Dr Matthias (Hank) Haeusler, senior lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of New South Wales, spoke at the SPARC International Lighting Event 2013.

He discussed how new media facades and media architecture have dramatically transformed cities, particularly in Asia.

Architecture & Design spoke to him about media architecture, lighting and how technology is impacting on architecture.

What do you define as 'media architecture' and what is a media facade?

Firstly one needs to separate between light architecture and media architecture. Light architecture allows a building to be illuminated, to underline parts of the building and to create an atmosphere by using different colours and brightness. All three characteristics—illuminate, underline and atmosphere—can be achieved as well by media architecture. The difference is that media architecture tries to communicate messages either via dynamic text, graphics or images. Here the dynamic aspect is of great importance. Whereas a static image often stays on the level of a sign, a dynamic image could offer more.

Media facades were first envisioned 30 years ago in the science fiction movie, Blade Runner. Today, technological advances in lighting have transformed that vision to reality, particularly in Asia and Europe. In Asia it is more prominent with large commercial developments using screens mainly for advertising. In Europe it is more interesting, with small installations that change the urban fabric or how people interact with the urban environment, such as smaller art projects where you bring electronic art and urban interaction together.

To define media architecture and media  facades, I would differentiate the field into three main areas: (1) 'Urban Screens' as a term for LED screen attached onto buildings. (2) 'Media facades' as communication technology (and separate here into different technologies such as projection, LED, light bulbs, etc.) embedded into the architecture. (3) 'Media architecture' as a holistic concept that requires thinking about communication and including communication technologies into the design from a very early start. Good examples of the last are projects from UNStudio such as Galleria Seoul where geometry, material and light plays an important role in the design process from the start. 

Media architecture is not limited to large screens on buildings. Think about how many kinds of relationships we have with screens in our day-to-day lives – computers, tablets, smartphones and so on. Media architecture is like extending screen devices to a building scale, it’s the integration of those kinds of communication devices into architecture.

How has it impacted on design?

Unfortunately what we mainly see is urban screens, not media facades or media architecture. What we experience at the moment are the first steps into defining what architecture could be in the communication age. It is similar to the industrial revolution where architects struggled at the beginning to find an architectural language that reflects the cultural and society changes and finally resulted in modernism. We are at present at a stage where architects are experimenting to find an answer to cultural changes caused through communication technologies and digital technologies.

Everyone would agree that the rise of smartphones, the internet and others have changed dramatically the way we live and it is no surprise that this reflects back onto how we see and design architecture. I would argue that media architecture is one form of this reflection.

How else is technology impacting on architecture?

Architecture is very often the mirror of technological developments. Without a progress of various technologies architecture does not develop. An example for this is laser cutting of steel elements. Originally mostly used in manufacturing industry, it now has a large impact on how buildings are designed and fabricated. It is the same for digital technologies.

Since the rise of the smartphone I no longer need to arrange a time and space to meet someone at a certain time at a very distinctive location, like in Flinders Street Station under the clocks. I simply use my phone to co-ordinate when and where in a far dynamic way. This has most likely influence on our behaviour and therefore onto architecture.

How can lighting enhance or detract from a building?

Light – daylight or artificial light – has always played an important role in architecture. Any material will change its appearance at different days or seasons, reflecting weather or time of the day. One cannot control this and nature decides how the material will look like the next day. At night is does not happen – only if one has additional building material that emits light and illuminates a building facade and therefore allows a controlled material change through light. 

What do you think will be the biggest architectural challenge in the next 12 months?

For media architecture, to understand better urban interaction design. It is one thing to interact one-to-one with a personal device but by far harder to understand who is enabling the interaction when several people are standing in front of one big screen. There is plenty more to study and to understand.