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Media Faades: Arc Light

In the Public Sphere

by
Michael Scully

WASHINGTON __ As part of its grand opening, the CityCenterDC shopping complex


unveiled a state-of-the-art digital art feature last summer thats designed to immerse
visitors in a video experience as they enter off H Street. The video installation is an arch:
a series of LED light monitors that fill two, parallel 25-foot-tall walls, which are linked
by a common ceiling which is 50-foot-long and also covered with LED light monitors.
As visitors cross through the entranceway, the monitors show a series of video loops of
animated vignettes: images of flowing water; the planets moving across the sky; a woman
dancing to jazz music; an athlete doing somersaults, and so forth. In most cases, visitors
walk through the exhibit glancing slightly as they move into the retail complex but
occasionally, people will stop, turn and watch as each vignette plays out.
While exhibits of this nature are rare, there is a growing trend in architecture to
continue adding video components to the structures of some buildings. Other examples in
the United States include the old Lehman Brothers Building, the Cond Nast building
which includes the NASDAQ MarketSite and the New York Port Authority complex. Of
course, each of these buildings has a very different look but they all share one common
architectural component: all have media faades, or exterior walls covered with LED
monitors capable of broadcasting video images. So, as tourists stare up from Times
Square looking at the NASDAQ building, they see a building faade covered with video

monitors capable of broadcasting digital images. From the street, the building looks like a
giant 80-foot-tall curved television set, which blasts video images down over the busy
tourist square.
Because the building is located on the southeast corner of Times Square, the light
spilling from the NASDAQ building is merely part of the greater luminous cacophony
saturating this busy Manhattan intersection. Its nearly impossible to flood that space
with anymore light. But, compared to the rest of the United States, areas including Times
Square and the Las Vegas strip should be the exceptions. In many public spaces, the
addition of media faade displays would have a detrimental affect on the public
environment. The lights are commanding, the images hypnotic and the visual pollution
can be overwhelming.
Now, the reason this issue is important is the fact that LED lighting technology
has finally evolved to a point where it is possible to transform any structure into a highdefinition broadcasting source. Any building can be clad with a so-called video skin
that has the power to conceal the actual structure, cloaking it instead with a visual array
of animation and motion images. Whats alarming in all of this is the fact that the
governments that regulate planning and zoning dont appear prepared for whats coming;
the architectural community hasnt quite determined how to shape the arguments for
aesthetic beauty; and the worlds retailers seemed poised to merely appropriate the
technology, transforming it into yet another venue for consumption-based advertising and
guerrilla-style marketing.

Blinded by the Light

So what is a media faade? In the opening scenes of Blade Runner, a sci-fi


movie based in a futuristic Los Angeles, a spacecraft flies through the towers of the
cityscape and among the high rises is a monolithic video display showing a Geisha girl
placing a piece of candy in her mouth over and over again. This video image is Director
Ridley Scotts vision of the future and while the movie is 35 years old, his concept
represents a prototype for the modern media faade.
Breaking it down, Ridley Scotts fictional building is actually a fusion of two
contemporary technologies: the first is a modern glass-framed tower, a building form that
rose to prominence in the last century; the second is a digital billboard, or a billboard
shaped monitor designed to be outside. Although the latter did not exist in 1982, Scott
likely dreamed up the idea by simply replacing the glass of a traditional curtain wall
building with video monitors: He replaced the glass skin with LED monitors. The end
result is a building that can broadcast video images. Considering the technology, it took
several decades for the lighting industry to fashion an LED panel that would be light
enough and energy efficient enough to become part of a buildings structure. The
breakthrough point came roughly 15 years ago and since then about 2000 media
faades have been turning up as components of modern architecture primarily in Asia and
in northern Europe.
So what is it exactly? A media faade is when the outer skin of a building is
equipped with a curtain wall of LED light panels. The panels are not part of the
structural integrity ie., they do NOT support the building instead, these panels hang
from a frame which is attached to the exterior of the building (much like vinyl siding).

