Before founding Realities:United (RealU) in Berlin in 2000, brothers and trained architects Tim and Jan Edler had made a name for themselves in the art world with a series of installations that explored the intersection between physical space and digital technology. “E-Picknick” (1996), for example, sought to introduce people to the Internet with a collection of computer stations placed on circles of Astroturf on the floor of the Ludwig Forum Cologne in Aachen, Germany; and “Multimind” (1999) gave each visitor a computer-enabled backpack that filmed the tour through the exhibition and broadcast it on a bank of monitors. The siblings were also interested in more radical ideas, including the creation of buildings that are capable of altering their form.
“In the beginning, we were looking forward to technologies that would lead to augmented realities, like those proposed by Archigram in the ’60s,” Jan Edler says. “We thought it would be a fascinating future because it would be able to make people perceive space in a different way.” Such technology has yet to arrive, but the Edler brothers struck upon something else, something that has become their niche: media façades. “If you look at media, that is also a way of augmenting realities,” Edler continues. “For us it’s an experiment in trying to see how architecture will look when it does become dynamic.”
RealU’s first media façade, and its first use of light as a medium, was BIX (2003) at the Peter Cook/Colin Fournier–designed Kunsthaus in Graz, Austria, which features a biomorphic form clad with 1,300 unique Plexiglas panels. The building’s skin was originally meant to embody varying levels of transparency, creating a line of communication between interior and exterior. Considerations such as excessive sunloading, however, led to the exhibition spaces being encased in black boxes, leaving the glass exterior with nothing to reveal but opaque surfaces.
The design team invited RealU to do something about this. The Edlers created BIX, a grid of 930 conventional circular fluorescent light tubes integrated into the Kunsthaus’ east face. The grid can be animated by way of a custom-designed software program; custom-built hardware allows the fluorescent tubes’ brightness to be adjusted between zero and 100 percent in 1/18 second.
The combination of advanced and pre-existing technologies as exemplified by this project—a pixelated screen made with circular fluorescent light tubes—speaks to the need for architecture to be timeless and affordable. “New technologies are always expensive, and aging becomes a problem,” Jan Edler says. “With the latest LED screens, the new generations come up very quickly, and one or two years later you need an upgrade or else it looks dated. Architecture cannot keep up [with] that pace of change,” so it is preferable to select a technology that has some staying power.
Two years later, RealU created “Spots,” a temporary installation in an uninhabited office building at 10 Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. “Spots” featured 1,014 circular and 760 linear fluorescent tubes that served as pixels in a giant, low-resolution, gray-scale matrix. A central computer controlled each light individually, allowing movies and graphics to animate the façade.
In the firm’s next media façade, the Edlers integrated 546 full-color, computer-controlled LEDs into the interstitial spaces of a double curtainwall on a mixed-use retail-office building in Singapore. Known as the “Architectural Advertising Amplifier” (AAMP) (2008), the façade is animated by signals from an LED billboard already attached to the building. A software program analyzes the signals from the billboard and translates them into a visual color echo of the advertisement, albeit in extreme low resolution, across the 800-square-meter (approximately 8,600-square-foot) elevation.
AAMP led the firm to another façade project in Singapore, “Crystal Mesh” (2009), for a black box entertainment complex known as Bugis+ (previously known as Iluma). The project consists of 3,000 cells of deep-drawn polycarbonate “crystals” covering an area of more than 5,000 square meters (approximately 53,800 square feet). Roughly 1,900 of the cells contain a matrix of compact fluorescent light tubes that form active patches. Unlike RealU’s previous façades, “Crystal Mesh” does not act as a monitor. The active patches are spread out enough that it would be difficult to screen films or animation, so the façade demands content to be written for it. The project is also active during the day. Folded aluminum reflectors in the crystals capture the sun’s rays, sending off glints and gleams of light.
Jan Edler is adamant that RealU is not a lighting design firm. But light has been their primary medium. “Light is one of [the] technologies where [dynamic qualities] are possible, technologically,” he says. “We have been working on other technologies to make architecture dynamic, but light is the easiest to control based on what is available on [the] market.”
And light is fertile ground for the firm’s work. “Nix,” a conceptual design, expands on the pixelated façade, taking over a building’s central lighting system and turning it into an aesthetic instrument. The ceilings of office buildings become three-dimensional canvases, animated by a pre-written program or controlled by signals from the building’s mechanical and electrical systems. As soon as a worker leaves his office at night, the space is turned over to the choreography. If he works late, however, his light could intervene with the overall display. “It would be a charming interaction,” Edler says.