City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

A series of notes on the contemporary façade, from expressive and performative to responsive and interactive.

(This is by no means an attempt at an exhaustive survey; there are many more advanced façades out there – do feel free to note your favourites below. And for further examples, see the excellent Interactive Architecture dot org. Nor is this about contemporary façades in general (currently foremost for me, the glowing "lenses" of Steven Holl Architects’ extraordinarily beautiful, quietly bravura Block Building for the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City (amateur video here and here) and the soap-bubble structure meets ETFE skin of Arup/PTW’s National Aquatic Centre in Beijing).

Instead, this is simply a curated set of façades, juxtaposing a few different approaches to expression or interaction.

Firstly, one of our Monocle correspondents visited Guangzhou recently (for this advertorial for UKTI),
and I spotted this sequence on what amounts to the cutting room floor
of Final Cut Pro. It’s a series of complex expressive façades for
displaying branding on waterfront buildings, indicating how the city’s
skyline is used at night.

Synchronising animation across discrete buildings, using the fabric
of those buildings as the screen – quite impressive, yet for all its
immediate impact it’s conceptually old-fashioned. It’s essentially a
kind of ‘scripted space’, like London’s Piccadilly Circus, New York’s
Times Square or most of Las Vegas cf. Norman M. Klein’s book The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects (thanks for the book, Jon).

JG Ballard reminds us of this when he remembers the 1930s Shanghai of his youth:

advertising displays – the honour guard of 50 Chinese hunchbacks
outside the premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame sticks in my mind –
were part of the everyday reality of the city, though I sometimes
wonder if everyday reality was the one element missing."

50 Chinese hunchbacks? Now that’s an expressive façade.

Jeffrey Koh recently collated some examples as case studies for a Seoul City Wall project, from Berlin, Graz and Rotterdam.

SPOTS media façade in Berlin’s Potsdamerplatz:

John DeKron’s animations for Peter Cook and Colin Fournier’s pixellated Kunsthaus Graz:

The hugely irritating ‘dancing baby’ animation finds its way onto the KPN building in Rotterdam:

Again, variations on building as advanced billboard.

A more advanced example is CCC’s work on Blinkenlights,
for the Haus des Lehrers, at Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. (Berlin, a city
so deeply in debt it might as well be renamed Das Vegas, is clearly
turning its urban fabric into a broad canvas for such things.) This
enabled games of Pong to be played on the building’s façade, controlled
via mobile phone, shifting the building into interactive mode, albeit

I’m not even going to go near Tokyo with this, where seemingly every
corner is replete with display. Except perhaps two examples from Ginza.

Chanel’s store exemplifies the modern media-rich façade:

In the same street, Klein Dytham’s work for Uniqlo is a deliberately low-res counterpoint, in response to its neighbours:

facades are now screens, our Uniqlo facade is a pixilated
"electro-retro" version. It is made up of a matrix of one thousand
illuminated cells, whose luminosity can be individually controlled to
produce chunky Tetris-style patterns on the facade. A mirror-finish
stainless steel grid placed over this screen has the effect of breaking
up and blurring off its sharp edges. The four-square Uniqlo logo shines
through all, lit up with a bright LED array. Luxury, at low-res."




Responsive is also Christian Moeller’s ‘Nosy’ installation, Osaki City, Tokyo 2006; there’s a video on his site.

robotic video camera randomly captures the surrounding landscape and
people, which are then displayed in bitmap graphics onto three towers
covered with white LEDs behind frosted glass panels."


See also his Kinetic Light Sculpture, Reactive facade at the Zeilgallery in Frankfurt, 1992, with Ruediger Kramm:

building façade which changes color distribution according to current
weather conditions. Behind a screen of perforated aluminum, 120
floodlights fade from blue to yellow, illuminating the front of the
building. The overall image is directed by a weather station on top of
the building: the ambient temperature (variables: 0º-30º C) determines
the amount of yellow on the blue wall. The yellow patches move in line
with the direction of the wind. Wind speed governs how fast they move
over the surface. Rain substitutes for wind and causes patches of
yellow to fall vertically. The upper area of the facade is crossed
horizontally by the wide, rapidly changing line graphic (LED-Display 4m
x 20m) that visualizes the noise in the street in real-time."


