Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Digital Facades (or the Architects Wore No Clothes)

Now there's no denying that the architecture of the Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria, is spectacular. Designed by the London architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, this mutant pickle (some say "bagpipe") of a museum is often cited not only as a triumph of the biomorphic structure that's all the rage at the moment, but also of the ever-more-refined potential (and success) of the digital facade. The Kuntshaus's eastern front is engineered to allow for simple signs, images and films in low resolution. Specifically, the BIX facade, the work of the Berlin architectural solutions company realities:united, is "a matrix of 930 fluorescent lamps is integrated into the eastern acrylic glass facade of the ... building."

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.

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 [1996]) 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."
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:

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)

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:
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.


Blogger bill said...

Some random thoughts: it's OK to design a building for nighttime viewing, no? As you point out, Times Square is a blight during the day, and I seldom find myself there, but I remember one autumnal evening, at dusk, where I sat down on a construction sawhorse and spent an quiet half-hour, unto myself, soaking it in. I like these sort of public spaces: even Taksim Square, a poor man's Times Square in the European section of Istanbul, is fun to be in.

I am also reminded of a forerunner, the Arab Institute in Paris, a mixed analog/digital building that mimics the shading of window coverings (in form and function) from, say, residences in old Cairo. The IMA's "skin" is covered with timed, mechanical units that modulate sunlight during the daytime. (The building is nearing its 20th birthday and, indeed, is beginning to show its age.)

Interesting to think about the daunting demand for content for this sort of new structure--MICA in Baltimore has been toying with these sorts of ideas in its new building, and is left with broadcasting the most mundane of public announcements. Why not harness [presumably] abundant artistic resources?

11/02/2005 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous josh said...

Hey- what did I say a few posts back about "wildly curving electroluminescent color-changing glass walls" being dream architecture for architects...

Visible technology can be ugly or beautiful. Big loudspeakers hanging in restaurants: ugly. The Jean Nouvel designed Institut du Monde Arabe metal automated irises: beautiful.

The Graz building's technology will look as up-to-date to us in a few years as a brick cell phone does today. They'll probably just rip it all out. Which brings up another question: is contemporary architecture becoming disposable?

11/02/2005 11:49:00 AM  
Anonymous josh said...

That's funny, I hadn't seen your post before I posted mine.

11/02/2005 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

it's OK to design a building for nighttime viewing, no?

Only if you never go out during the day, IMO. Why can't a building be designed for both? It's the suggestion that we should simply avert our eyes when the damn things aren't plugged in that becomes farcical here to me.

The Arab Institute seems to be a good example of a building built for all times of day (you know, how all buildings used to be built), but I'll wait to see it in person to form an opinion.

11/02/2005 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

is contemporary architecture becoming disposable?

Not necessarily a bad thing. Experiment and let it go, so many once "wild" structures are costly to maintain and mellow with time(so harsh). As far as the MICA building, the design had to conform to the neighborhood building restrictions and the interior space is limited; it's beautiful at night. .

11/02/2005 01:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

it's beautiful at night.

That's not enough for me. I walk around during the day, when these structures are as attractive as the inside of my CPU. I demand Higher Standards!!!

11/02/2005 01:24:00 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I do agree. Buildings were once built for individuals, Rockefeller, Vanderbuilt in this country. At least there was a chance for a vision. So often decisions are being made by committee. Boring unimaginative crap!

11/02/2005 01:35:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

The aesthetic complaints are valid and I share the concerns of Edward and Josh, but my real beef isn't visual. What of the power required to keep these buildings bright and beautiful at night? At a time when most progressive architects should be pushing for "green" building, attempting to design more pragmatic buildings that require less maintenance and power expenditure, it seems counterproductive to celebrate the construction of electrical sumps, particularly those that are visual blights during daylight hours.

11/02/2005 02:33:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I share your beef about power, HH.

I was limiting my rant to aesthetic issues, not moral ones, here, but the moral issues are certainly problematic. The fact that a power outage wipes out even the night-time beauty of such building makes them all the more ridiculous to me, suggesting they exist only as part of some electricity-powered fantasy,

11/02/2005 02:45:00 PM  
Anonymous if beauty is our reality said...

21st ideas are disposable (nice idea and probably true). Quite frankly, I am of the mind that these technology self-self-referenceing architecturalual skins mimic those turbines of power structures of late C19th with a reverence for the linear, forward progress, massive impact and megalithic scale. Such structures as the above express this idea perfectly. In a sense 'beauty today is in our own failing image'. They (these expressions) are not for us, nor about us, nor serve us when we need. Bauble and decoration come up and then after the event come down.
I had thought really that technology was going the other way--that it reveals itself as simple structure and complex knowledge of this. And very much about reduced size and reduced overall cost, not to mention ecologically minded.
Maybe land art and architecture should chum up as a kind of a response to this folly of invention. Curator of the month, Courtney J. Martin, has me thinking.
Interesting too, how both temporality and fascism come up! They fit together: Heavy-handed is indeed short-lived.

11/02/2005 06:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Tim Edler (realities:united) said...

It is good to read a discussion, which goes deeper than usual on the issue of media surfaces in architecture. But it hurts to realize that some important aspects, you rely on have not been reflected correctly. First the visibility of the lamps in the only window your image shows during daytime is a deliberate 1% exception of the entire skin. For the 99% rest of the devices you’ll see nothing but faint shadows behind the opaque acrylic skin.
The other issue you touch is the question, how technology SHOULD look. The use of old technology (as a potential answer to the problem of the extreme speed of technology aging, which you also describe) and the oversized grid here is an act of design polemic. Yes: There is a problem in places like time square, but it is not the look of the devices at daytime, but the lack of communication between static architecture, media surface and broadcast content.
That is, why BIX has also a strong programmatic aspect, which is at least equally important to the design of any hardware and which defines the way that the art museum uses its public display today.
If you are interested, you’ll find details on the approaches of BIX and a follow-up project called SPOTS aiming to be ‘probes’ to venture into the wide and mostly untouched research field of tomorrows (inevitable) media enhanced architecture. (2003) (2005)

12/20/2005 07:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Galleria Mall that Vanderbilt also mentions is designed by UN Studio and Rogier van der Heide of Arup Lighting as a building that transforms itself as the sun sets. Details, materials and concept had to be equally attractive during the day as at night, albeit in a very different way.

During the day a sophisticated, understated glass skin that reflects iridescent colours thanks to a dichroic layer within the glass disks' laminate, at night a brilliant and vivid flow of light that radiates from the volume, instead of the ubiquitous flood lighting of buildings.

It's a fashion mall. I think it is the transformation that matters. It is the transformation the city of Seoul experiences after work. A building dressing up for an cosmopolitic evening scene.

See picture here:

Rogier van der Heide

1/11/2006 05:40:00 PM  

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