Facing the Future

Oct. 1, 2007
Media façade challenges architects to fully embrace display technologies

By Christine Lewers

Most of us have heard the drum beat by now. Higher-resolution, larger, ultimately cheaper screen technologies are here and getting better every day. Such advancements bring with them the profound power to change the look of our cities. Like it or not, architecture is transitioning from a static medium to a dynamic one.

One question remains, however: Who will ultimately control the future faces of the world's buildings and the messages those faces communicate? Building owners, lighting designers, media content developers, technology experts, and, needless to say, advertising companies all have a stake. But what about architects?

Architects and brothers Jan and Tim Edler of Berlin-based realities:united seek to answer that question through their work by offering an architecturally-driven alternative to the big-screen, high-resolution displays of Time's Square and Las Vegas. Among their most recent projects was a temporary media façade at Potsdamer Platz 10 in Berlin. There, the brothers used the building's ventilated double-skin façade as a place to install a low-resolution grid of 1,800 fluorescent lights. Media artists used the façade, called SPOTS, as a blank canvas for developing works to play across the building's surface.

Although clearly falling into the realm of public art, the goal of the 18-month installation, which ran through March of this year, was ultimately commercial: The office building's owner, HVB Immobilien AG, wanted to boost the public profile of the central-Berlin address to increase its desirability among potential tenants.

But for the façade's designers, SPOTS held an even broader purpose. The brothers viewed SPOTS as a laboratory for their ideas about the integration of display technologies and design.

"Today we have a lack between technical possibility and ideas of what to do with it," says Jan Edler. If that trend continues, he thinks the advertising industry will eventually take over the façade of architecture. Instead, he hopes SPOTS will spur more architects to master the use of emerging screen technologies as design tools so that media façades of the future will function as extensions of architecture rather than something that merely covers architecture. "In that respect it becomes more powerful and opens up new possibilities, and I think that's a revolution that will happen over the next years and decades."

Opting Out of the Race
If, indeed, display technologies hold future possibilities for architecture, SPOTS sought to point the way. But wait. How can fluorescent lights point to the future when the newer LEDs are all the rage? Easily, because by using them the Edlers demonstrated that how technology is used in design will ultimately be more important than what technology is used.

At Potsdamer Platz, fluorescent tubes in and of themselves become design elements that enhance the look of the building by adding pattern, texture, and shape to the transparent glass façade, even when the lamps are turned off. The brothers custom-made lamps out of standard Philips and Osram fluorescent tubes and hung them from a lightweight metal frame they designed to fit inside the 30-centimeter (12-inch) gap between the building's double skin. Some of the lamps were fashioned out of circular tubes; others were composed of pairs of linear tubes. In daylight, the bright, white lamps were clearly visible through the façade's outer transparent glazing. They fit together like a mosaic and covered 14,500 square feet of the building with a pattern suited to the building's scale, its curved corner, and the thickness of the window profiles.

The Edlers were commissioned to design the Potsdamer Platz media façade based on the high-profile success of their media façade design at Kunsthaus Graz gallery in Austria. At Graz the Edlers incorporated programmable circular fluorescent tubes into the flowing and curved façade of the Colin Fournier and Peter Cook building. SPOTS builds on some of the ideas the brothers began at Graz, says Jan Edler.

The Edlers intended the bright, white fluorescent lamps to be seen during
the day, adding texture and pattern to the façade.

"When we started that first installation in Graz, we heard comments like, ‘Hey, I know about those lights. My grandmother has them in her kitchen,'" says Jan Edler. With SPOTS the idea of using a technology that's been around for awhile, in this case fluorescent lamps, purposefully moves this media façade beyond what is too often a race to have the latest, most high-tech, and highest-resolution display, he says. "I think that's very important because the screen technology that's being used today and integrated into architecture, or hung onto architecture, is moving at a much faster pace. It's not synchronized with the aging process of architecture itself. It would be very awful if after 3 or 4 years everybody says it's outdated."

Some of the fluorescent lamps installed within the building's double skin were fashioned from circular tubes
 while others were composed of pairs of linear tubes, adding texture to the media façade's pattern.

Breaking with TV
In addition to shattering the idea that the newest is necessarily the best, SPOTS also breaks the façade-as-TV-screen mind-set.

To begin, the pixels themselves were not uniform and the shape they formed was not rectangular. Some pixels were made up of 16-inch-diameter, 40-watt circular tubes, and others were comprised of pairs of 23-inch-long, 18-watt linear tubes. In addition the arrangement of the lamps was offset vertically by 30 degrees, unlike the uniform straight-up-and-down arrangement of pixels on a computer or television screen. This gave the grid a honeycomb-like look. In keeping with the beehive pattern, the grid's outline was represented by two hexagonal shapes joined at a point that wrapped around the building's curved surface.

