Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Living Buildings

A model of a building using FLARE: a kinetic ambient reflection membrane

What if a building's exterior could react to the user? What if the facade could serve as a kind of mood ring, visually articulating the actions happening in and around it via its surface material?

I first saw what I would call an interactive facade on a building years ago in Niagara Falls. My parents had recently relocated to Buffalo, NY and in an effort to make the most of the famously bitter winter, my mom, my brother, and I hopped into the car to head north in search of the Winter Festival of Lights. It was touted as the biggest light show around. They even lit Niagara Falls.

I don't have a picture of what we discovered that day, so I'll describe the snapshot in my mind: The three of us are standing in the frigid December dusk, amid an icy landscape of twinkling reindeer and elf lawn ornaments, mouths agape, as we watch a light show playing on the surface of a nearby office tower. The building is broadcasting Christmas music over loud speakers while bars of colored lights move up and down to the tune, not unlike an equalizer on a stereo. The Andrew Sisters are singing Mele Kalikimaka. I think it was my brother who said, "No wonder Niagara Falls is the suicide capital of the world."

Photo by Seong Kwon, courtesy of the Public Art Fund.

James Yamada's Our Starry Night is a touch more cerebral. The artist created a sculpture for Central Park this spring, an interactive passageway really, that responds to human bodies. The sculpture illuminates only when someone passes through it, and will remain lit if the individual pauses underneath. Yamada (who was born in Bat Cave, North Carolina. Bat Cave!) used metal detectors to trigger the lights and they respond to the amount of metal each visitor is carrying. Passersby can see the light reaction, but the participant cannot, a comment by the artist on the increasing use of surveillance and the loss of privacy in our culture. (You can light up the sculpture yourself until October 28)

In Berlin, designers have created a building facade called FLARE. The modular system is composed of hundreds of tiltable metal flakes individually controlled by pneumatic cylinders. The flakes reflect sunlight and look like pixels formed by natural light. The skin can be attached to a building and programmed via computer to move in varying waves. It "acts like a living skin, it allows a building to express, communicate, and interact with its environment," the Web site says.

Just so long as it doesn't sing Mele Kalikimaka.

FLARE facade up close

Diagram of the component system.

The "flakes"

The pneumatic cylinders

A model of the system