Obscura Brings Photosynthesis to the Conservatory of Flowers

June 22, 2017 Projects

With its graceful, understated elegance and breathtaking presence, San Francisco’s Conservatory of Flowers has earned its rightful place as Golden Gate Park’s undisputed architectural crown jewel. This cherished 138-year old historical landmark houses the world’s horticultural riches beneath its massive redwood beams and glass, inviting visitors to experience nature’s most delicate and ephemeral treasures first hand. The Conservatory’s mission is as uplifting and elegant as the building itself: to connect people and plants in a place of beauty.

Conservatory of Flowers

The Photosynthesis project — a collaboration between Obscura, Illuminate (instigators of the Bay Lights), and the Conservatory of Flowers — extends and enhances this mission by transforming the Conservatory into an artistic canvas by night, projecting on its façade stunning imagery of the flowers and butterflies housed inside, teasing out what hides beneath its whitewashed curtain, catching the eye of passers-by, sparking curiosity and drawing them in through captivating beauty. This regularly curated display will be customized to reflect specific exhibitions, celebratory occasions, special events, and botanical offerings, from Andean cloud forest orchids to zinnias.

Unveiled on June 21 in a surrealist celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, Photosynthesis will run nightly from dusk until midnight through October 2017 — and with luck, well beyond that.

Obscura’s “Photosynthesis” Projections on the Conservatory of Flowers (Photo: Joshua Brott)

Obscura’s team created striking artwork to be projected on the building’s façade, including imagery inspired by the Summer of Love as well as the Conservatory’s storied riches. These images are projected from gobo projectors, which were chosen to thread the needle of the various constraints on the project: weatherproof projectors, cost, power consumption, physical space (the kiosks in which we installed them are small), and ease and cost of ongoing maintenance.

Gobos are one of the oldest forms of projection — akin to creating shadow puppets on a cave wall, essentially — though today’s gobos use full color. Images are printed on 23mm glass gobo lenses, and a light is shone through them to “project” on the surface. For Obscura, this makes for a “mind bending process” of squeezing the epic work the studio normally does (heavily leveraging the advantage of cutting edge technologies) through static lenses that are about the size of a quarter.

Obscura’s “Photosynthesis” Projections on the Conservatory of Flowers (Photo: Joshua Brott)

To that end, we pushed gobos farther than ever before by applying video projection mapping techniques to the glass slides. The building is laser scanned to create a 3D model, on which we use image warping and masking to conform the images to the details of the architectural geometry. The final image printed on the gobo takes those considerations — and the angles from which the projectors would be projecting — into account.

Obscura’s “Photosynthesis” Projections on the Conservatory of Flowers (Photo: Joshua Brott)

Each of the 10 projectors has six gobo slots, so there are six themes made up of 10 images each. These are mixed with classic built-in gobo effects like focus shift, rotation, filters, and background colors, as well as six LED floodlights to illuminate the building with a color wash. As a straight-up optical system, these beautiful projections will be unique in Obscura’s stylistic repertoire, and certainly have been a fascinating challenge to tackle.

Obscura’s “Photosynthesis” Projections on the Conservatory of Flowers (Photo: Joshua Brott)

By Will Chase