Back to expressive, and Metropolis recently profiled Arup Lighting’s Rogier van der Heide,
and noted his work with Ben van Berkel, of UN Studio, on the Galleria
West shopping center in Seoul (winner of the Radiance Award in 2005: ).
4,330 computer-programmable glass discs, each roughly 71cm in diameter.

"The scheme animated the preexisting structure’s
uninspiring facade with a dazzling skin constructed of 4,330 glass
disks, which displays computer-programmable text and images or else
blazes with light and color. To realize it, van der Heide worked
closely with the architect on a process that began when van Berkel,
considering the Galleria’s luxury-brand tenants, suggested they “create
an active structure” for the store. “We had ideas about fluid lines
that would go around the building, but that was no good,” van der Heide
recalls of their brainstorming. “Then we thought, Maybe we should make
the building itself radiant. So we developed that. We understood that
we had to make the facade elements small to achieve fluidity. So we
said, ‘Listen, if they’re so small, they might be pixels in a screen.’”



In Brussels, the Dexia Tower has been hosting nightly shows by the
installation artists Lab(au) for months now, with a recent showing enthusiastically reviewed by CR blog.
There have been several shows on, including once called Touch, which
enabled viewers to control the light display from a touch-screen over
the road:

A later installation responded to, and conveyed, weather information. As such it’s akin to some of the ideas in the Personal Well-Tempered Environment.

project displays tomorrow’s temperature, cloudiness, precipitations,
and wind, by using colors and geometrical patterns to visualise these
data. A color-code corresponds to tomorrow’s temperature compared to
the monthly average, linked to a scale of color-temperatures ranging
from violet (-6° or colder), blue (-4°), cyan (-2°), green (monthly
average), yellow (+2°), orange (+4°) to red (+6° or warmer)"



(You might pause to wonder about the waste of electricity in these
displays, though the creators and owners are quick to point out that
most are LED-based, and thus far more efficient than previous displays
(Dexia uses a third of the energy of Tour Eiffel, for example.) And if
they genuinely add to the experience of the city, this positive
contribution should be taken into account – in a way most
sustainability indexes don’t.)

For some reason, a perennially popular post at City of Sound has been the brief note I wrote marking Herzog & DeMeuron’s Allianz Arena in Münich,
a stadium that has an EFTE-based façade that shift colour to white, red
or blue in order to display which team is playing at home – it
"communicates status at a glance" as I wrote at the time.



These last two – the Dexia in weather-forecasting mode and the Allianz – both have a sense of utility allied to delight.

With all these examples, the buildings almost have secret identity
that comes alive at night, as if removing its glasses and shaking its
hair loose. Another performative work would be Mader Stublic Wiermann’s
lighting display for the Uniqa tower in Vienna. ‘Twists and Turns’ is a
playful work that responds to the implied structure of the building its
‘situated upon (video) [via Interactive Architecture]:


A possibly related example: I’d heard about this on The Architects, and it sounded vaguely interesting. Then Paul Schütze
sent me these photos of cladding on a building site in Paris, covering
the renovation going on underneath. This is a ‘special-effect’ from the
old world, and truly low-tech in that sense. Paul reports:

works incredibly well.  Located just down George V about a block from
the amazing Louis Vuitton building on the Champs Elysée. For most of my
approach toward its profile I thought it was a huge plexi mirror
offering great photo opportunities. The illusion is so persuasive it
makes objects in the foreground seem distorted as well."





So despite the simplicity of the idea and realisation, it’s still a façade that powerfully affects, even changing perception.

Shifting gears slightly, we have Brisbane Girls Grammar School Creative Learning Centre by the city’s own m3architecture. This building is getting lots of attention in Australia, quite rightly. More importantly it came first in The Architects‘ end-of-year 2007 poll.

