Cistern Illuminated - CODAworx

Cistern Illuminated

Submitted by Kelly O'Brien

Client: Buffalo Bayou Partnership

Location: Houston, TX, United States

Completion date: 2022

Project Team

Lead Artist

Kelly O'Brien


Lead Programmer

Joseph Jaime



Two acres of concrete columns illuminated with software-controlled lighting stand in a shallow pool. As the water lies still, it transforms into a shimmering mirror, reflecting the mesmerizing dance of shifting light patterns that sweep across the 25-foot ceiling of an immense concrete space. This tranquil scene is accentuated by the gentle ripples caused by occasional droplets of condensation, creating a soothing ambiance that encourages contemplation and introspection. The atmosphere beckons visitors to find solace in the serene surroundings.

At the base of each column, LED stage lights are mounted, breathing life into the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern. This once dark and cavernous facility transforms into an awe-inspiring great hall, coming alive as the columns flicker, glow, and pulse with an array of vibrant colors. Synchronized sound design enhances the experience, harmonizing with the natural 17-second echo of the space, creating an enchanting symphony of sight and sound.


Deep beneath the earth lies The Cistern, a former drinking water reservoir constructed in 1926 and retired in 2007. Revitalized by the non-profit Buffalo Bayou Partnership in 2016, this underground space now serves as a public venue, hosting a series of art exhibitions that leave visitors in awe. Its vastness, darkness, impeccable acoustics, and uniform concrete architecture form the perfect backdrop, enhancing the impact of its art installations.

Artist and engineer, Kelly O’Brien, first conceived the idea for Cistern Illuminated in 2019. As he waded in the waters of The Cistern, working on an installation for another artist, he couldn't help but notice the mesmerizing reflective properties of the shallow pool. This observation sparked an idea in his mind - to highlight this reflection, he envisioned shifting the focus away from the water and directing it towards the grand ceiling above.

By January 2021, O’Brien had refined his concept, which had expanded to incorporate sound reactive programming to create an installation which would immerse the audience in both light and sound. Collaborating closely with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Cistern Illuminated was designed to be a fusion of art, architecture, technology, and the harmonious interplay of light and music.


A grid of lights is a fairly straightforward concept to implement, and Fenris used a small team of installers and technicians to deploy the system in a few days. O'Brien worked with designer/programmer Joseph Jaime to build the first set of lighting sequences for the Cistern Illuminated program which opened to the public the day after Thanksgiving, 2022.

The process involved late nights at the Cistern where new effects were designed, demonstrated, and scripted into new sequences as the show evolved, including those for custom arrangements and special events.