Urbanism in the Information Age 3.0: The Digital/Physical Interface

by Andrew Wade

This post is the third in the Urbanism in the Information Age series, which explores the potential of digital technologies in urban transformation and interactivity. The first two posts explored IBM's approach toward "Smart Cities" and the visionary competition proposal - "the CLOUD" - for the London 2012 Olympics. This post examines the digitally constructed interface between author and reader, between the informer and the informed. The Zero Energy Media Wall for the Xicui Entertainment Complex in Beijing explores this boundary with a glass curtain wall that contains built-in photovoltaic technology to capture light energy that is then used to illuminate the facade of the building at night.

The project is particularly noteworthy for its successful integration of various building technologies that often stand in isolation. The glass curtain wall is blended with photovoltaic cells, which is also designed in concert with the LED display screen. The heightened complexity of this construction leads to a responsiveness in the building fabric that seeks to engage the wider community.

This leads to questioning the messages that such responsive facades might send. Who is the programmer and what will they communicate if actual urban surfaces become both receivers and senders of energy? As the MIT SENSEable City Lab and the decode exhibit at the V&A Museum also explore, such technology has the potential to position the reader as the momentary author, and to make the informed the proactive informer. Such possible transformations move beyond communicating building/urban data or displaying art installations to a fleeting audience, instead hinting at the reality of a responsive city that has the potential for self-correcting measures.

Credits: Images of the Zero Energy Media Wall from GreenPIX.


  1. this is a great follow-up to the previous post, and your questions are very interesting. yes, who would be programming these? would it be a public or private venture? it doesn't seem likely that it would be grass-roots, but maybe there are ways. how would it engage the wider community and allow the informed to become the informer?

    the building looks beautiful in the photos you've included. it would be sad if the walls were to become aggressive advertisements.

    dan hill has some great articles and interviews on the responsive city at cityofsound, for example: Towards a new architect: an interview with Carlo Ratti.

    finally, thank you. i'm enjoying this series.

  2. I am intrigued by the last sentence of the post: "hinting at the reality of a responsive city, that has the potential of self corrective measures"

    Who is doing the response and who is correcting what for whom? Sounds a bit utopic, or perhaps dystopic. What would prevent prevent big brother from appearing on the screen? Who has access to the off switch? and what happens when the giant TV breaks down? Who is the repairman(woman)?

    Are we to assume that power and control would not be a factor in such an urban vision?

  3. The article on Carlo Ratti that you link to is terrific - thank you. I am especially enamoured with the phrase, "the alchemy of transmuting data into information into knowledge, while shifting effortlessly from physical to digital to physical". I think the image that this captures well is that of adaptability and layering to achieve complexity in building. As the writing mentions, architectural design is often such an act of commitment due to the static nature of built form. The world continues to evolve around the building, yet the building remains as stoic as the orthogonal projection drawings that describe it.

    I see the greatest potential of this media wall as something that supports the evolution of data into knowledge. For some reason I see this wall projecting images from Radical Cartography (http://www.radicalcartography.net/) and updating them in an intelligent way to coincide with the living, breathing city that they attempt to describe.

    Another fascinating aspect of the media wall is its need of persistent stewardship and creative input. It needs a program, and purpose, to function. I think simply the fact that, by necessity, it constantly raises the question of "who will be programming it and with what content" is a positive thing. It's a much stronger opportunity for the subversion of the dominant advertising forces of static billboards that I imagine dotting the urban landscape of LA.

    Finally, I would say that while the issues of "sustainability" and technology are central in most discussions of projects such as this, the crucial factors of power and control of information are often curiously bypassed. Thanks to Hector for raising these questions. Here again I think it is the wall's adaptability that makes it so relevant in the urban realm. The fact that the controls could be bought out by multiple, conflicting sources at different times to broadcast their advertisements, art installations, or radical cartography as it may be, forces an engagement between architecture and urbanism in a more contextual sense that is often lacking.


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