Interview by Brendan McGetrick

Architecture is a collaborative Art. The Achievement of a building of even small ambition requires the Architect to commit himself or herself to an array of specialists - engineers, developers, rendering companies, plumbers, photographers, etc. - each of whom is responsible for a vital piece of the whole vision. Long before building begins, the architect must design a production process that incorporates these outside abilities, that balances individual empowerment and general oversight and allows for meaningful dialogue between professions that might otherwise never meet. 


For the 2009 edition of its interview series, domus China will explore the role of collaboration in architecture. Over the course of this year, we'll talk to eleven professionals who operate along architecture's periphery. Taken together, these conversations will trace the contours of a profession that is understood by few but affects all.  

For the seventh instalment in the series, I spoke with John Dekron and Markus Schneider, the chief technology officer and chief executive officer of thismedia, a Berlin-based company that specializes in applying new media to architecture. Their company has projects in Europe, the US, and Asia, but recently became more deeply engaged in China. We talked about their recent work, the challenges of designing technologically advanced systems for technologically inexperienced users, and imagining media as a building material. 

Rotterdam, Berlin, Hamburg

Brendan McGetrick: The purpose of this interview series is to try to explore the collaborative aspect of architecture. I noticed that in your office description you say that thismedia acts as a bridge between designers, artists, architects, hardware companies, etc. To start let's talk a bit about that aspect of your work. 

Markus Schneider: I think we sit in a very important area where design constantly meets technology. This happens everyday also within architectural projects and this happens everyday without our help, but in these sort of situations the problem may occur of how to make sure that a design concept or an artistic approach can be synchronized with a technological concept or a technological solution. The problems that many projects are facing are derived from differences in language and approaches. 

An architect, who also plays his role as a designer, may have an idea related to media, but when he's talking to a company that is technologically-driven or engineering-driven, how do they make sure that they are talking about the same thing? Besides the different forms of knowledge that are delivered by those disciplines, there is also a simple communication problem. This is where our role as a missing link becomes more and more important. In many cases the involved parties like architects, designers and technology companies are basically helpless in terms of finding an appropriate solution. 

John Dekron: I think that this style of handling media is a new approach to a thing that is commonly considered to be understood very well. There are people who want to add new media layers to their works, and the first thing they think is, can we do it ourselves? With other media, for example, film or television or photography, it is very well known that you need some kind of specialist to work in a special area. When the film industry started, it was not clear that it's a good idea to have a camera man or a set designer. Everyone was doing everything, everyone was helping out and working on it. But over time it developed to the point where now everything is very specialized, so if you want to shoot a film you know who you have to hire. But in this new area of media, it's not so clear. 

Typically the architects have some idea, and they say, well, we just need some lamps to put up on our building... or we need to bring the screens inside... or we have to make a special floor... Then they say, we need software for this, so let's find a software company. But one software company is not like another one, and one needs experience and understanding of the architect's needs in order to find a solution that can fulfil their real needs - even when the architects or artists themselves don't know what the real needs are. Since the devices with which we're working are mostly physical devices, connected to the building, architects tend to see them as part of their own area, but normally they would never work on the layout of a book, because they think a graphic designer has to do it, it's not a part of their area. In our experience, after going in the wrong direction many times, I feel that it's not so easy to simply investigate these new technologies and do it yourself. 

BM: Could you explain your experiences a little more specifically? Perhaps choose a single project and explain how the process of its creation worked - the communication and the wrong directions and adjustments that you mentioned. 

JD: OK, I would choose the BIX project [for the Kunsthaus Graz in Austria], because I think it's a very good example of collaboration. realities:united [a Berlin-based architecture office] were asked to do the media planning for the newly built Kunsthaus in Graz, and on their initiative they added a media skin layer on the outside. The first idea was to simply have special switches for the lamps that you can switch on and off to show an icon for each exhibition taking place in the Kunsthaus. While they were researching this, they found out that there is a company in Switzerland making fluorescent lamps in grayscale that can switch at 18 frames per second. Then they said, now we can play films on the building. They needed someone to design the software for that, and they asked me, because I had a little bit of experience with software, if I could help them to find the right person. 

