Look to the rainbow
In 1991 I began creating what I call Solar Spectrum Environmental Artworks, using prisms and mirrors to harness the sun’s power to create rainbows in architectural spaces where people live and work. Four years later I asked the great American scientist Dr. Jonas Salk, with whom I was visiting, why he thought this work seemed to have a more profound impact on people than any other sculptural work I had ever done during some 30 years. (I would have liked to take sole credit for this, but I suspected that there was more to it than that.) He replied, “The rainbow is a very deep memory for humans. It has been coded into our genetic material over millions of years. Seeing a rainbow restores our connection to nature—it restores our physical and psychic functions.”
It is true that nearly every culture views the rainbow as a symbol of hope. The rainbow is one of the most powerful nonverbal and transcultural phenomena in nature, and it is an obvious choice when viewing nature as a healing medium. This became more obvious to me, I must admit, when Los Angeles psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff suggested that I apply my work directly to healthcare settings. The initial result can be seen, both indoors and outdoors, at the Lucy Curci Cancer Center at the Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, California, a project with interiors by Jain Malkin, the most scientifically informed interior designer I’ve ever worked with.
The facility is located in Palm Springs, where the temperature regularly reaches 110 degrees. Outside, its Healing Garden incorporates desert plants and running water, but because of this desert environment, the client wanted to offer artistically designed shade structures for people visiting it. My answer was five square “umbrellas” made of Brazilian ironwood, each about eight feet high (figure 1). Around the perimeter of these umbrellas, laser-cut prisms are installed, spreading the sunlight into powerful, clearly distinct solar-spectrum beams. As an added attraction I installed evaporative misters around the shade perimeters to enhance the rainbow effect and provide cooler air. This lowers temperatures a full 15 degrees within 10 feet of the umbrellas. This multisensory space has proven to be a very popular venue for physician consultations and family rest breaks.
On the inside of the building, I faced the difficult challenge of bringing direct sunlight into the lobby. My solution was to install on the roof, near the clerestory lobby windows, a computer-controlled tracking mirror, or heliostat (figure 2), which reflects a continuous beam of sunlight through motorized prisms mounted outside the windows. The prisms project two 12′ by 20′, gradually moving solar-spectrum beams on the lobby walls, floor, and ceiling (figure 3) as the sun moves through the sky, providing an ever-changing rainbow tableau. I made no attempt to conceal this technology, because I view it as a metaphor for modern healthcare’s combining high technology and nature to achieve healing.
I’m grateful to have working with me a team of optical physicists and solar and software engineers to put these projects together—I am no longer a “solitary sculptor.” Most recently I have used this new technology to create a sculpture I call a “prism mirror box” that can be installed on the windowsills of patient rooms to reflect six- to ten-foot rainbow beams on the ceilings and walls that move through the room as the day progresses. This is bringing my work directly to the patient, and it’s a big breakthrough for me in healthcare design, the field where my work continues to receive the most positive response I’ve ever experienced.