Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Digital Facade: Part II

Last month I offered some thoughts about the aesthetic challenges presented by the metaphorically exciting potential of digital facades in architecture. I used the spectacular new Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria (seen at right), which has a state-of-the-art digital facade created by the Berlin-based company realities:united, as an example of where, even though from the POV in the photo the building is stunning, up close I can't get past the limits/presence of the materials used in my overall aesthetic assessment.

Now, I'm not an art critic, let alone an architecture critic, but I have some strong feelings about aesthetics that you'd have a hard time prying me loose from with a crowbar. I tend to want to look very closely at things and one test of total aesthetic integrity for me is that something looks as good (i.e., resolved) from far away as it does up close. With some media, it's possible to hide unresolved elements that were used in the creation of a piece (video or photography in particular offer this option [think of the untouched machine just beyond the edge of the scene blowing out the smoke for a Crewsdon piece, for example]), but in others every part of the final work is there for all to see, in the round, with harsh lights revealing every wart. Those media are more demanding with regards to overall aesthetic integrity, IMO. Again, you'd need a crowbar and then some to make me change my mind about that, but...I'm not totally without flexibility.

Tim Elder, one of the Directors of realities:united, recently added the following comment to the thread of that previous post:

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. www.bix.at (2003) www.spots-berlin.de (2005) .

First and foremost, I want to thank Tim for his thoughtful response. It wasn't clear to me from the images I was able to find of the Graz Kunsthaus that the one I provided represented only 1% of the total surface (a window into the belly of the machine, so to speak). I'm still not convinced that the other 99% is opaque enough to address my concern, but it's clearly not as open as I had suggested and for that I apologize.

I still disagree with this somewhat though: "but it is not the look of the devices at daytime, but the lack of communication between static architecture, media surface and broadcast content." I actually think to some degree it's both. With all due respect to the achievement digital facade represents and the great work realities:united are doing to highlight aesthetic integrity, I'm still concerned with the look of the lamps and supporting devices during the day.
I get the other point Tim makes, and wholly agree that an integrated vision within any given building using this new media surface (and, naturally, within the environment that building will be built in) is critical, but the building doesn't disappear in the daylight, and I feel that for many such attempts pretending it does disappear or not looking at it in daylight, because "it has to look that way in the day in order to look so fabulous at night" is what's being asked of me.

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding Tim though, perhaps by "communication between static architecture, media surface and broadcast content" he means day and night (except there generally is very different broadcast content, if any, during the day for many such buildings). Still, I think r:u is making interesting strides here and it's fair to highlight them.

Here's a a description of r:u's new
SPOTS project:
City Gaze’ (Die Stadt hat Augen) is an exhibition that pursues a unique concept. An office building on Potsdamer Platz is being transformed into a seeing object. From 24 November to 28 February 2006, SPOTS, a light and media installation that has been integrated into the building’s facade, will be presenting new works by internationally renowned artists that have been created especially for this location and this medium. The show will launch with a work from Berlin-based artists and architects realities:united – who also have overall responsibility for the development of the light and media facade – in collaboration with the artist John deKron.
I'll be the first to note that this vision is amazing and very exciting. Here is an image of the facade (in Potsdamer Platz) at night:

And, again, I'll be the first to note how stunning it looks from this POV. Here are two images of this new building in the daylight:

Now this seems more aesthetically resolved than the Kunsthaus upclose by day (by which I mean it's been better integrated into the whole in a way that's more consistent with the overall vision [it's impossible to tell too much from this distance]), but to be fair to Graz, this building isn't attempting to accomplish the same sort of daring feat with form either. I know this may all still sound a bit harsh, and I don't mean to hurt r:u or anyone involved with the project, but I wouldn't waste this much time on projects that I didn't find fascinating either.

In the end I guess, it's mostly a matter of personal taste. I hope that design-wise the wires, lamps, and surfaces of most digital facades have yet to reach their "golden age." A certain elegance remains just over there for me. YMMV.


Anonymous jen d said...

as usual, awesome insights and analysis and re-self-analysis, Ed. But I wanted to tell you too that that first "thoughts" link doesn't work.

12/21/2005 08:36:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks Jen...link has been fixed.

12/21/2005 09:51:00 PM  

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