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Niagara Spectacle: Currents, Niagara Falls, Ontario

A new sound-and-light show brings the former Niagara Parks Power Station to life.

A multimedia show in a 100-year-old generator hall helps visitors to visualize the site’s history—as well as its possible futures. Photo courtesy Niagara Parks

The draw of Niagara Falls is powerful. The sight and sounds of water crashing over the edge of the escarpment into the gorge below was thought, in the Romantic Era, to evoke passion and terror—qualities of the sublime. In subsequent decades, the location’s appeal expanded with the addition of a variety of sideshow attractions and touristic facilities, from hotels to casinos. That culture of entertainment has continued to the present day. Its latest addition is the playful light-and-sound show Currents, presented by Niagara Parks and multimedia designer Thinkwell, and housed within the Niagara Parks Power Station.

Recently renovated and opened to the public, the Niagara Parks Power Station was designed by William Birch Rankine to harness the power of the Horseshoe Falls. Inaugurated on January 1, 1905 by the Canadian Niagara Power Company, the historic generator hall once produced thousands of kilowatts of energy. The decommissioned space is the backdrop for an interactive nighttime display that traces the site’s history, from the presence of Indigenous Peoples, to the innovations of power generation within the building, to a contemporary portrayal of people as a source of energy. 

As an architect, to me the remarkable building and its engineering innovations were intriguing in themselves. But the engaging of architecture with projections in Currents was unique. Some of the show’s strongest moments were when the building’s arched windows were reimagined as portals to an under-the-falls experience, with water rushing down the sides. The dreamy and serene quality of water was conveyed through illuminated pixels, washing around the feet of audience members. In another sequence, the large generators within the space were internally illuminated and activated, helping move the show beyond walls and floors as projection surfaces into a spatial experience. 

I found myself wondering whether the engaging qualities of such a show could have applications for our industry. Describing a projected future is nothing new for architects. Architectural drawings, renderings, and now virtual reality graphically communicate the architect’s vision—whether it be a building, a city, or beyond. Using light and sound within an existing building holds new possibility in conveying the power of a design concept within a three-dimensional space. It is not a far leap to imagine an architect leading a client into a building and, instead of rolling out drawings or donning a VR set, turning off the lights to start a show.

After Currents ended, I wandered towards the mist and roar of the Falls. It was a lovely summer night, and I wanted to see one of Canada’s most famous natural wonders, as I had done so many times as a youngster, whenever relatives from abroad came to visit.  Peering over the edge of the same metal handrail from my youth, I felt the same delicious rush of terror, as I stared into the dark, rushing waters. 

Architect Christine Leu is co-founder of public art practice LeuWebb Projects. She is also a sessional instructor at Ryerson University (renaming in progress).

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