It’s a wonderful building all round, by all accounts, but the façade
is extraordinary. This finds a new way to deal with the fierce
Australian sun, first and foremost,  as well as demarcating the new
centre from the surrounding late-19th century buildings. The entire
façade not only features, but is comprised of, a giant moiré effect on
the side facing the busy six-lane Inner City Bypass, busway and railway
line, which all snake alongside the school grounds.




Dr. Sandra Kaji-O’Grady of UTS wrote about it for Architecture Australia, in an issue devoted to schools in September/October ’07:

western face, visible at some distance from the highway, theatrically
engages with the movement of the traffic. Using an outer sunscreen of
bronze anodised aluminium slats against an inner wall of white with
black vertical stripes, a moiré effect is triggered. The building
appears to melt and wobble in circular waves as the viewer passes,
leading some puzzled locals to inquire of the architects as to its
mechanics. From a position on the highway where both the 1880s
buildings and the new building come into view, the ovoid forms of the
optical illusion neatly align in height and radius with the arched
upper storey windows of the old brick building. The optical facade also
forms the edge of the playing fields of the neighbouring Brisbane Boys
Grammar and one can only wonder what this mirage of undulating curves
does to the feverish minds of some teenaged boys."

Obviously, photos don’t do it justice (those above are from the Architecture Australia article). There’s a video of the moiré effect on a scale model on the m3architecture site
– I’ll try to get a video of the thing in situ when I’m next up. I got
the bus past this at Christmas and can confirm that the effect truly
works. As you drive past, the entire six-storey wall appears to open up
and revolve gently. It’s just subtle enough that it’s unlikely to cause
accidents – one hopes.


There’s little or no description of this effect in m3’s write-up of their project.
You might extrapolate from the central idea of ‘making connections’ to
see how that would relate to connecting to the transit running
alongside the edge of the school. (Equally, I half-wonder if it might
be inspired by the everyday moiré effect conjured by the ubiquitous
domestic flyscreens over windows here in Australia.) It’s responsive,
in the sense that your movement past the building causes a visual
transformation, but interestingly it’s essentially a ‘special effect’
using the characteristics of material rather than a programmed
projection onto skin. It’s an inherent quality of the fabric itself,
and in that actually more advanced than all those Ginza-style examples
above. Works in daylight, too.

A quite different approach – technically, physically, conceptually – is provided the Corpora in Si(gh)te augmented-reality façade, by doubleNegatives
et al. It’s extraordinarily lovely. It’s a responsive system, creating
an entirely virtual architecture conceptually overlaid onto the
Yamaguchi Centre for Arts and Media, responding to environmental data
in real-time.



"In "Corpora in Si(gh)te" a number of sensors are setup forming a mesh
network throughout the area of YCAM in order to collect and distribute
realtime environmental information such as temperature, brightness,
humidity, wind direction and sound. The data collected from these
sources are processed by a software and translated into nodes
reflecting the sensor network. These nodes are the seeds for the
virtual architecture of "Corpora" representing a cellular, distributed
network of nodes that are reacting through realtime processing, growing
and subsiding like an organism. Each node makes local decisions
independently of a central architect. The nodes inadvertently give rise
to an architectural structure, both in the YCAM building and in the
park. This "information architecture" of nodes has its own spatial
perception to make itself transform into various forms by relying on
the super-eye concept. The fluid character of this architecture occurs
as a living form. Visitors can observe this process by Augmented
Reality Technology, located in various parts of YCAM."




This façade can radically alter scale, form and state in response to
its environment, as it doesn’t physically exist (except for a model in
the foyer). The fact that it’s augmented reality is interesting,
though. It embodies the idea that the data around the building is
actually another façade; indeed, the informational weight and density
of this façade would be far more significant than its physical façade,
through some lenses. It suggests an architecture which is purely informational, yet not without an implied physical form and graceful aesthetic.

