PRINT November 2005


Tom Vanderbilt on urban screens

Viva the façade as computer screen! Viva façades not reflecting light but emanating light—the building as a digital sparkling source of information, not as an abstract glowing source of light! . . . Viva iconography—not carved in stone for eternity but digitally changing for now, so that the inherently dangerous fascist propaganda, for instance, can be temporarily, not eternally, proclaimed!

—Robert Venturi, Architecture as Signs and Systems for a Mannerist Time (2004)

SEOUL DOES NOT possess much of what urban planners refer to as “legibility.” Instead of a compact center with recognizable landmarks and cohesive neighborhood fabrics, it is an aggressively dispersed place filled with tinted commercial towers and legions of cheaply constructed housing blocks erected in the rush to urbanization. As a city that endured numerous invasions only to undergo one of the most explosive periods of urban growth seen in the twentieth century, the civic landscape seems a tabula rasa of generic urbanism, an endless loop of smog-enshrouded modernity.

But after a few days spent navigating the city’s car-thronged streets, one distinguishing urban characteristic began to stand out: the ubiquity of the screen. It seemed that I was hardly ever out of view of some billboard-sized display winking in the distance. There were also screens in the subways, convenience stores, elevators—I even spotted one in the floor of a casino, perhaps intended to attract the downward glance of an unlucky gambler. At the Aaron Tan–designed SK T-Tower in the city’s financial district, the base of the telecom headquarters was wrapped in a thin band of LED. Along with a set of screens in the building’s lobby, the LED zipper was displaying a series of works by Korean artists. A curator with Seoul’s new-media gallery Art Center Nabi had taken me to see the building, and told me that the images in the lobby—which present motion-triggered digitized representations of people coming through the doors—would soon be interspersed with real-time images generated from a similar lobby setup in another SK building just south of Seoul. Was this “interconnectedness,” I wondered, or just an extension of urban displacement—the teleconferenced anonymous crowd?

Not long after visiting the SK T-Tower, driving one night through the fashionable district of Apgujeong-dong, I came upon the Galleria Mall, a large, square building whose entire exterior was a blazingly luminescent green. Random animations scrolled across its pixelated surface. The exterior of the Galleria—formerly a drab concrete box—was the work of Dutch lighting designer Rogier van der Heide of Arup Lighting, who clad the structure last year with more than four thousand glass disks. Backed by an LED lighting system that is capable of generating some sixteen million colors, the building, which by day had simply seemed to have an elegantly opalescent exterior, had become a screen in the dark.

What was going on in this city of screens? It was not, of course, merely limited to architecture or signage. The residents of Seoul, urban theorist Anthony Townsend notes, spend more time online than the inhabitants of any other metropolis; traffic is five times higher on Korean networks than anywhere else; and there are more homes wired for broadband in Seoul than in the whole of Germany or the United Kingdom. A combination of government policy, urban density, and other technological and social factors has helped create the most wired city on the planet. This means, of course, more screens: The streets of Seoul are filled with pedestrians peering into their latest-generation cell phones (many now featuring live television broadcasts), and teenagers snapping mobile-phone photos of one another at cafés (presumably to send to friends in some other urban node). One might only add that Korea is, of course, home to Samsung and LG, two of the world’s largest producers of television monitors.

The screen, along with the skyscraper, has for some time been one of the particular features of Asian modernity. The screen-centric vision of Los Angeles famously depicted by Ridley Scott in Blade Runner (1982) was, the director has noted, inspired by his time in 1960s Hong Kong, a paradoxical city whose pulsating electronic skyline overlooked a harbor, as Scott has described, filled with nineteenth-century fishing junks. But those screens were merely static vehicles for the transmission of commercial messages, mechanical upgrades of an older public-advertising tradition. What is most interesting about the screens I found in Seoul was that they were not merely architectural appendages broadcasting messages but architecture itself; not simply vehicles for delivering one-way information to a passive public but an active layer of the city’s matrices of networks. To stand on a street was to stand on a street of a hundred screens, and by “screens” I mean the external manifestation—the collective user-interface—of the unseen digital flow pulsing down that same street, invisible but as much a part of the city experience as the concrete of the sidewalks.

Seoul seems a fitting location to test the theories put forth in Placing Words: Symbols, Space, and the City (2005), the latest book from William J. Mitchell, the architecture and media-arts professor at MIT who has devoted much previous energy (e.g., City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn [1996]) to studying the intersection of technology and urbanism. Mitchell’s new collection of essays ranges across a wide swath of territory, but he has several key themes of particular interest for the city of screens. The most pertinent is the idea of the screen itself as an architectural component, as at the SK T-Tower or the Galleria Mall. Advances in pliable LED displays and other technologies, Mitchell says, “enabled the fabrication of very large assemblages of reliable, controllable light sources that can be wrapped onto just about any sort of surface. . . . Traditional distinctions between architectural lighting design and computer graphics are beginning to disappear. Everything that lights up can be treated as an addressable, programmable pixel.”

