The Time for LEDs is Now

In the past decade lighting technologies have developed at a phenomenal pace. Early adopters were perhaps lured by some misleading promises on fixture longevity and brightness. The LED-based light fixtures were temperamental, and there were only a limited number of off-the-shelf control systems that could be used to control the lights.

However, in the past couple years the situation has changed dramatically. LED technologies have matured to have both proven reliability and longevity, and are also much easier to install and control. With the current generation of fixtures from the big suppliers one can now be confident that equipment specified and installed today will not appear ‘primitive’ or even worse, ‘obsolete’, in the years to come. Both the lighting designer and the end client can be confident that their respective designs and investments of today will still look good for many years to come. LED technology has reached a great milestone in the last couple years, and now is the time to adopt it with confidence in the main stream.

The Digital Media Facade: A Responsibility for Content

When film director Ridley Scott visualised the future in his seminal film “Bladerunner”, we were presented with advertising-laden building facades that dominated the city skyline. Filmed in 1982 the technology illustrated in these large scale video billboards did not exist yet, but turned out to depict large scale media facades installations that would become a reality far sooner than the 2019 setting of the film.

I have for years been a vocal advocate that the facades of buildings should be treated as both architectural and digital surfaces on the condition that the media content not be used solely for digital advertising. Some advertising and corporate branding colours are fine, but the focus should be on the beauty and added visual value a media facade can bring to the building.

Operating as both an architect and a lighting designer I believe that we can successfully marry digital content with architecture. The resulting media facades should be designed to be complimentary to the building itself and to the surroundings. As anyone who has visited Hong Kong will know, simply putting lots of colour changing LEDs on a building can end up being to the detriment of the visual landscape. In Hong Kong these large scale lighting systems have been installed on buildings with seemingly little thought as to what the visual content is. Skyscrapers have been left with what I assume to be the default “rainbow” test pattern running rather than showing any curatorial or contextual interests. This kind of neglect of lighting content should be avoided at all cost.

The Spectacle

In the mid 1990’s LED lights began to be used to create large scale media surfaces. These were initially found deployed in high profile spots such at Times Square in New York, and also at major touring concerts in the entertainment industry, including U2’s memorable “Popmart” tour in 1997, created by London designer Mark Fisher. Today LEDs can be found almost everywhere, embedded within buildings, chandeliers, cars, etc.

My own company, Cinimod Studio, is currently involved in a number of architectural and art lighting consultancy for clients looking to create unique digital lighting installations and media facades. A common thread to our work is the belief that architecture and lighting design should be considered jointly as an integrated design element in order to reap the maximum benefit and visual impact. Two of our recent projects, the Snog Frozen Yogurt Stores and the UFO for artist Peter Coffin, serve as examples of the innovative use of LEDs to create highly visual lighting installations that provide a memorable experience to the customer, viewer or spectator.

At the Snog frozen yogurt store in London’s Soho, a corner site has become a new landmark within the neighbourhood, known in large part for the “bubbling ceiling”. This lighting feature is comprised of 700 glass globes of very bright and controllable coloured light, which together create a volumetric swirling of colour within the shop. From my perspective as the designer, and also from Snog’s perspective as the client, what is perhaps most rewarding about the whole lighting feature is the response it generates from the general public. Customers and passersby continuously stop to take photographs and videos of the store, generating a never ending supply of “free advertising” on the internet’s social networking sites such as Facebook, FlickR and You Tube.

On our recent UFO project that we designed and built for New York artist Peter Coffin, we created a 7m diameter structure that was laden with 3,500 controllable lights and then flown on a single strop line under a helicopter. In May 2009 we flew it over the beaches of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. An estimated 500,000 persons gathered on the beaches to watch this strange high-altitude art performance. It was a hugely ambitious project to realise but we did succeed, and met the primary project goal – the flight of a large UFO over a major metropolitan area. What we had really done was create one of the biggest flying LED artworks. Upon reflection, and thinking back to the visions of the future depicted in ‘Bladerunner’, perhaps our technologies are getting us dangerously close to realising the dystopian future of flying billboards and commercialisation of building facades.

From the first hand experiences of these two Cinimod Studio projects what has been proven is that the technology and production abilities exist to integrate LEDs and feature lighting into almost any environment. The next step is to ensure that the content played through these lights, no matter where they are, is relevant and appropriately controlled.

Interactive and Live Control

While some LED-lit building seem to be left in their ‘rainbow-chase’ patterns, it is perhaps not surprising that some of the most experimental and innovative building lighting schemes can be found installed at art galleries and cultural institutions.

I take the examples of two Austrian building: the “Kunsthaus” in Graz by Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, and the “Ars Electronica Centre” in Linz by Andreas Treusch. Both of these are landmark projects in their own right, and designed expressively for art-driven content to be displayed across their media facades.

In the Kunsthaus project a low resolution media screen has been embedded within the undulating plexigas cladding of the building. This lighting system, called “BIX” and developed by the Berlin designers “realties:united”, uses 930 circular fluorescent lamps as the pixels across the facade. These can be controlled for brightness only – there is no colour control. This low resolution media display was conceived as a ‘communicative display scheme’, and is used by visiting artists as a digital canvas. This ensures that the content is always fresh and innovative, and helps establish the media facade as an integral part of the overall building.

The Ars Electronica Center (AEC) features a low resolution media facade that is in colour and covers over 5,000 square metres. The media facade and its tight integration within the architecture create a striking yet sympathetic highlight within the Linz cityscape. Earlier this year YesYesNo, a UK design studio founded by Joel Getthin Lewis, was commissioned to create a new software system for generating live content for the AEC facade.

YesYesNo created a new drawing tool that enabled them to draw across the three dimensional surface of the display, as well as allowing live data feeds from the internet to be used to generate live content. In one particularly beautiful example a data stream reporting the condition on the surface of the sun was used to create live visuals.

To achieve this, YesYesNo made use of an open source software system calledOpenFrameworks as the engine to drive the system, which allowed them to very rapidly prototype a set of novel content creation and display tools. In the true spirit of open source software, they released their new tools to the public with the hope that it would enable more people to interact and utilise other media facades as a public resource and art performance canvas.

Both the Kunsthaus and the Ars Electronica Centre projects serve as compelling examples of the benefits of bringing creatives and artists into the design process to provide innovative control systems. In the coming decade we will be increasingly accepting such media facades as ‘another’ piece of the visual environment in which we all live and work, so collectively we should all work on ensuring that their content and physical manifestation is beautiful and relevant.

Conclusion

The time for LEDs is now. Let us all use them to great effect, and create wonderful art and lighting interventions to our buildings, venues, and installations. But let us all maintain a responsibility to our surrounding environment and deploy the lights and media facades with properly curated and considered content so that we all appreciate and admire our LED future.