Finally, The Living have just announced their latest work, Living City. I invited David Benjamin and Soo-In Yang to present an early prototype of their ‘Living Glass’ at Postopolis!, and at the time I wrote:

exploring different patterns of movement, and thickening, stretching
and contracting of material, they are able to build a transparent wall
with louvred "gills" across its surface. These gills open and close
when a wire contracts, in response to some sensory input (they used
infra-red but it could’ve been any of a number of stimuli). The end
result is that the ‘glass’ membrane actually opens up when people
approach, in order to let fresh air in. They demo this in front of the
Postopolis! crowd, and it’s truly impressive. It literally draws a gasp
from the audience. The transparent glass louvres bend and twist open as
Benjamin breathes on the surface. It’s a lovely movement, far more
organic than mechanical (although this is work that blurs concepts like
organic and mechanical together.)"

They’ve now
constructed an ecosystem around the living glass, such that it can
respond to environmental conditions across buildings, even physically
disconnected buildings. There’s far more to say about their work, in
terms of the ideas of open APIs between buildings that I also drew upon
for PWTE,
or their far-sighted approach to platform-building rather than
building-building. But the façade they’ve built as the manifestation of
the ecosystem is also lovely, technically impressive and powerfully
imaginative. The facade isn’t a displaced window onto the system; it is
truly the system’s interface.




Deployed, with some chutzpah, on the Empire State Building and the
Van Alen Institute building, the sensor network enables these two
buildings to ‘talk’ to each other, sharing data as to their state and
that of the surrounding environment.


The living glass façade can then react to this data – in this first,
obvious sense, reacting to air quality by closing or opening
accordingly. But the potential is for the building itself to react to
its environment; of other buildings, and the air around it. (Again,
it’s the call-and-response between extrapolations of BIM (Building
Information Modeling) and CIM (City Information Modeling) that I
referred to in PWTE.) As they put it:

the facade as a location of data sensing, of communication, and of
responsive performance and display, the city acquires a new layer of

In this, the building façade melts
into the public space around it, its structure dissolving in the
behaviour of the city. As such, the façade becomes more powerful than


9 responses to “Façades: expressive, responsive, interactive”

  1. Greg J. Smith Avatar

    Great post Dan! I only wish the good ol’ Herzog de Meuron railroad signal tower was included.
    Regardless, thanks for all the eye candy. 🙂


  2. Jonas Avatar

    Hong Kong also as whole harbourfronts worth of buildings like above. The difference is not only do they have their own programs, they all synchronize every night to to this
    The artistic and aesthetic merits of which is subject for discussion…


  3. RedFox Avatar

    Oh WOW! Thanks for the great info!!


  4. tim edler Avatar

    Both the BIX (kunthaus Graz 2003) facade installation and SPOTS (Berlin 2005) were conceived and built by realities:united ( John Dekron ( developed the operating software and as an artist performed on both facades as well.


  5. Dan Hill Avatar

    Greenpix is a new sustainable facade technology:

    “Featuring the largest color LED display worldwide and the first photovoltaic system integrated into a glass curtain wall in China, the building performs as a self-sufficient organic system, harvesting solar energy by day and using it to illuminate the screen after dark, mirroring a day’s climatic cycle.”


  6. Dan Hill Avatar

    See also Mediamesh:

    “The basic concept of Mediamesh® is a stainless steel mesh fabric with interwoven LED profiles and with connected media controls installed behind it. The LEDs render the images onto the facade, providing the ability to display a wide spectrum of graphics, animated text and video. In comparison with conventional systems, Mediamesh® is a transparent system that does not completely close off the facade. The architecture of the building is thus not destroyed and, when turned off, the Mediamesh® facade is also integrated as a harmonious element of the architectural design. Mediamesh® marks itself through a sophisticated design and is flexibly integrated into the facade architecture according to the specifications of the building. The production technology of Mediamesh® enables the supply of rolls of fully assembled Mediamesh® fabric webs all ready for installation.”


  7. Rogier van der Heide Avatar

    The wonderful thing about your post is the comprehensive overview, that you show the incredible diversity of lighting for the city. Many of these projects are at the convergence of light and media, of feel and know, of the soul and the brain… This is a fascinating field of architecture that redefines the way we look at piazzas, waterfronts, cities… Thank you very much for your blog!


  8. Kaz Avatar

    This is a great post. Thank you for this comprehensive review of media facades.


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