Once the panels are installed, each is networked through a central computer matrix; from
this workstation, video and still images are uploaded and the computer orchestrates the
patchwork of monitors to create a single, unified image, which is projected over the
buildings exterior walls. Once the video skin system is in place, a whole assortment of
visual opportunities can be created. The buildings owners can now transform the
appearance of the structure to be anything: it can be pink, it can be blue; it can be covered
in candy stripes or Shamrocks; it can appear to be made of bricks or wood; and it
certainly can project emotive video images. This technological development marks a
watershed moment in the aesthetic of building design: Architectural design has collided
headlong with media.

Architectural Theory: the Basics


Architectural theory is a complex thing but building design can be broken down
into two key components: The pattern language and the form language. Pattern
language contains the rules for how human animals interact with the structure. Often the
variables here are influenced by customs, society and climate. So, a bus station designed
for Las Vegas would be radically different than a bus station designed for Buffalo, NY
because the climates and cultures in these cities are radically different. Form language
speaks to the geometric rules used to assemble the structure. So, with the invention of
elevators and air conditioning, it became possible to build skyscrapers. After all,
skyscrapers are glass-encased towers that stand hundreds of feet high. Air conditioning

allowed for the windows to be sealed; and elevators made it possible to rapidly transport
people to the upper floors of even the tallest towers.1
So, with media faades, improvements in the LED light panels and network
computing made it possible to include these technologies in the form language of the
building. The trouble now, culturally, is what to do about the pattern language: How
should humans encounter this new emerging media platform?
Ideally, the architectural community would like to see the owners and operators of
these LED light platforms to consider the aesthetics of what theyre showing. Images
should be pleasing and beautiful. The trouble is, while the desire may be towards the
aesthetic, many companies feel compelled to use the stations for advertising purposes.
The industry calls this trend the Times Square Effect, and one cannot help but anticipate
the troubles. When favoring the aesthetic, the buildings managers could broadcast
seasonal images or natural events or soothing flowing water patterns; but often the
pressures to place corporate logos and icons can be too great. In the book New Media
Faades, the authors raised the issue, noting their concerns:
By working in a collaboration with lighting experts and engineers we can experiment
with, innovate and invent integral and site-specific solutions and, in so doing, paint and
clothe buildings in ways that express their meaning and function through the abstraction
of accepted advertising parlance and thereby create possibilities for art and commerce to
be housed under one and the same roof.
To achieve this, we have to move beyond figurative realism as well as derivative
references to Pop Art. Fast paced progress in technology now means we can appropriate
the media faade into the architects palette and work with gradients of colour, light and
shadows to affect an architectural visual language which can surpass traditional
advertising imagery and create a homogenous cultural effect.2

Salingaros, Nikos. "A Theory of Architecture Part 1: Pattern Language vs. Form Language." ArchDaily.
N.p., 23 Mar. 2014. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.
2
Haeusler, M. Hank, Martin Tomitsch, Gernot Tscherteu, and Ben Van Berkel. New Media Facades: A
Global Survey. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

For a time, the expense of the technology and image quality were hampering the
development of the media faade movement; but the technology has improved and the
designers are moving past the what if? stage and into the what now? phase, which
contains a certain amount of ethical debate.

The Technology
At the center of the media faade technology is the LED or light-emitting diode
lamp that burns less electricity and has a longer life cycle than traditional incandescent
light bulbs. Because of their size, and the fact that they dont emit heat, the LED is being
phased into all sorts of practical lighting purposes. Further, the color of the LED light can
be altered with narrow alterations and it is possible to place several different color LEDs
as pixels in an area and create an image. Imagine a digital version of color newsprint, and
one can begin to understand how LED lights can be used to create digital images.
Conceived in the 1960s, LED lighting has been around for decades awaiting
commercial application and finally the market is finding uses for these lights.
Specifically, the LED light has been added to automotive design the BMW eyebrow
is an example and many traffic indicators have been outfitted with LED lights. Until
recently, image resolution had been a problem but finally engineers have found a way to
increase the LED density or pixel density to improve image quality. In 2013,
engineers introduced displays that can host high-definition images on panels 25-feet in
width. To view the HD signal, one must stand at least 15-feet away.3 This advancement
means it is possible to use LED media panels to share visually complex information. The

Farley, Brett. "LED Today: New Technology Means New Terminology." Sound Communications. N.p.,
July 2014. Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

result? One can now alter the appearance of a building just by downloading new video
data and booting it up and broadcasting it. The building is now a light sculpture, or a
projection screen, or public television.

