

The designers didn’t want to create something static, nor some random light show. They wanted to connect it to the seasons, or to some story of the city.

They worked with engineers to create custom software that triggers an animation on the hour. So the lights “chime” visually like a clock tower — that you only see at night.

The software also lets building management change the colors of the lights to match community events: green and blue for Sounders games, rainbow for Seattle Pride, and so on. There's a new color every month. You can follow @columbialights to get specifics on a given day’s theme.

Yes, the building that is also a clock also tweets.

Those events are generally preprogrammed for the year, but management invites submissions on its website.

No, they won’t change the lights for your birthday.

I asked Steven Sieden what he would celebrate, if he could control the lights.

He said July 12, R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller’s birthday. He likes green and blue, though there are 2,000 color combinations to consider. Sieden wrote two books on the inventor, whom he calls one of the smartest people on the planet.

Apparently he invented his own words like “synergy” and “livingry.” According to the Buckminster Fuller Future Organization, “livingry” are “artifacts that support and enhance life.”

Think: opposite of weaponry.

Think: buildings with colored lights that make you stop and say, “Oooooh.”

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