Together we looked around for people to do that job, and we eventually found out that the people working on software were very gifted, but not very inspired to bring anything more to the project. They were very dry people who just wanted to know what had to be done and had no idea about how their work fit into the entire concept of the Kunsthaus. So there was not such a clear idea of what the software would have to do. After that, we decided that I would have a try at making the software. I had never worked on a project on that scale, but I said, "Well, I can try." So we started collaborating together and we ended up developing a simulation software for the building. We did this because we felt that no one would understand how to use media on that building unless we have a 3D simulation that people can use to preview their material. This proved to be a crucial step, because later it was often the case that people provided DVDs with material to be played on the facade and when we put it into the simulator they realized that it makes no sense. It sounds simple, but you just cannot explain these things by talking about pixel aspect ratio and pixel size, etc. 

MS: Maybe I can add that, looking back, the BIX project was a kind of best case scenario where a lot of solutions that were found there we continue to use in our daily work. Another important aspect of this project for me is that, if you are going to work with architecture in that way, you need to deliver very reliable systems. The system that was installed at the Kunsthaus in 2003 is still running and, as far as I know, it's still running on the same computer. I think that's an important part of determining the overall success of the project. 

But if we go forward a bit to more recent projects, I notice that the tasks that we are being faced with are getting more and more complex, although the structure and approach itself is not changing that much. But each task is getting more and more complex, because the media projects themselves are reaching a much more dynamic and much more sophisticated level. 

BM: One thing about the BIX project that I find interesting is that it is not as visually sophisticated as what is available in terms of facade-based media screens now. I'm curious about the effect using media that is essentially low resolution has on the kind of work that it inspires - from artists or film-makers. 

MS: I think the size of resolution has nothing to do with the level of sophistication. If something is low res or high res, there is no inherent value in that. I think it's more important to think about what you want to achieve. What is your idea? Ideas do not come out of resolution questions. It might be essential that a certain idea or a certain aesthetic image that you want to achieve requires a certain resolution - a higher or lower resolution.

It brings me back to another point that I think comes very close to this, and that is that technology itself does not initially lead to an idea, but technology must be used to realize an idea. What we try to do is first have a look at the situation - the building or the initial concept or the problem that the architect is facing - and then to develop concepts from that idea. Then resolution aspects or technology or budget aspects become important, but I think that resolution itself doesn't say very much about the quality or complexity of a project. 

BM: I totally agree with that, but what I think is interesting is that, because of the nature of technology and the speed of its evolution there is a tendency to want "bigger, better, faster" and in the process of that you lose a certain form of representation that being limited in terms of resolution forces you to explore. And what is interesting to me is that forms of low res imagery that you no longer see in other media, you can still find on building facades. 

JD: I think that your question is very important, because in the media technology that everyone now knows - like television or cinema - the goal is totally clear: you want to see cool movies in perfect quality, and for that it's clear that bigger is better, brighter is better, louder is better. But media facades for architecture are not like screens. It is sometimes like that: if you want to add a screen to show advertisements or something like that, then you should try for as high resolution as possible so that it is readable. But if you want to have visual elements as part of your building, then it's not clear from the first moment that the resolution should be as high as possible. Although you can have pictures on a building's facade, it's not necessarily a screen. It's not supposed to be a screen. 

BM: Let's talk a little bit about the AAmp project that you recently completed in Singapore. That is a combination of a high resolution commercial screen and a much lower resolution lighting and color element, so that would seem to cover a lot of what we've talking about. 

MS: Right, as you said, the principle of the AAmp is to have two resolution areas, where you have a high resolution screen, which is commercial, and you have a low res area that is part of a facade design that was developed by realities:united. 