The brothers also sought to give the façade depth, further differentiating it from a TV screen. Slightly color-tinted 3M plastic film was applied to the exterior of the outer glazing, forming a graphical pattern that was primarily visible during the day. "We did a lot of testing to find the right mixture of having enough translucence, enough color, and enough lighting aura with that plastic film and at the same time still have enough transparency to see what's behind," says Jan Edler. "You could see the plastic film, you could see the lights behind it, and you could see the original façade construction. All form layers that do not fit onto each other precisely."

While during the day the façade looked layered, at night the graphic design formed by the film wasn't clearly visible and its tinting was so light as to not interfere with the grainy, black-and-white media shows conveyed by the lamps. Each lamp was fitted with se Lightmanagement VIP90 lighting control modules programmed individually to adjust for infinite variables of brightness at the rate of 20 times per second. A se Lightmanagment pixelmaster ran software to control each light individually. An Apple Mac G5 sent moving image data to the pixelmaster and ran realities:united's BIX director software, which scheduled when, and in what order, the media shows appeared.

Artistic programming, rather than advertising, helped position the building and its urban
context as desirable among potential tenants.

Made-to-fit content
If SPOTS didn't look like a TV set, it didn't function as one either. True, some advertising ran on the façade for a limited time, mostly during the World Cup. Otherwise the façade was reserved for media artists to showcase works made specifically for SPOTS. The artists downloaded custom software that let them import their productions onto a virtual version of the façade, viewable from various perspectives. This means media creations were tailored to the unique size, shape, and resolution of the grid, unlike television content, which takes a one-size-fits-all approach to content development, says Jan Edler.

True, it took some effort to convince the client that art, more than ads, can "sell" a location, says Jan Edler, but "once [a façade] is used for advertising, it's not perceived as a cultural project," he says. The intent of the project, after all, was to draw attention to the building in a way that improves the public's perception of Potsdamer Platz and its urban setting.

Artists used the lights to create shapes, patterns, and shadowy figures in movement. Many of the pieces were provocative, only hinting at definite forms. Some drew on the people and conditions at Potsdamer Platz. Among the most technically challenging were those that incorporated input from the surroundings, says John Dekron, a media artist who developed software for SPOTS and provided technology support for the SPOTS artists.

"We integrated the ability to play back video clips, live video input from cameras or other applications, streaming video, and also direct data input," says Dekron. A work by Carsten Nicolai, for example, used an algorithm to transform input from noise, motion, and light detectors on the façade into a media show of abstract shapes and lines representing what was happening at Potsdamer Platz. A Rode Microphones NT6 was chosen for this job because of its small size and sensitivity and was installed within the opening of a fifth-floor air-conditioning vent. A color CCD surveillance camera with adjustable focal length captured movement on the street, while a light sensor picked up on weather changes, time of day, and day-versus-night conditions. Values were sent over an Ethernet connection to and from the façade.

"If you experienced looking at the façade for about 10 minutes, you could see what was happening," says Dekron. "You could really see that the façade was connected in some way to the place. At nighttime, individuals could even affect the façade by yelling or whistling."

In another show, by British director Terry Gilliam, people on the street could stop, stick their heads into openings in kiosks shaped like people, press a button to trigger a snapshot of their face, and stand back to see their features appear on the façade. "Images were transmitted, torn apart, and put together again to create new faces, says Dekron. These faces were mixed with scripts to create short movies with a dream-like quality. Another work invited citizens to type questions into a keyboard. Those questions would then appear on the façade.

During daylight hours the lamps, the tinted film, and the façade's structure formed
overlapping layers, adding depth and graphical interest to the façade.

As a group the works demonstrated a range of content possibilities for façade displays. But too often today, says Jan Edler, media façade content is advertising that has little to do with the building or the institution behind it. He thinks architects can change that.

"If architects want to use [media content] in a way that supports the specific architectural design of the building, if they want to see their buildings implemented into the urban context, then they will have to understand that it is their responsibility to design the content as well," he says.

He admits this isn't easy. Static architecture took thousands of years to evolve, while advances in screen technologies pop up almost daily. But with the example of SPOTS the Edlers hope to empower architects to claim media as a powerful design tool so that buildings don't become tools solely of advertising.

"Architects tend to lose control of what they do because they have so many specialists telling them what to do," says Edler. "But if you take a step back and take the position of the generalist planner, you look for gaps where you can step in and take control." 

Christine Lewers ([email protected] ) is a freelance writer based in Iowa City, IA.

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