Bright Lights, Big City


It was media theorist Marshall McLuhan who introduced the mantra that the
medium is the message, and during his explanation, he suggested that even light bulbs
carry a message in spite of the fact that they have no information.4 Translated, McLuhan
believed that the meaning of the data is defined by the way its transmitted. Consider, for
example, the nature of a proposal of marriage written on a cocktail napkin as compared to
the same message as tattooed on a body part: the words are the same but the presentation
of the data is completely altered by the embodiment of its form. A wrinkled cocktail
napkin might suggest ambivalence; a tattoo might suggest permanence, or painful
dedication, or trashiness you get the idea. So, with the light bulb, the simple act of
turning it on allows the witness to look around themselves: a dark room filled with clutter
and obstacles becomes a library decorated with a sofa, a chair, a desk, tables and
bookshelves teeming with volumes. The light also becomes a locus, the place where
illumination is brightest.
Now, consider the message of a traditional analog building. For millennia, we
have been building structures and shelters. For most of that history, these buildings
were/are static objects built collectively and melded into cityscapes. Buildings can be tall
or short, narrow or wide, features that would define their importance in their host
communities. To the casual eye, they are white, grey or black. Lighting is also a factor
4

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

but for the most part buildings are either lit by sunshine or by artificial lighting that is
shown upon them, passively illustrating their presence in the public forum. In these
instances, the focal point is the building itself. At night, we see the U.S. Capitol Building
because there are lights shining upon it; this lighting makes the building apparent among
the cityscape but the lighting does not alter our perception of the Capitol Building: we
still perceive its color, its size, its scale and its importance as compared to the other
structures in the public sphere.
The media faade radically alters this dynamic: now, instead of being a gray
structure standing among other gray shadows, the building is now illuminated and
painted with color. Further, the building is now the source of the illumination. The
structure becomes the light bulb. The building has the capacity to broadcast a signal
much like a movie projector or a television set and instead of seeing the concrete, bricks
or mortar, we are actually looking through the structure or beyond the structure, confused
instead by the images that are being projected over the video skin of the building.
Comparatively speaking, when we look at the movie screen, we do not perceive the
edges, the shape or the color of the canvas, we experience the images projected on the
surface. Following McLuhans comparisons, he also argued that when we sit watching
television, the image being beamed through the darkness is ultimately imprinted on the
viewers retina. In essence, the moving image is projected right into the eyes receptive
tissue and injected into the brain.5 So, when we look at media faades, we must look at
them as having many of the same features as motion pictures and television. McLuhan
put it this way:

Ibid.

The mode of the TV image has nothing in common with film or photo, except that it
offers also a nonverbal gestalt or posture of forms. With TV, the viewer is the screen. He
is bombarded with light impulses that James Joyce called the Charge of the Light
Brigade that imbues his soulskin with sobconscious inklings. The TV image is
visually low in data. The TV image is not a still shot. It is not photo in any sense, but a
ceaselessly forming contour of things limned by the scanning-finger. The resulting plastic
contour appears by light through, not light on, and the image so formed has the quality of
sculpture and icon, rather than of picture. The TV image offers some three million dots
per second to the receiver. From these he accepts only a few dozen each instant, from
which to make an image. 6

The trouble here is that instead of choosing to participate with the moving images in a
controlled environment ie., the movie theater, the living room we are exposed to the
images in the public forum. When a building broadcasts a video message, we typically
happen upon them incidentally on the street and given the visual potency of the moving
image, its hard to look away. Begging the questions: Is it possible for a building to be a
media source? Attaching video skins to the exterior of a building certainly transforms it
into a broadcast source but to what end? And should we allow for the incidental
bombardment of visual data in the public sphere?