JD: The project has different modes in which it can operate. The first and most common one is what we called the "direct mode". In direct mode, the commercial, high res screen displays advertisements in a loop and that is not our technology. That is just some technology that is spread all over Asia and the most important aspect of that is that it is totally safe and you make sure that if a company has paid for the advertisement time, their commercial is played. In this mode, the low res facade works through an analysis of the advertisement and creates displays that fit with the mood, with the color, with the speed and patterns of the high res screen. It tries to correspond to the content of the high res screen. So this means that nobody has to take care of the content of the low res facade, because it is following and amplifying the content of the high res screen. That also explains the meaning of the name: AAmp means "Architectural Amplifier". 

The second mode is used when companies that show high res advertisements allow their advertisements to be shown again for free but with an overlay of feedback from the low res facade. It's actually a technical trick where you can have patterns that are shown on the facade overlaid on the high res screen, then the building becomes more like a single shade. 

Then there is a third mode when there is no advertisement showing - that is supposed to be used especially late at night, let's say from one o'clock to two o'clock. In this mode, the system records some snippets of the advertisement material and transforms it into content. It replays material, cuts it together, it has face recognition and can morph faces into each other, and things like that - making nice patterns. It's more like a machine's work. 

MS: I'd like to add one thing: as John mentioned, the design of the low res LED area is derived by analyzing the commercial, high res screen. That means that there is a commercial nature to one part of the skin of the building, but the low res aspect kind of transforms this commercial aspect and brings the two elements together. What's really interesting is that the source material itself - the color and the dynamics of the advertisements themselves - control the modular effects that are imbedded in the application, so you have a new design derived from whatever the source material is. This is important, because the problem of many projects is that, once you have a system installed, what kind of content should be displayed? This is the early test of many projects. So, with AAmp, as long as there is content on the high res screen, the rest of the facade will react to what is going on there. 

This project is also a good example of our work as collaborators. We are not the inventors of the project itself: the concept of having the high res and low res areas was developed by realities:united, who were kind of supplementary to the building's architects. Our role was to develop a kind of software that basically realizes the whole concept as realities:united thought of it. This is a very specific project for us, where we just realized one essential part of the much larger project. 

BM: One thing that I think is interesting and potentially valuable about this project is that it takes these high res commercial screens which are more and more common in cities, especially in China, and it on one hand enhances them by creating a complimentary chromatic environment for them, but on the other hand it also somehow disarms them, so that you feel slightly less offended by this stupid screen showing car commercials over and over again. 

MS: Exactly. This is what we also think is the value of this project. I was surprised myself at how the low res screen almost dissolves the commercial until the ads are not so annoying anymore. The commercial aspect becomes part of the identity of the building but it doesn't feel like it is only attached to it. And of course this is also the challenge in programming, how to find an application that actually generates this kind of effect. 

BM: Let's talk a little bit about the work you've done in China. I know that you developed displays for the Audi showroom in Beijing...

MS: Right. Yes, in the Audi showroom at the Oriental Plaza shopping mall in Beijing. This is a good example, because it is a pretty small project, but it was a pretty tough one to realize. I think John can talk a bit about that. 

JD: For the Audi project, we were asked by a lighting company based in Switzerland who made the LED wall for that showroom. We'd collaborated on some other projects before. Technically it was kind of similar to AAmp, because it combined low res and high res elements - a low res LED wall in which high res commercial screens were built in. So we came up with a system that could not only address these two elements but could also address the six high res plasma screens independently. This meant that you could have really broadband advertisements - driving a car from one end to the other over every screen. Then we made sure that the system could be operated very simply, which was actually fairly complex technically, but has worked fine in the end. All you really need to do is put in a DVD and switch it on and the rest works independently. 

MS: As John said, the interfacing is another big challenge. What we want to achieve in deliver ing a system for that kind of project is for people who are not trained to be able to operate them. So you don't need a technician or an engineer to be able to operate in different scenarios. The people who work there can basically handle the system. For example, if you need to replace a part of the LED wall, you can independently switch the wall off and replace the part, but the system will still run and once the replacement is done, you just switch it back on. In terms of maintenance, it's very helpful to have a system like that. 

