Spheres of Influence

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Chuck Hoberman’s Expanding Video Screen for U2 ups the ante for transformable design. —- Click here to view a slideshow of the Expanding Video Screen in motion —-

On U2’s current 360° Tour, a huge elliptical video screen hangs from a fog-shrouded, 164-foot-tall armature high above Bono’s head, filled with larger-than-life images of the band. As fans cheer and sing along, the screen slowly expands, breaking into 888 separate hexagonal pieces that dot a seven-story-high aluminum web.

The screen that moves in mysterious ways is sculptor and engineer Chuck Hoberman’s most technically ambitious project yet. Its structure, which expands and contracts like the iris of an eye, works according to the same principal as the rest of Hoberman’s transformable designs. Featuring myriad movable parts, his geometrically complex creations include tiny toys, rapidly deployable tents, and architectural facades. But the Expanding Video Screen is something bigger altogether.

The opportunity arose after U2’s show designer and director Willie Williams began working with architect Mark Fisher on an innovative elliptical stage design that would give stadium crowds 360-degree views. For the video screen that would serve as the structure’s centerpiece, they turned to longtime collaborator Frederic Opsomer, general manager of Innovative Designs, a subsidiary of the technology company Barco, which specializes in video displays for rock shows. Opsomer had already been discussing the possibility of an expanding video screen with Hoberman, so the pair set to work. Structural engineering firm Buro Happold conducted analysis to ensure the mammoth screen would be strong enough to withstand high winds, yet simple enough for eight-hour assembly. The group effort has produced fresh creative possibilities for show design, says Williams, since U2’s crew can now control not only the video clips but also the choreography of the screen itself. “It’s great fun,” Williams enthuses. “We get to play with this giant toy.”

While it might seem odd to call equipment this complex a toy, the characterization is consistent with the philosophies and design process of Hoberman’s seven-member firm, Hoberman Associates, which he founded in 1990. “There’s play in the context of the user or the viewer of these designs,” Hoberman says. “Then there’s play in terms of the creative development as well.”

Take 2004’s Switch Pitch, a ball that changes color as its parts move. At first, says Matt Davis, vice president of engineering, the team assumed that the user would have to move the parts manually. But the day the prototype was made in China, the company received a video file. “It was just an engineer holding it in his hand and tossing it in the air, and it turned inside out,” Davis recalls. “Once we saw that, we were like, ‘Oh wow—this is going to be a lot better than we thought.’ ” Hoberman says he finds it rewarding to see the process of creating such objects extended to the user experience. “When you have a transformable design, in some way it reconstitutes the manner of its own creation,” he explains. “It self-transforms. It self-expands. It comes into being, and then it recedes again.”

Hoberman coined the term “transformable design” to describe his firm’s work, but of course it’s an age-old phenomenon—think of the umbrella and the venetian blind. What sets Hoberman’s work apart is the way he has specifically set out to explore the principles of transformability. “Rather than looking at this as a kind of an ad hoc response to a specific problem—i.e., I make chairs; let’s see how I can make a chair fold up—it occurred to me that the foldability of the physical piece in and of itself deserved recognition as a kind of a design approach,” he says. “If you know how to make things transform, then you can approach any design problem in this new way.”

Paola Antonelli, the Museum of Modern Art’s senior curator of architecture and design, credits the appeal of transformable design to its mixture of pragmatism and wonder. “It’s being celebrated as not only functional but also magical,” she remarks. That magical quality is well-suited not just for toys, such as the iconic Hoberman Sphere (1995), but also for entertainment and theatrical purposes, such as the kinetic arch his firm designed for the Olympic Medals Plaza in the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and, of course, the Expanding Video Screen.

For Hoberman, the screen was also a chance to explore how digital technology could be given a supersized physical form. As big as a tennis court in its closed position, the screen consists of hundreds of LED panels attached to a 30-ton metal lattice composed of columns of scissorlike mechanisms. When closed, it looks like a seamless screen (comprising nearly half a million pixels). When it’s extended vertically to form a conical shape, the panels separate, giving it an airy, low-res permeability. For Opsomer, the project heralds a new era in which video screens are no longer constrained by traditional shapes—instead, they will become “objects that just happen to be a video screen.”

For his part, Hoberman is interested in applying the lessons of the Expanding Video Screen to other monolithic objects. “There’s a visceral feeling you have when you see these very large structures move,” Hoberman notes. “Of course, it always resolves down to

individual pieces moving through space, but if there are enough of them and if they aggregate in a particular way, your sense is that it’s morphing, it’s melting, it’s evolving in time.” Having grown up with an architect father, Hoberman has long been fascinated with building design, and in recent years he has started turning his expertise to bringing facades to life. While the idea of kinetic sunshades has been around for a while (Jean Nouvel’s 1987 Arab World Institute in Paris, for example), there’s been a surge of interest in them in recent years, due in part to rising concerns over buildings’ energy use and carbon footprints.

A Hoberman Associates–designed kinetic facade will grace the cosmetics company POLA’s new 14-story building in Tokyo’s Ginza district, scheduled for completion in October. During the day, a shading system of nearly 200 individually controlled vertical louvers will open and close in response to the levels of sunlight outside, to keep the interior from overheating. At night, illuminated in a rich color spectrum designed by Shozo Toyohisa, the louvers will move for purely aesthetic effect, rippling like crops blown in the wind.

For Hoberman, transformable designs represent an evolutionary response to the ever-shifting world we live in. “There’s such a rapid pace of change with regards to technology, with regards to society, with regards to the climate,” he says. “Adaptivity is a very positive way to deal with that.” This notion is finding expression through the recently launched Adaptive Building Initiative, a joint venture of Hoberman Associates and Buro Happold devoted to developing new forms of building envelopes that respond in real time to shifting environmental conditions. When it comes to future plans, Hoberman is more mysterious. “Stay tuned,” he says with a smile. Like any good magician, he doesn’t want to give away all his tricks too soon. Lisa Delgado is a New York–based freelance writer who covers architecture, design, art, and culture.

Photography by MARK MAHANEY