What happens to a building when its very bricks are pixels and it becomes a screen? Can it be appreciated as a building itself, or does the image it is broadcasting simply swallow it whole? Do we judge the building by the content of its display or the mechanism that houses it? The medium or the message? Mitchell has a theory: “You can argue, of course, that architecture has always been about animated surface—classical effects of shade and shadow as sun and clouds move (what are moldings for, after all), Barcelona pavilion effects of reflection and transparency created by glass, metal, and machine-polished surface, and subtle combinations of the two, as at LA’s new Disney Concert Hall.” Buildings, through their geometry, compute these effects. Now, however, Mitchell writes, “we can separate the software of architectural dynamics from the hardware, execute this software at high speed on inexpensive digital devices, and reprogram effects whenever we like.”

And so, as the glass-curtain wall was to modernism, the screen is becoming the iconic facade of the digital age. The glass-curtain wall undermined the distinction between public and private realms, but the screen offers more-radical revisions of space. For example, this year the Los Angeles architects Electroland proposed putting a series of LED lights on a building’s exterior. As the group describes: “A matrix of LED lights embedded into the entry walkway respond to the presence of visitors, while a massive display of lights on the building facade mirror these patterns. The building facade acts as a real-time visual representation of the human activities within its physical borders, turning the architectural concept of facades inside out.” At Austria’s Kunsthaus Graz, to cite another instance, Berlin-based realities:united installed an 8,600-square-foot field of circular fluorescent lights that act as pixels on the building’s eastern facade. The museum aims to use this “urban screen” not only to “project its communicative aspect into public space” but to host installations that address “the interaction between media and space.” The screen is both local facade—that is, a two-way intermediary between interior and exterior—and another space that is nowhere in between: a display plugged into global data networks. Most significantly, the museum claims that since the margins of the screen are not visible unless activated, the installation “gives the impression that not a screen but the Kunsthaus itself renders images and pictures” (italics mine). This is Times Square triumphant: The screen has collapsed into itself, folded into architecture, broken its own boundaries. As new-media theorist Lev Manovich predicted in 2002, “In the longer term every object may become a screen connected to the Net, with the whole of built space becoming a set of display surfaces.”

The irony of the city of screens is that the screen itself was supposed to make the city obsolete: The World Wide Web would become a kind of metaurban nonplace, the computer screen our constant interface with this locationless, 24-7 realm. And yet, as Mitchell writes: “Contrary to once-popular expectation, however, ubiquitous digital networking has not simply ironed out the differences among places, allowing anything to happen anywhere, anytime. Instead, it has provided a mechanism for the continual injection of useful information into contexts where it was once inaccessible, and where it adds a new layer of meaning.” In other words, the city and screen have fused, each informing the other. Seoul, for example, is filled with myriad bangs, roughly translated as “rooms,” that act essentially as transitional spaces between private and public realms; they are intimate places where people gather to sing karaoke, conduct affairs, or drink soju. The city of screens did not kill off the “city of the bang” (as it was described in an exhibition at the Korean pavilion of this year’s Venice Biennale); instead, it augmented, and perhaps even accelerated, its growth. One of the most prevalent types of bang is the “pc bang,” where people play massively multiplayer online games—people gathering in a built space to participate in a virtual world. The slippages do not end there, however; for it is not uncommon for a player, having left the bang for a walk on the city streets, to receive—via SMS on his mobile phone—updates on his progress in the virtual world. An inverse example comes from Europe, where tens of thousands participate in BotFighters, a cellphone-based game that uses locative technologies to track players as they move through the city, which on screen becomes a virtual realm. The screen does not so much kill the city as absorb it.

The extent to which the city of screens is evolving and mutating was demonstrated on a recent afternoon as I walked through Times Square, arguably the birthplace of the city of screens. Among the many flashing displays I took in was one for Nike iD, showing an athletic shoe and a telephone number. I did not pay it much heed, although I was to learn later that day I’d been looking at no ordinary billboard: Passersby could dial the number by cell phone and then, via prompting, use the phone keys to custom-design a shoe. The fledgling designer would be sent via SMS a picture of the shoe and a Web address where they might order it. Here people were using their private screens to manipulate a public screen, standing on a fixed urban spot only to participate in virtual design and commerce. Somewhere, the image of them interacting with the screen was recorded on camera, viewed on some other screen. The edges of screens were blurring into the city.

Tom Vanderbilt is a frequent contributor to Artforum.