Artist set to shed new light on beauty of grimy city underpass

The work of light and sound artist Hans Peter Kuhn transforms urban landscapes and industrial architecture. He talks to Sheena Hastings.

By the end of this year, a notoriously grim and dingy thoroughfare in Leeds will have had its face lifted, making the walk to and from work a more pleasant and certainly more interesting experience.

The 50,000 people who are estimated to walk along Neville Street and under the dark, unsavoury railway bridge beside the city's railway station, emerging into the light beside The Scarborough at one end or the Hilton Hotel at the other, will experience light in a very different way. They'll also be aware of sounds that are something beyond the constant accelerating and braking of passing traffic.

Along 100 metres of the tunnel walls will be holes containing horizontal and vertical LED light displays that will randomly change each night, once every 24 hours. The visual experience of the lights and of the tunnel will change if not eternally, then at least with a possibility of 8,000 different displays over the 20-year life that's planned for the installation.

When Leeds architects BaumanLyons won the project of refurbishing Neville Street, director Irena Bauman wanted art work to be part of the scheme. She called on the services of world-renowned Berlin-based light and sound artist Hans Peter Kuhn.

Sound cladding was also part of the plan, muffling the horrendous concentration of ambient traffic noise but introducing a distracting element of other sound effects in order perhaps to make the walk through the tunnel a journey of surprise rather than a predictably dim and dusty scuttle to be accomplished as quickly as possible.

"The idea of the sound cladding is that the overall traffic noise should be less," says Kuhn, whose latest installation links two bridges that are two metres apart for the duration of the current Singapore Biennale.

"I have created an eight-channel composition to fill up the sound space with anti-aggressive noise, from my library of recordings of music and hundreds of other sounds from different places and situations."

The Neville Street refurbishment, complete with the light and sound installation, will be opened on Boxing Day. For those who can't wait to see samples of his work, an exhibition of photographs of Hans Peter Kuhn's installations, taken by fellow German Gerhard Kassner, can be seen at PSL in Leeds over the next couple of months.

The two artists began collaborating 15 years ago, when both worked in the theatre.

Kassner has documented all of Kuhn's work, in gallery and non-gallery settings, ever since. While they don't convey any movement of light, the images are a striking statement and commentary in their own right, and certainly show how light can transform architecture in the most unexpected ways.

"I was in a rock band at 14 and then studied sound engineering at university," says Kuhn, who's 56. "For 20 years I worked in theatre, only in sound, but then began a parallel career involving installations of both sound and light.

"When I started, people were not so interested in what I did as an art form, but since then there has been increasing acceptance.

"Wherever I go in the world, I record sound around me – everything from the squeaking of doors to cutlery on a plate. I've also created music for operetta."

For many years Kuhn worked closely with theatre director, artist and designer Robert Wilson.

He's currently installing a permanent piece in front of the oldest building in Pasadena, California.

The $500,000 scheme involves 26 neon tubes, which are fixed but tilt

and sway rather like a cornfield. From inception to completion in April

next year the process will have taken three years.

Some of Kuhn's bigger projects have taken up to eight years to design and complete, and the public works involve spending painstaking study of the location and architecture with which he is collaborating.

"I like to think I change the way people see and feel about a place or a piece of architecture they thought they really knew already.

"The power of light and sound to transform is what interests me most."

n Licht auf Licht (Light on Light) – Gerhard Kassner's photographs of Hans Peter Kuhn's light and sound installations are at Project Space Leeds (PSL), 2, Riverside Way, Whitehall Waterfront, Leeds LS1 4EH, from September 13 until November 8. Open Weds-Sat, 12-5pm.