Digital Facades (or the Architects Wore No Clothes)
The advent of the digital facade is being heralded as a giant leap forward in architecture. Writing about the proliferation of screen-surfaced spaces, in Seoul in particular, but touching on the phenomenon world wide, Tom Vanerbilt offers the following in the November issue of Artforum:
What is most interesting about the screens I found in Seoul was that they were not merely architectural appendages broadcasting messages but architecture itself; not simply vehicles for delivering one-way information to a passive public but an active layer of the city's matrices of networks. To stand on a street was to stand on a street of a hundred screens, and by "screens" I mean the external manifestation—the collective user-interface—of the unseen digital flow pulsing down that same street, invisible but as much a part of the city experience as the concrete of the sidewalks.There are, of course, a good number of interesting philosophical questions this new medium raises, and Vanderbilt gets into them, but he begins his article with a quote that, ironically, illustrates my biggest reservation about all this:
Seoul seems a fitting location to test the theories put forth in Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City (2005), the latest book from William J. Mitchell, the architecture and media-arts professor at MIT who has devoted much previous energy (e.g., City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn ) to studying the intersection of technology and urbanism. Mitchell's new collection of essays ranges across a wide swath of territory, but he has several key themes of particular interest for the city of screens. The most pertinent is the idea of the screen itself as an architectural component, as at the SK T-Tower or the Galleria Mall. Advances in pliable LED displays and other technologies, Mitchell says, "enabled the fabrication of very large assemblages of reliable, controllable light sources that can be wrapped onto just about any sort of surface. . . . Traditional distinctions between architectural lighting design and computer graphics are beginning to disappear. Everything that lights up can be treated as an addressable, programmable pixel."
I'm sorry, but that's as willfully deluded as the naked emperor on parade was. Vanderbilt touches on where I'm going here. Speaking of the Kunsthaus in Graz he notes:
Viva the façade as computer screen! Viva façades not reflecting light but emanating light—the building as a digital sparkling source of information, not as an abstract glowing source of light! . . . Viva iconography—not carved in stone for eternity but digitally changing for now, so that the inherently dangerous fascist propaganda, for instance, can be temporarily, not eternally, proclaimed! [emphasis mine]
—Robert Venturi, Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time (2004)
The screen is both local facade—that is, a two-way intermediary between interior and exterior—and another space that is nowhere in between: a display plugged into global data networks. Most significantly, the museum claims that since the margins of the screen are not visible unless activated, the installation "gives the impression that not a screen but the Kunsthaus itself renders images and pictures" (italics mine [Vanderbilt's]) (bold mine [Winkleman's]).Forget what we've learned about signifiers over the past few decades, look at these facades. Here is a close-up of the Kunsthaus in Graz:
This is considered "not visible unless activated"? From what vantage point? Mars? For me, this is in-your-face technology, a mess of wire and glass and bolts and bulbs that's far worse than carved-in-stone fascist propaganda. I can chuckle at the remnants of political pompousness among the older buildings around the world, they serve to remind us of how far we've come, but the degree of disconnect these types of facades demand...that essentially we focus only on the pretty digital pictures that emerge if we blur our vision slightly and ignore the ugly naked mess that's right there, even at night, even if the electricity supply is in working order. I'm sorry, but it's time someone points out to architects that these buildings' nakedness is plainly, painfully visible. Yes, as you stumble through Times Square at night in a drunken haze, the moving images that form the grand canyon of commerce do impress, but in the harsh light of day, these surfaces are covered in warts. What about the harsh light of day? Are we supposed to just squint and ignore what we see?
Overall I think architects are a bit too dazzled by the potential of metaphor here to admit that this technology represents serious aesthetic challenges still. The test for any building is not how it looks at the ribbon-cutting ceremony with the lighting just so, but also how it looks as ruins a thousand years later, or even how it looks just 25 years later when some newer fashion has relegated it to the "dated" bin. These buildings will be embarassing then.