Pattern Language
There is an ethical debate brewing among the architectural community about the
value and purpose of media faades. Until very recently, the resolution quality of these
exterior LED media panels has been so poor architects have been using them to emit
color schemes and block lettering. But the technology has advanced to a point that its
possible to get high-definition quality, which means color fields are being replaced with
moving images and more detailed writing. So what we saw before were blocks of colored
light, today were seeing complex digital images.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

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So, what should be broadcasted over these buildings? The architectural


community wants artistic images that reflect the context of the neighborhood and the
nature of the businesses that occupy these spaces but they dont necessarily want
advertising. Further, considering the pattern language, how should these buildings be
influencing the people that encounter them? Right now, most of the power is in the hands
of the corporations that build these structures. Philosopher Louis Althusser might argue
that too much power is in the hands of the corporations, or the Ideological State
Apparatus and not enough is in the hands of the local governments, or the
Representative State Apparatus.7 Could government have some say over what is shown
at these sites? It certainly has oversight over sight lines, building design and other social
issues pertaining to the look of the cityscape.
For now, the corporations here in the United States have been careful: Looking at
the old Lehman Brothers building in Manhattan, this tiered glass structure has LED
video panels lining the first six stories of the structure. On the lower level, the structure
often projects the name of the company housed inside the building: today, its Barclays
Capital. Above that, the panels show a map of the world and the date. Over the course of
the day, these video elements disappear and are replaced with scrolling letter patterns
repeating the company name and slogans; or visual events featuring waves crashing or
clouds drifting across a blue sky.
Here in Washington at the CityCenterDC, which has a growing retail base, the
management company is broadcasting video vignettes related to the politics of
Washington: One video shows trains in the Metro rail system carrying elephants and

Althusser, Louis, and Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. New York: Monthly
Review, 2001. Print.

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donkeys (which are the icons for the Republican and Democrat parties). And, because
(as Im writing this) it is the holiday shopping season, occasionally, a life-sized Santa will
appear on the edge of the video and look as though hes peeking at us from a hiding place
before dashing across the width of the display and into hiding on the other side. Clearly,
this is a visual nod that Christmas is coming. Again, the visual images are cute, soothing
and topical but not all buildings are using these video displays for artistic purposes. In
Times Square, the digital billboards are showing clips from computer games, video of
runway shows from New Yorks Fashion Week and sprinting images of sports cars
racing through our lives. In this environment, the advertising messages are constant
airing 24/7 and each vignette is interspersed with logos and other corporate branding.
But we certainly like to look: In many cases, these video events have the ability to
stop passersby who watch as the images transform the appearance of the building. The
images can be seasonal, instructional or inspirational. But, again, what is being projected
is subject to the whims of the building management and there are many opportunities for
cultural malice.
In a recent interview, urban planner Marjam Struppek from the Public Art Lab in
Berlin, addressed the issue of art versus advertising:
How can we prevent spectacular corporate media facades just becoming symbols of a
gentrification process that only increases the divide between the new visually-appealing
urban re-developed areas and the visually overloaded, advertisement rich screen-landscape
of poorer districts and cities? There has been only very little artistic intervention that was
able to successfully hack and question the advertisement content of digital billboards in
the traditional guerilla style of changing the images of analogue ones. It is almost
impossible to create projects that can actually react to the commercial content shown; we
are left with the possibility of referring to the general context of the billboard or
commercial media faade if not censored by the owner. The only solution seems to be to
cover them secretly with cardboard and cut out letters letting only the colourful flickering
light of the ads through, animating artistically provoking slogans.8

Haeusler, M. Hank, Martin Tomitsch, Gernot Tscherteu, and Ben Van Berkel. New Media Facades: A
Global Survey. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

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Searching for local comparisons, one need not walk far from the CityCenterDC complex
to see the opposite end of the spectrum. At the intersection of 7th and H streets, three
large flat-panel billboards hang above this busy intersection blasting the Gallery Place
neighborhood with blinding video advertising hosted by AT&T and others. As the videos
move from one commercial to the next, the intersection actually pulsates with lights. This
is the potent counter point to the artist vision; this is in-your-face broadcast advertising
and its blaring light pollution commands the attention of the entire intersection.
Architects call this the Times Square Effect and it is the source of all their fears.

