Media and Architecture, and Media Facades


Roman Writing; Photo credit:

In his essay “Message on the Wall: An Archaeology of Public Media Displays”, noted media archaeologist and academic Erkki Huhtamo traces connections of media facades all the way to ancient Roman signage. Although he explicitly states that it would be a fallacy to assume there is a direct correlation between still signage (in eras tracing from Rome to industrialism) and screen media, he still describes an interesting history of advertising which “set the stage” so to speak, for modern media facades. Huhtamo primarily notes the rise of propagandistic signage along with industrial capitalism, the highlight of which include P.T. Barnam’s circus signage and spectacular promotional techniques. Along with the development of broadsides and posters to promote products and services, the rise of modern

Stereopticon Advertising; Photo credit: Erkki Huhtamo -
Stereopticon Advertising; Photo credit: Erkki Huhtamo –

advertising pushed promoters to engage in more sensationalist and spectacular forms in order to draw attention (16-17). Hutamo also describes a type of magic-lantern advertising (or “Stereopticon” as it was known in the U.S.), which used the projection technology of the magic lantern slideshow to project onto the sides of buildings, shop windows, rooftops and the sides of horse-drawn carts (24). This form of early projection advertising is an obvious early form to the digital billboards, store-front displays and other forms of spectacular advertising seen today.

Greenpix Energy Wall (Beijing) Photo Credit:
Greenpix Energy Wall (Beijing); Photo Credit:

The strong rooting in advertising is still commonly seen today. The majority of existing permanent media facades either serve decorative or commercial purposes. The installation of media screens in New York’s Times square is often noted as one of the first instances of media-based architectures, and that venue is synonymous with commercialism. Even more decorative facades which do not transmit direct advertising content, such as the Greenpix Energy Wall in Beijing (2008), or even the Ryerson Image Centre facade in Toronto (2012), operate under the guise of aesthetics to activate a type of spectacular branding. It is more abstract than a 30 second ad spot, but it signals the presence and status of the building and its owners as much as a sign draping the entrance of a P.T. Barnum show.

Project Blinkenlights Photo credit -
Project Blinkenlights Photo credit –
rbanScreen Sydney Opera House Photo credit -
rbanScreen Sydney Opera House Photo credit –

Although it seems that these structure might be limited to advertising, since they are usually monumental in technological and monetary costs, their presence in the threshold of public (streets and courtyards) and private (the architecture) offers many opportunities that artists have embraced. One of the first examples of the modern media facade was enacted by Christian Moeller in 1992. His work Kinetic Light Sculptureat the Zeilgallery in Frankfurt, used weather data to create a light-reactive facade by placing floodlights in the windows of the building. Similarly, Project Blinkenlights (2001) also created patterns in windows of the Haus des Lehrers in Berlin. This time, the patterns were controlled by spectators, interfacing with the installation’s computers through their mobile devices. These types of installations are similarly temporal as a variety of projection based installations, which in their own ways, modify the exterior of the building for a short time, and create audience engagements in large and small measures. Works like that of UrbanScreen create large scale augmentations on the side of the Sydney Opera House, Hamburger Kunsthalle and more. With a shift in the cost of projection technology, there has recently also been a proliferation of artists with less technological and financial support using projections to create guerrilla-style events. Notably, graffiti artist Sweatshoppe has designed a method for video-painting by motion-tracking an LED paint roller.

However, not all interventions into these seemingly untouchable commercial spaces have to be temporary overlays. Permanent installations such as the BIX shell on the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria has become world-renowned for its ability to both brand the building and allow for artists to modify and engage with the building itself. In addition, seemingly un-bending commercial screens have also opened up to share their cultural space with artworks. From 2000-2006, Creative Time partnered with New York’s Times Square to host The 59th Minute, an installation on the Astrovision screen at 1 Times Square. The project was given one minute at the end of every hour to showcase contemporary video art, and it hosted renowned artists such as Doug Aitken, Song Dong, William Kentridge, Gary Hill, Mary Lucier, Michael Snow and many more.

Key Features

Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision; Photo credit -
Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision; Photo credit –

