Media Facades: When Buildings Perform

Excerpt from Media Architecture Biennale (MAB2018) presentation by Samuel Mayze and Dr. Michael Scully in Beijing, China

Cinema has largely been contained in spaces away from public view, but recent developments in LED technology have led architects, builders and their clients to erect buildings which have the ability to broadcast video, motion graphics and images. While these “media facades” are a new medium, there is an opportunity to define what form they should take and how they should be regulated.

Media facades come in two forms. An external wall or cladding which uses low-resolution LED lights is generally used to enhance the architectural elements of a building. High-resolution lights capable of broadcasting video usurp the building, turning it into a giant screen and it is these which we will focus on in this article. Due to the reliance on lights, media facades only work once the sun sets, so buildings have a different visual relationship in the day, compared to night. Historically, this concept can be seen with a lighthouse – it is merely a structure in the day, but at night, its light beacon transforms the tower so that the original building can no longer be seen.

When video is projected from a building, the static elements of the structure are replaced with the illusion of movement and the building does something it has never done before: it performs. We must now establish the parameters of this performance: how long should the performance last? What is the content? Who should see it and how should it be regulated?

The need for regulation of these “video skin” facades comes from the fact that unlike cinema or television, public viewers do not have a choice to participate with the moving image. The public is unguarded and unprepared and, if the public broadcast is left in the hands of the unskilled or unscrupulous, the effect could be devastating.

Local governments must introduce regulations which address each element of these broadcasts including height restrictions, brightness, light pollution standards and content. Governments must limit the power that corporations, which have adopted media facades for commercial purposes, have in defining the urban landscape. The city should be able to use the façade for its own devices and should have the power to shut the system down if necessary.

The video broadcast must tell a visual story but not in the traditional narrative form of cinema. The content should be unique and should reflect the tastes of the urban community. Duration should be somewhere in between the instantaneous message of a photograph and the 120-minute cinema experience.

Aesthetically, designers should look to the lava lamp for inspiration: it is visually stimulating while being passive – there is no story but random shapes and images result in an engaging and entertaining visual medium. Media facades must decorate, not define the cityscape.

Media facades are being adopted worldwide and while they remain an emerging architecture movement, local governments must take action now to protect their public by introducing regulations which define the way these broadcasts look and the stories they tell.

Image: Digital Wall installation at Terrell Place in Washington, DC by ESI Design.