The Times Square Effect


In the age of virtual reality, there is something attractive about the idea of
immersing oneself in the digital landscape. Often, we talk about surfing the web as
though there was a process that allowed us to transport our subconscious into the digital
realm. Motion pictures certainly have the ability to seize our attention and the advent of
IMAX and 3-D movies only further our immersion into the digital space. Times Square
has always been a festival for lighting; it is a visual space that extends for several blocks
and still has visual boundaries. On all sides, the buildings which define the space are
covered with lighted billboards, which were once static but are now digital LED lighted
billboards advertising automobiles, soft drinks, Broadway shows, video games,
underwear and other electronics and fashion items. Commerce is clearly the central
theme here.
Looking again to philosopher Louis Althusser for answers, one can see that Times
Square is a media-based platform on which the commercial world announces its demands

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upon the Manhattan tourist. Times Square did not become this thing by accident. In the
early 1980s, Times Square was an awful place, filled with crime, drugs and prostitution.
Many of the storefronts were either faded destination points or sex shops and strip joints.
In the 1990s, New York City began cleaning up the neighborhood in phases: first it
moved the vice community into nearby Hells Kitchen and then established a pronounced
law enforcement presence. Althusser might suggest that the city government the
Repressive State Apparatus used its workforce to cleanse the neighborhood and purify
it. Once the streets were cleaned and the lighting was repaired, the city began inviting
corporations into the community and the retail profile transformed from small mom-andpop shops into havens for Fortune 500 retailers including Converse, Disney, LEGO and
Mars candies among many others. Basically, the titty bars were gone, replaced with
M&Ms, high-top sneakers, and an army of Disney characters.
Althusser would likely identify these corporations as Ideological State
Apparatuses, which are armed with their marketing dollars to reinvent the city center and
their vision is to saturate the public sphere with advertising images and logos with the
purpose of confusing and controlling pedestrians in the space. In his book Media City,
author Scott McQuire addresses the issue of control:
If urban space has historically been defined by the relation between static structures and
mobile subjects, this dichotomy is fast giving way to hybrid spatialities characterized by
dynamic flows which not only dissolve the fixity of traditional modes of spatial
enclosure, but problematize the unified presence of the subject traversing their contours.9

Today, it appears as though Bloomberg, Canon, Coca-Cola and Virgin have more control
over the neighborhood than New York City. Sure, the NYPD police the corners, but its

McQuire, Scott. The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2008.
Print.

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the corporations that illuminate the spaces.10 This privatization of the public sphere has
triggered a trading of authority. Governments set the rules but corporations are now
defining the urban landscape and apparently, the new look of the city is one saturated
with colors and lights designed to trigger consumption. In a city built by commerce,
Manhattans Times Square is the electronic soul from which all else is defined. It is a
nucleus of light and sound and the advent of LED broadcasting modules are only further
jacking up the influence.
Embedding devices such as cameras, motion detectors, RFIDs and other sensors in urban
infrastructure and linking them to computers and databases for analysis and feedback,
creates new prospects for responsive architecture.11

What was once a place for blinking lights, has become a center where Ridley Scotts
Geisha girl is ingesting her soma over and over and over again. As you walk the
neighborhood, one cannot help but stare upward at the flickering lights, watching as the
starlets tease us with their smart phones, eau de toilette and soft drinks. Is it all too much?
The idea of visual art has been completely supplanted by full-on advertising. One cannot
help but feel like weve been tossed headlong into a tar pit of visual consumption.