The history of the media and architecture sharing conceptual and physical space, along with the development of permanent facades, is intertwined with other media arts histories such as the panorama, interactivity, network art and augmented reality. Primarily connected to augmented reality, these types of works augment the structures of architecture in a variety of ways, including permanent and short term projection, screen installations, LED infrastructure overlaid and built into the architectural surface and as part of a sculptural form referencing architecture. In an interview with Stephanie McDonald, noted media-facade academic and author Hank Haeusler characterizes media facades as different from light architecture or other approaches because of its intention to communicate messages dynamically, or using movement. This distinguishes it from static approaches. Haeusler also describes his own division of the field into three arenas including LED screens attached to buildings, Media facades as technology embedded into the architecture and Media architecture which “as a holistic concept that requires thinking about communication and including communication technologies into the design from a very early start”. He also notes that screens need not only exist on a monumental scale, but could also include small scale media objects like tablets, smartphones etc. However, art and architecture historian Uta Caspary opens the possibilities of this type of work to allow for approaches that do not only rely on the latest communication technology, but rather “correspond to media strategies or media iconography and that evolve a media-like visual effect in the viewer’s eye (so-called passive media facades)” (66). Caspary then continues to describe several works that fall into the category of passive facades, including the Netherlands Institute of Sound and Vision, which used historic still and moving image housed within the institute to develop textural stained glass window walls, which both reference the monumentality of architecture as an archive of knowledge, and the ephemerality of new media technologies and image-making. Although not literally in motion the windows reference moving images, which in Caspary’s mind is enough to include it in the category, something with which Haeusler may disagree. However, this approach does open discussion for facade types which do embody some aspects of dynamism and references to mediality, but do not use modern media technologies to operate. One such early version of media facades is the Institut du Monde Arabe (1980) designed by Jean Nouvel, which utilizes a mechanical photo-sensitive facade of Arabic-style geometric patterns that open and close like camera-apertures to adjust for light. Although this dynamic media-based technology does not literally communicate anything, it does move and and it does activate mechanisms that draw on similar technology to other photo-chemical image mediums like still and cinema photography. Like other, more modern, iterations of facades, it also draws on environmental inputs to inform its activity.

Institute du Monde Arabe; Photo credit: “Nouvel & Alison” by David Morris -
Institute du Monde Arabe; Photo credit: “Nouvel & Alison” by David Morris –

Haeusler structures an understanding of media architecture and facades by creating a list of attributes that includes media attachments, technology embedded into facades and architecture that is designed with communication media in mind. Other authors structure their lists in different ways and since lists are never fully-inclusive, this combination of lists is an interesting way to investigate the numerous approaches to categorizing this type of work. In a short essay that designates several types of facade structures, architectural critic Suzanne Fritz notes the importance of the Institute du Monde Arabe within the category of Mechanical Media Surface, which use mechanical motorization to create dynamic effects. She continues on to list Projections(frontal and rear, which are projected onto screens, and create an “intangible content beyond the surface”), Computer Animated Light Installations(which uses a range of lighting techniques integrated into the structure), and LED facades and architectural materials (which create a screen of LED or other media applied to a surface). Intriguingly, this list differentiates between two different lighting-based exteriors, Computer Animated Light, which might include some LED technology, and LED facades. The main differentiation seems to be the technology behind creating the light, and its resolution; where Animated light architectures are generally abstract (the articles uses the work of reality:united and the Kunsthaus Gratz to illustrate this type of work), and the LED offering better resolution and more flexibility for text and image-quality. In this, one can imagine the difference in roles and atmosphere generated by the two approaches, wherein the abstraction of Computer Animated Light is integrated into the “body” of the building. It is an emotive part of the space, whereas LED works with more resolution tend to provide conceptual communication of text, images and distinct patters that separate it from the body of the building as a form of communication about “other” things such as advertising or more conceptual artworks.

Realms of Influence

Chanel Ginza Photo credit: M_Strasser -
Chanel Ginza Photo credit: M_Strasser –

In the final list, we’ll return to Uta Caspary’s breakdown of the four main historical precursors to media facades, which include stained glass windows in gothic cathedrals, the screen walls of churches, the development of architecture from early textile arts like weaving or sewing shelters, and light architecture of the industrial age. Here, Casparys approach serves less to break down the current applications of media facades (which would likely limit future technologies), and draws on the historical drivers of this type of surface. The colour, lighting and communicative aspects very clearly draw lines toward cathedral architecture, whereas textiles and industrial lighting might be more obscure. Caspary describes the Tokyo Chanel building, which not only drapes LED screens across its surface like cloth, but also actively references fabric and fashion by the black and white nature of the image (similar to Chanel’s aesthetic) and by hiring artists to create images that reference Chanel’s activity, brand and aesthetic as moving images (69-70).

One can also imagine the metaphor of networking, so common in media art interests, as a type of weaving or fabric-like connection of small pieces into a larger whole. In terms of industrial lighting, it became common in early modern history to display architectural artifacts with light, as part of their branding and spectacularization. Lighting on the Empire State Building (1931) and Washington Monument (1884) has become iconic, and although those early examples are static, one can see dynamic versions of the same kind of impulse at the CN Tower (1969) in Toronto, where it is washed in a variety of every-changing and fluidly moving colours as soon as it becomes dark.

The use of architectural lighting for branding, along with its historical roots in advertising, media facades are still intricately tied to influences in advertising culture. In most cases, the facades are only used for decorative or commercial purposes, either to showcase a shiny new technology that demonstrates how cutting-edge and lucrative the project is, or to make money by constantly selling the space to the highest bidder (as in Times Square). On an artistic side, this tends to influence the work as anti-establishment, or as driven by an interest in the exciting nature of the new technology. There are several examples of graffiti artists like Public Ad Campaign hacking digital billboards and working with Re+Public on augmented reality apps to digitally efface and replace advertising. The FutureLab at Ars Electonica is one of the best examples of technology shaping artwork (and commercial applications of the same technology), as seen with their work around Spaxels, which is developed out of artistic purposes, but was initially executed to promote Star Trek Into Darkness(2013).

