The Big Pixel

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In his 2001 book, Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies, architect James Sanders describes the relationship between the city and iconic films like Annie Hall and Miracle on 34th Street. Recently, though, as he discussed at a recent event in New York, Sanders has been thinking a lot about Shark Tale. True, it’s a movie about talking fish, but Sanders sees in it a compelling vision of a city of the future, in which the lines between real events and their video representation become blurred. In one scene, TV newscaster “Katie Current” reports live on a battle against a villainous shark. At the climactic moment, the shark smashes into an outdoor video screen—which turns out to be the very screen we’ve been watching Katie on, in the center of Times Square. In an explosion of flashbulbs and falling fish, we are confronted with what Sanders sees as the coming urban reality: a city that is simultaneously itself and its media representation.

Illuminated signs in public spaces have been around for a century, but recent advances in LED and projection technology are bringing us closer to truly transforming buildings into video screens. Boosters of this phenomenon call it “mediatecture.” For advertisers, it’s obviously irresistible; for the rest of us walking around the city, it could be either terrifying or thrilling. What’s clear is that the final effect depends enormously on designers and their ability to wrangle a larger canvas than ever before. We’ve arrived at a strange time when many designers must scramble to create good solutions for tiny cell-phone screens and, at the same time, devise the best approach for a quarter-acre of pixels.

Since the Sony JumboTron debuted at the 1985 world’s fair in Japan, enormous public video screens have become a familiar sight. But LED technology, with its lower operating temperatures, eliminates the need for big cooling mechanisms to be built behind the screen. The tipping-point products in this more streamlined genre have been developed by ag4, a German architecture and media design company, in partnership with GKD Metal Fabrics (which produces woven metal fabrics for interiors and exteriors). Mediamesh and Illumesh embed LEDs, along with all power and control cabling, into a structural metal mesh resembling an elegant security grate. The electronics are sleek enough to be transparent, so the screen can be used on a full facade without blocking daylight in or views out. For the same reason, it doesn’t look like a blank black wall when turned off. This doesn’t come cheap—prices hover around $200 per square foot—but that hasn’t prevented installation on a handful of buildings in Europe (including projects for Adidas and the 2006 Cannes Film Festival) and, soon, outside shopping malls in California.

The new materials demand a shift in the way we conceive of electronic signage: not as a box attached to a building, but as the building itself. And as with any project, what you put on it depends on the client. For the Helmut Jahn-designed Geneva headquarters of the pharmaceutical company Merck Serono, ag4 built the infrastructure and developed artsy “soft branding”—a cycle of abstract images that allude to sequences of DNA—for a 4,000-square-foot electronic wall. The illuminated bits interact with the structure of the building, leaping between floors.

One of the first installations in the U.S., planned for the El Portal shopping mall in Los Angeles, is due to open next year. “There’s a lot of controversy as to what should be displayed on these media facades,” admits its designer, Marc Romero. “Is it entertainment, is it cultural, is it advertising? This is just a whole new level of being able to affect an environment, and there’s a huge responsibility that goes with that.” For now, El Portal is planning to have brand logos “ebbing and flowing” through the space during the day, and video sequences in a more dazzling, light-show style in the evening.

Jakob Trollbäck discovered that signs of this scale could literally be sickening. His firm, New York-based creative studio Trollbäck + Company, developed the animations (“more artworks than commercial messages,” he says) for the high-definition video walls—one 120 feet long, one 20 feet—in the lobby of the Frank Gehry-designed IAC headquarters in New York. Unlike Mediamesh’s LEDs, IAC’s screens—originally suggested by Bruce Mau and built by McCann Systems in New York—are powered by 21 projectors installed in the wall, giving
them a high enough resolution that they stay legible even at close range. But the incredibly wide aspect ratio meant that during development, the team at Trollbäck could only view the entire animation as a 1-inch-tall movie on their computer screens. Not until they built a two-screen mockup did they realize that the speed of the animations was disorienting, particularly for anyone standing close. “We’re used to moving our eyes from left to right. Here, you have to move your head, but even then you may not even be positioned to see more than a third of the motion,” says Trollbäck. In the end, they slowed the animations—news headlines, a clock, time-lapse of a blooming flower—to about a tenth of their original speed.

Karin Fong of the media design company Imaginary Forces has also encountered the challenges inherent in making images viable on such a giant scale. Fong worked on a four-block-long screen for Fremont Street in Las Vegas a few years ago. “You couldn’t see from one end to the other,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘How do I design for something like that?’” She and her team worked out a non-narrative sequence that plays a couple times an hour, accentuating all those pixels—for instance, an eagle that flies the length of the screen. “It’s a bit of a spectacle,” she acknowledges.

Spectacle may be inevitable when you’re designing motion graphics for a 10,000-square-foot surface where one pixel can be the size of a milk crate. Still, as Trollbäck and Fong discovered, it’s possible to shift creative focus to accommodate the needs of such a large project. Ralf Müller, a partner at ag4, says that done properly, “media facades” (as ag4 calls them) should respond to the rhythms of cities. For him, that means discarding older ideas about what a city’s pace should be. “The behavior of buildings has to change in order to react to modern society and communications,” Müller says. “But architects don’t want this. They design buildings for 100 years.” Of course, the urban landscape shouldn’t change too rapidly, either. To Müller, every 10 seconds seems about right.

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