In Your Face
Certainly, philosopher Guy Debord would marvel at the transformation of city
space. Should the current trend of adding media skins to our buildings continue, the
cityscape could be transformed into rows of broadcast stations aligning our avenues.
Debords spectacle would be transported from the confines of the movie house and out

10

Althusser, Louis, and Ben Brewster. Lenin and Philosophy, and Other Essays. New York: Monthly
Review, 2001. Print.
11
McQuire, Scott. The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space. Los Angeles, CA: Sage, 2008.
Print

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into the world for all to see. The result would be a transgression of power that even he
may have failed to imagine:
The spectacle is the moment when the commodity has attained the total occupation of
social life. Not only is the relation of the commodity visible but it is all one sees: the
world one sees is its world. Modern economic production extends its dictatorship
extensively and intensively. In the least industrialized places, its reign is already attested
by a few star commodities and by the imperialist domination imposed by regions which
are ahead in the development of productivity. In the advanced regions, social space is
invaded by a continuous superimposition of geological layers of commodities. At this
point in the second industrial revolution, alienated consumption becomes for the
masses a duty supplementary to aliened production. It is all the sold labor of a society
which globally becomes the total commodity for which the cycle must be continued.12

One possible solution might be to limit the number of media faades per city block;
another might be to establish standards for visual content. Localities could limit the
broadcasting times and set standards for aesthetics. But for this to happen, the
government would have to usurp some of the authority it freely surrendered to the
corporations. I doubt that this is going to happen. As it stands now, the corporations are
likely to forge onward, injecting more and more video into the cityscape creating in
essence a city of television sets. We will be at their mercy, inundated with visual
messages, which will be seared to our retinas and infused directly into our psyche.
Urban theorist Theodore Roszak feared that as city dwellers, we learned to
believe that we had established dominion over nature and that the urban core was a haven
for a society absent the primitive rhythms of life, nature, communal intimacy. He
didnt always think this way but as cities developed, these civilized people ultimately
destroyed the primitive tribal democratic forms.13 The result was a depersonalization
of existence and a lost of kinship. The subsequent alienation turned city dwellers into
legions of lonely workers who became slaves to corporate institutions. Moving forward

12
13

Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone, 1994. Print.
Smith, Michael P. The City and Social Theory. New York: St. Martin's, 1979. Print.

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with this idea, by systematically handing over the egalitarian virtues of the cityscape to
these corporations, one will certainly see a heightened age of human repression. The
public sphere will no longer belong to the individual, instead, it will be the plaything of
the corporation, which could potentially saturate the space with the constant murmur of
consumption media. Ultimately, the voices in our heads will be drowned out by the visual
arc light of corporate advertising.
But there is hope: As a precursor to the media faade debate, many localities are
battling to limit the use of digital billboard advertising. And while the technology of
digital advertisement is new, the struggle to contain billboards has been around for
decades. Dating back as far as the 1930s, localities have been fighting to reduce and
restrict the urban blight caused by billboards. Over time, this issue evolved and when the
digital signs finally became available, the debate simply shifted but only slightly.
Traditional arguments included the placement of billboards, the number, the size and
shape, the content and the distraction factor.
Do billboards have the power to distract? In a 2009 Federal Highway
Administration study on digital billboards, analysts looked at this long history and
observed back in 1967 that drivers could develop a hypnotic trance as they move
along long boring stretches of highway and that billboards had the ability to trigger
something called phototaxis, seizing the drivers full attention.
Wallace describes the situation as being a stretch of road where drivers were operating in
conditions of low arousal, where they might have succumbed to highway hypnosis. The
sign, according to Wallaces interpretation, might have caused these drivers to experience
phototaxis (also called the fascination phenomenon) in which the large, bright billboard
captured their attention to such an extent after a long, monotonous stretch of road, that
drives become absorbed in the sign, and simply failed to notice or respond to the curve
in the road where the sign was located.14
14

Wachtel, Jerry. Safety Impacts of the Emerging Digital Display Technology for Outdoor Advertising
Signs. Berkeley, CA: Veridian Group, 2009. Web.

