Spring 2004

Gigantic pixels (text in full)

A new arts centre faces Graz with a bulging low-res screen

Oozing its way around the Baroque fabric of Graz, the new Kunsthaus, an exhibition venue designed by Spacelab (Bartlett professors Peter Cook and Colin Fournier), is more than just a fashionably biomorphic blob. In a modern manifestation of Cook’s and Fournier’s explorations of technology, communications and architecture that began with the Archigram group in the 1960s, the building can also be a light show, cinema screen, advertising hoarding and public notice board.

The initial idea was to wrap the building in an ‘intelligent skin’ that would pulsate with changing colour, light and images, like a chameleon, hinting at the multi-disciplinary activities within. In practice, the cost of LED (light emitting diode) technology proved prohibitive, so a more modest solution was adopted, which, as it turns out, is equally informed by a spirit of pioneering ingenuity.

The external skin is made up of a 20mm thick layer of blue acrylic panels supported by stain-less steel clamps which hold the panels clear of a waterproof membrane behind. On the main east façade, 930 circular 40W fluorescent light fittings (more commonly used as ‘kitchen lamps’) are mounted in the gap between the two layers. Each doughnut-shaped lamp effectively acts as a pixel, individually activated by a central computer. As well as being switched on and off, lamp intensity can be varied, from zero to 100 per cent. Supplied and monitored by a digital control system, simple animations, graphics, messages and text can be displayed (at a speed of 20 frames a second), transforming the bulging flank of the building into a gigantic low-resolution screen. The ad hoc-tech use of standard fittings and relatively simple technology makes the enterprise admirably economical to run, though the chore of replacing exhausted light bulbs might prove to be a bit tricky.

Known as BIX (big pixel), the system was developed by Realities United, a Berlin-based design company and planning office directed by two brothers, Jan and Tim Edler. The large pixel size means that it helps to be some distance from the building to read and register the images. However the slightly coarse-grained effect (like watching an old black and white movie on TV) is quite compelling, compared with the often vapid slickness of LEDs.

Various artists will be unleashed at intervals to create different installations exploring the relationship between image and architecture, permanence and ephemerality and so on, though perhaps none will match the Edler brothers’ own efforts in a demonstration press video featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Graz’s favourite son, on one of his familiar cinematic rampages.