Star Trek Spaxels Photo credit -
Star Trek Spaxels Photo credit –


Significant Practitioners

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer –

Maurice Benayoun –

Dave Colangelo –

Rewa Wright –

Scott Snibbe –

Doug Aitken –

José María (aka Chema Blanco)-

Mar Canet –

Varvara Guljajeva –

Sergio Galan Nieto –

Victor Diaz Barrales –

Krzysztof Wodiczko –

Uwe Rieger –

realities:united –

Jason Bruges Studio –

Kollison –

BIG: Bjarke Ingels Group –

Piplotti Rist –

Tony Oursler –

Chris O’Shea –

Yekpare –!home/c6x

Sweatshoppe –

UrbanScreen –

Significant Researchers

Dr Ebsen Tobias –

Dr M. Hank Haeusler –

Ben Stricker M.A. –

Dr Martin Tomitsch –

Dr Gernot Tscherteu –

Minna Tarkka –

Mirjam Struppek –

Erkki Huhtamo –

Uta Caspary –

Important Exhibitions

19th International Symposium on Electronic Art (7-16 June 2013; Sydney, Australia) –

Connecting Cities –

Media Facades Summit – 2013-hong-kong/

Media Architecture Biennale –

CitySets – Visual Urban Identities –

Urban Screens Conference –

Important Texts

Bullivant, Lucy, ed. Architectural Design Special Issue – 4dsocial: Interactive Design Environments 77.4 (2007). John Wiley & Sons. Wiley Online Library. Web. 24 October 2013.

Haeusler, Hank M. Media Facades: A Global Survey. Ludwigsburg: Avedition Gmbh, 2013. Print.

Lowther, Clare and Sara de Boer-Schultz. Bright: Architectural Illumination and Light Projections. Amsterdam: Frame Publishers, 2008. Print.

Lozano-Hemmer, Rafael ed. Vectorial Elevation: Relational Architecture. Mexico: Conaculta, 2000. Print.

Menzel, Lara. Media Facades: History, Technology, Content. Ludwigsburg: Avedition Gmbh, 2009. Print.

McQuire, Scott, Meredith Martin and Sabine Niederer. Urban Screens Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009. Web. 24 October 2013. <>

Sauter, Joachim, Susanne Jaschko and Jussi Angesleva. ART+COM: Media Spaces and Installations. Berlin: Gestalten, 2011. Print.

Transmediale/magazine. Transmediale.e.V. Web. 24 October 2013. <>.

Special Issue #4: Urban Screens: Discovering the Potential of outdoor screens for urban society. Fi®st m¤ñd@¥ (First Monday) (2006). University of Illinois at Chicago University Library. Web. <>.

Important Centres/ Organizations

Ars Electronica –


Institute of Network Cultures –

The Media Architecture Institute –

Nam June Paik Art Centre –

Public Art Lab Berlin –

Transmediale –

Medialab Prado –

IMAL Center for Digital Cultures and Technology –

Centro de Arte y Creacion Industrial –

Institute for the Unstable Media –

Mediamatic –


m-cult –

International Urban Screens Association –

Works Cited

Caspary, Uta. “Digital Media as Ornament in Contemporary Architecture Facades: Its Historic Dimension”. Eds. Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin and Sabine Niederer. Urban Screens Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009. 65-74. Web. 30 October 2013. <>.
Fritz, Susanne. “Media Facade: A new form of art in architecture.” ArchiTonic: The Independent Resource for Architecture and Design. Architonic AG. N.d., N.p. Web. 30 October 2013. <>.
“GreenPix: Zero Energy Media Wall”. Arch Daily. Plataforma Networks. 5 May 2008, N.p. Web. 30 October 2013. <>.
Huhtamo, Erkki. “Messages on the Wall: An Archaeology of Public Media Displays”. Eds. Scott McQuire, Meredith Martin and Sabine Niederer.
Urban Screens Reader. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2009. 15-28. Web. 30 October 2013. <>.
McDonald, Stephanie. Interview with Hank Haeusler.
Architecture & Design. 16 July 2013. N.p. Web. 30 October 2013. < matthias-hank-haeusler>.
Moeller, Christian. “Kinetic Light Sculpture”. Christian Moeller. N.d, N.p. Web. <http://www.christian->.
Public Ad Campaign. Jordan Seiler. N.d. Web. 6 October 2013. <>.
Re+Public Re+Imagining Public Space. Re+Public. Web. 6 October 2013. <>.
“Spaxels Shape Star Trek – Logo in London’s Skyline”.
Ars Electronica. Ars Electronica. N.d., N.p. Web. 30 October 2013. <>.
Sweatshoppe. Sweatshoppe. N.d., N.p. Web. 30 October 2013. <>.
UrbanScreen. UrbanScreen. N.d., N.p. Web. 30 October 2013. <>.


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