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Like moths to the flame, we look and we become enthralled.


Among the things that have changed was the language: Today, critics call these
video billboards TVs on a stick and their numbers are growing. In 2007, the federal
government began allowing digital billboards along the interstates; at the time, there were
1,800 unregulated digital billboards in place but in three years that number had swollen to
4,000 according to an article in the USAToday.15 Now, many localities are trying to
regulate their impact and regulations have been introduced in Pittsburgh; Concord, NH;
Panama City Beach, Fla; Tulsa, Okla.; Montgomery, Ill.; Kalamazoo, Mich., among other
places.
But these rules only apply to drivers and highways. When it comes to placing
digital billboards inside the urban center, most localities fall back upon the established
sign ordinances created when billboards were made of canvas and particleboard... and for
a time: neon.
Starting in the 1920s, businesses began adding neon lighted signage to storefronts
across the country. Given the potency of the neon-generated light signal, many local
residents objected to the use of neon, and local ordinances were created. The remnants of
these old laws have been used to curb and stall the influx of digital billboards into the
urban center. These days, most companies need to apply for variances to add the new
signs. However, the billboard industry is finding ways to get video panels into the city. In
Dallas, Texas, for example, Clear Channel applied for a variance that would allow it to
replace its traditional billboards with digital ones; theyre seeking a grandfather clause
for an established industry in transition. That issue is still pending.
15

Copeland, Larry. "Cities Snipe over Super-bright Digital Billboards." The USAToday. N.p., 31 Jan. 2013.
Web. 9 Dec. 2014.

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In most cases, the applicants are looking to replace existing signage or to add
digital billboards to sporting arenas. On this latter issue, for some reason, sports fans love
the idea of mounting digital billboards on sports arenas. And, as a byproduct of that
support, more and more digital signage is creeping into the urban sphere. That aside, the
Outdoor Advertising Association of America which represents the billboard industry
has been pressing the issue from another direction: The OAAA is arguing that advertising
is a First Amendment right and its finding limited success in the courts on this issue.
Which brings me to the argument of art vs. advertising. Given the dynamic of the
First Amendment, it would be hard for any government to differentiate between what is
art and what is advertising. Video aesthetic is a nebulous thing and art is really just a
matter of taste. So how would we begin to define what is shown in the public sphere?
When television was immerging as a dominant form of entertainment, the Federal
Communication Commission set obscenity standards arguing that the television airwaves
belonged to the people and something called a safe harbor was established. This is the
time when violent or sexually suggestive materials can and cannot be aired. One might be
able to move this argument into the public sphere, arguing that the streets belong to the
people. But so far, issues related to media faades in urban spaces have been limited.
With the exceptions of Manhattan and Las Vegas and the Sunset Strip, examples in the
United States remain few.

Light as Art
Is it possible to create a light-based sculpture as a destination point? Searching for
examples, one might consider looking at the VVV Times Square Valentine sculpture. The

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10-foot by 10-foot square sculpture was located just behind the statue of George M.
Cohan in the center of Times Square. The art piece is actually a series of 300 transparent
acrylic tubes, which are lit by LED lights. At the center of the piece is a pulsating red
heart, which actually reacts to the number of visitors standing around it.16 Clearly, the
exhibit isnt attempting to sell anything. Instead, it was an art piece, which was placed
there for Valentines Day by the Zumtobel Group, a Germany lighting company, in 2013.
And in Sydney, Australia, there is a digital art installation in Darling Harbour
called Luminous. Here two concave buildings curve around Darling Square to create a
six-story barrier around the retail area. The faades of the two buildings are covered with
LED light panels that emit colors. There is a keyboard station located in the square and it
is from this station where visitors can push buttons and change the LED lights on the
video skins of the buildings. So, when standing at the station, the viewer sees a digital
map of the two buildings, below the map is a color scale; on the top four floors of each
building, there are LED light panels; to change the color of a video panel, all one needs to
do is tap the color scale choosing a shade and then tap the corresponding media panel
on the building map. Judging by the videos of Luminous on YouTube, the tourist at the
computer panel has a lot of power over the affect in the retail square. This one person can
flood the market square with any color scheme he/she chooses. Certainly, there is a lot of
control in the hands of one person but given the egalitarian culture of the setting (and for
that matter, the country), the everyman here would have the ability to set the tone for
the community and when they are finished, the next person could come along and change
things again.

