Crystal Talk
Text: May-Britt Frank-GrossePhotos: realities:united, Torsten Seidel


Interview realities:united

(BauNetz): realities : united describes itself as a "studio for art, architecture and media". How do you explain what you actually do to someone who doesn't know you?

(Tim Edler): One answer would be: We fine-tune architecture. That is because nowadays, for example, architecture is moving away from being a static and becoming a dynamic medium. Several thousand years of cultural development lie behind us, during which we have learned to design statically. And suddenly everything can become dynamic. We are convinced that new technology will repeatedly create new design opportunities and a new form of aesthetics.

That sounds as if there is a lot of explaining to do?

The projects are frequently already well under way and getting in contact with us is linked to the confused expectation that we are going to conjure up something special, like magicians. The whole thing is very reminiscent of the early days of the Internet boom. And for this reason we place great importance on dialog. What are the people's real goals and interests, what do they actually want to get across? With nearly all our projects we initially ruffled a few feathers as far as the clients were concerned because we didn't deliver what is generally associated with the term media architecture.

But we are not interested in commercial media facades. What we do is different: It is not colorful, it is not high-resolution, it is not rectangular. And of course we have to get across why it is actually better like that.

And how do you do that?

Through dialog. All you have to ask someone who thinks his architecture needs a high-end LED screen to be modern is: What about five years down the road, when your neighbor's fittings are far lighter and more state of the art? It is frequently only in a discussion such as this that a thought process kicks in, and the client becomes more differentiated in what he actually wants. It actually always works very well.

The subject matter in which we operate is anyway very much interlaced with images and expectations. The motivation for the media in architecture is frequently merely an image for modernity. But where does this image come from? From films and major Asian cities. "This is right out of Bladerunner" is what people then say. This is something one has to get to the bottom of.

What prompted you to become established in a field like this?

This might come as a surprise: We are not particularly interested in light and media facades. We really don't like it if that's all we're associated with, as we see ourselves as being far more broad-based. It was actually by chance that got involved with media architecture, and that was in 2001 submitting a proposal to Kunsthaus Graz for the facade of fluorescent tubes, the BIX prokect. And the fact that against all laws of probability the project was then realized. We were extremely na•ve back then, and knew very little about it and were shattered to ascertain that there are almost no theoretical principles for the design of media facades.

What sort of principles?

Well architecture is a very theoretical subject. There are any number of opinions as to what architecture should be. For example it has long since moved on from being pictorial to abstract. And now the New Media come along and what happens? We stick concrete little images on facades. That really is absurd.

The fact that there are so few intelligent solutions is also due to the lack of consensus about what media facades are actually meant to do. Even now we still get asked really simple questions. When, for, example, for economic reasons we were forced to work with very large pixels, it occurred to us that no one gives any thought to how large a pixel should be, and whether an image on architecture should be abstract or concrete.

How much influence does media design have on architecture?

At the moment still not that much, as the work processes are thought up one after another. This is a core problem architects have. They often think the sequences can be though of as a series. They first plan the building and then - and that's another thing - they get someone on board, for example, to illuminate the building, who bathes what already exists in sensible light. As far as we are concerned that is not the way to go about things. To date we have worked on only a few projects where media design was seen not as the final coating of paint, but as something substantial.

What are you currently working on?

Right now we are working on three architecture projects, all of them media design on new buildings; two projects in Singapore in collaboration with WOHA Architects there, with whom we are developing the artistic media design of the facade. And then the project in Cordoba by the Spanish studio Nieto Sobejano Architects, on which we are working very closely with them. Though there was already a draft for an abstract media faade in existence we subsequently made improvements and alterations to it and, something we always do, infused it with our preferences.

As far as the design in Cordoba is concerned we were able, as an advance on the fluorescent tube grid on the BIX media facade on Kunsthaus Graz, to pursue our wish to design a media faade that is not a grid and no longer has any even concentration. In this way one can work and play with perception. The facade functions in a similar way to the retina, where certain areas are very concentrated and information, once it has been recognized, can make its way to the periphery, where it is still understood.

In Cordoba the faade in itself reveals a very forceful design. It is effective even during the day. Was that your idea?

Fortunately it is possible to avoid this question very elegantly. When we were hired for the project the faade was indeed a smooth surface, in which cylindrical holes had been cut. And these held the lights. This way the idea could not be realized and so we made another proposal. We placed the building's inner structure, which consisted of a twisted tessellation pattern, on the faade and made indentations of it.

Doing something like that is of course a bit tricky, as our projects are always on the important faade of a building, on the visible side. And naturally enough you cannot just redesign that. Fortunately in this case the Spanish studio Nieto-Sobeja–o and ourselves came up with the idea at the same time. As such no one party told the other what to do and it was subsequently possible to devise the faade without any problems. It was a very fortunate outcome.

How is the faade structured?

It is made of pre-fabricated fiber-reinforced slabs of concrete that have pressed in cavities or dishes. These slabs are suspended from scaffolding. There is a series of different types, which, by means of a dovetailed configuration can be repeated time and again, without giving the impression of there being a repeating pattern. The dishes are illuminated from the side. One of the challenges was the evenness of the illumination, as the dishes vary in size.

And your projects to come?

One project that is particularly close to our heart and that we think was a great success was Museum X in Mšnchengladbach in 2006. The aim behind the project was to keep alive in the city part of the museum, which was closed for a year for renovation purposes, such that it wasn't forgotten. It involved covering a building with an outer surface for th purposes of creating a static image. You can actually talk about backdrop architecture here. The project was intended to suggest an entire building and had nothing whatever to do with light. Nonetheless it corresponded exactly with what we are aiming to do.

In order to get a message across there always has to be a certain element of surprise. You have to stand apart, be outstanding. What is paradoxical about it is that at the moment everything becomes light, you cannot actually achieve that much more with light and need to work with another medium. As such it is very important that we are not necessarily seen as light or media designers in the sense of screen media.

With as project like that are there any parallels for example to Cordoba?

These works are of course miles apart. Mšnchengladbach is a project for which we ourselves determined precisely the impact and the statement. In Cordoba on the other hand what the media is actually saying and just how capable the building is of making a statement has still not been defined today: We still do not know exactly, who or what is meant to be being expressed there. But precisely that is what makes it exciting. We have been pursuing the idea of including artists in the orchestration of the building's skin since Kunsthaus Graz. Can you help us with your work in the process of discovery? How does a building come across when it becomes a medium? The "Spots" installation on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin is one instance of our pursuing this approach.

At the moment, however, we have gone off it a bit, because artists are frequently only prepared to get involved with the work of others to a limited extent. For this reason, with the most recent projects we ourselves have taken over the aspect of contents in order to be able to develop our own view of the project from the outset. That is the reason for our themes "art, architecture and media".

And how is the trend going to develop?

Of course we have no answer to that. We are slowly feeling our way forward. BIX marked the start of our making the scale and shape of pixels on a facade our theme. Then there was the "Spots" project, which posed the question of whether the pixels in a matrix are always the same, or are there differences? Do they not have a life of their own and begin creating patterns? Like, for example, in Cordoba, where they dissolve the orthogonal system of evenness and size.

For us those are declinations. We always get the feeling we are doing spade work that could have been done ages ago. To date it was a case of: A media facade is a large rectangle and what then happens, in terms of content, technology, and design doesn't concern me at all, Panasonic should say that." We cannot continue in this lethargy. We say: Let's give this a try first, and then that - and do everything quite differently: And better.

Tim Edler, thank you very much for talking to us.

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