BM: Are there fundamental differences between doing this sort of media work in an interior versus an exterior? 

JD: The only difference that I can see from outside or inside is that architects tend to ask for more screens and content on the inside and light or color effects on the outside. Personally, from our side, there's not a big difference. 

MS: Well, we are not particularly interested in facade projects. We are interested in media projects, particularly related to architecture. Facades are part of the representative skin of a building, so when people look at the building they can enjoy whatever might be going on in this particular facade. It helps to transform the building between the day and the night. But what happens with all the space inside of the building? I think that there are essential differences between the outside and the inside. Often in projects where we are asked to contribute, the focus lies on the facade or the skin of the building, but that doesn't mean that this is our initial interest. Our interest is usually to figure out in which areas media could be supportive, whether it is the outside or inside. 

BM: What I think is interesting about applying media to architecture - particularly to architectural interiors - is that you emphasize a range of immaterial building elements, such as light, movement, or sound, which are as essential to a building as material elements, such as glass, steel, or concrete, but which function very differently. 

MS: For an issue like that I think there are many questions, but few answers. One big question is: what is media? How is media related to architecture? Usually people can imagine media as something that is attached, but the idea of media as an integral part of architecture requires a different way of working, it requires the involvement of somebody like us at a much earlier stage, basically when the space is first being designed. A sensibility for media would be great in that very early stage, but usually that is not what happens. 

JD: The first step that someone must take is to understand that media is not only film or video; it can be light or physical elements that transport a picture or sound. For most people a media element means a screen, but I would say that each channel defines a different outcome and a different possibility. Youtube is different from VHS tapes or a DVD. Music clips on Youtube are totally different from videos shown on TV. That is because nowadays video clips are mostly made for the Net so they don't go into the same amount of detail, and that's totally transformed the content. But if you ask somebody, almost everyone will say [a Youtube clip] is a video, but for me it's very different. This is just an example. Media is channels and each channel does something different and in the end the intention is to bring them together to make something that looks good. 

BM: I've also heard that you're working with some Chinese architects, Ma Yansong for example. 

MS: At the moment, we're trying to develop collaborations with architects in China who we think share a mutual range of interests with us. A shared interest in how to embed media into architecture, for example. We've started at first by simply talking with people and explaining to them about what we are doing. 

JD: With MAD we've done the SINOLIGHTS project [a lighting design concept for MAD's Sinosteel Tower]. It was a challenge because there were so many lights on it. In the Iluma Media Light Facade in Singapore there were almost 7,000 fluorescent lamps, but with Sinosteel I think it's over 80,000. So it was a neck breaker for architectural 3D programs, and this meant that it was not possible to generate previews of how it would look. So, together with 3D designers, we had to find a way to preview material, so we rendered the lamps, first as a texture, and with a few interior tricks we were able to give a sense of what it would look like inside of the building. 

MS: For this project, we developed a complete concept for a building design  that had already been finalized. The facade structure had already been set, and one of the challenges was to find a way to integrate a lighting system into an existing architectural concept. This you can only achieve when you have all the tools and experiences together and you have a technology partner (in this case Suzhou based OptoTech Company Ltd.) who can guarantee that what you have in mind is, in the end, doable - also in terms of maintenance and service. So, next to the communication in partnership with architectural offices, another important part of our development in China is also to develop and strengthen partnerships with the technology providers. This is another major effort that we're working on, because very often technology companies have developed tools and software that are not derived from a design or artistic point of view, but from an engineering point of view. Of course they work, but they are not flexible, they are not easy to operate and definitely they are not well suited to realize design concepts. So they themselves ask us if we can help their project to appear in a different way. This is something that we were not focusing on originally, but which is very interesting for us to see and to follow.