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"VVV Times Square Valentine." OpenBuildings. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

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A Critique of CityCenterDC
The new CityCenterDC development is a mixed-use urban space that covers six
city blocks with 2.5 million square feet of retail and residential space. The complex
includes condominiums, apartments, a hotel, office space and a retail thoroughfare. Just
months after its opening, the retail corridor is growing, adding high-end fashion shops
and restaurants. Last summer, at its unveiling, officials for the CityCenterDC complex
also revealed the video arch at the entranceway along H Street calling it a public art
display. To their credit, the architects created a video event that is insular and faces
inward: the LED panels follow the interior lines of the archway, thus making the focus of
the video the entranceway itself. As for the content, designers infused videos of humans
with images of natural events water, sky, flora and the installation does honor the idea
of an artistic encounter.
As I sat observing the arch, I noticed that each video vignette transitions into a
default image, one that looks like layered tan and beige sandstone blocks mimicking what
might be there had the architects built the archway out of stone. After a 30-second count,
the next vignette fades in often lasting anywhere from 15 to 90 seconds before fading
back to the default sandstone look. During the 45 minutes observation, I saw many
people walk through the space, most passed by, but some paused to watch the vignette
unfold and some took pictures. Also, a mother with three small children gathered and the
children actually interacted with one of the vignettes video of a woman dancing and
making hand gestures and the children played along. Overall, the video event creates
the illusion of activity, of vibrancy, which makes the center seem more inviting and
vigorous.

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Of course, there are flaws: Specifically, the archway also hosts two elevators,
which divide the video venue. Also, because of the LED resolution the structure has an
8mm pixel pitch one must stand back at least 25 feet to fully appreciate the highdefinition video, which means one must stand in the center of the archway between the
two glass-enclosed elevators. Apparently, the designers and the client had to make some
compromises, and this was the end result.
Finally, in an effort to be a good corporate neighbor, the CityCenterDC complex
shuts down the video skin at 11 p.m., thus extinguishing the light splash on nearby H
Street and the surrounding apartment housing. Clearly, Washington DC government took
some initiative to define how this media faade would affect the surrounding
environment. For now, the light show is a curiosity that attracts passersby to at least
consider looking inside the retail space. Overall, the space is tasteful, appealing and has
limited impact on the public sphere. Unfortunately, the CityCenterDC complex may be
the exception and not the rule.

Conclusion
So what remains? Absent any government oversight, there is the very real
possibility that the corporations could reinvent the cityscape replacing many of our static
buildings with structures that have the ability to broadcast images and thus, visually
dominate the public sphere. Right now, the urban space belongs to us all. We walk the
streets, alone or in crowds, and we have the privacy of our own thoughts. In our
daydreaming, the thoroughfare becomes a commons dominated by no one: it is a
concourse free from discourse. Should the corporations subsume the buildings lining the

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streets adding video skins, these firms would have the ability to visually appropriate the
public sphere, injecting their messages directly into our minds. In this version, in my
paranoid musings over this digital dystopia, it is absolutely possible for the capitalists to
drown out the murmur in our heads affectively silencing what Martin Heidegger called
our dasein17 replacing it with corporate jingles and subliminal visual branding driving
us into the marketplace to serve our presumed desire to consume. Soon, and possibly
forever, the mantra: I think, therefore I am, could be replaced with I see, therefore I
consume. And with that, Guy Debords warnings of the spectacle have realized a new
realm: suddenly, the spectacle will be inside our heads, muting our voices, dominating
our thinking, confusing us with ideas that were forged elsewhere but are now inside our
minds, driving us into the waiting arms of an unfettered, subconscious world of constant
consumption.

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