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Monday, November 06, 2006 

urban screens, left and right

Our first two organized talks here in Berlin were on a very similar topic: the new urban screens that are springing up in cities all over the world. And, well, I'm not too sure yet what to think of them, but I have some ideas. Before I get into all of that, I'll give a quick overview of our speakers and their talks that prompted my thinking.

The first speaker was really impressive, probably because he is actually involved in conceptualizing and designing projects for the urban landscape, a few of which have been big urban screens. Jan Elder of realities:united talked us through some of the projects he and his brother have orchestrated, and they are really amazing. Their most famous is probably the BIX skin they put on the Kunsthaus Graz, a large center built in Austria as part of some European fair thing (please excuse my ignorance and lack of time to look this all up, I'm sure it's on the website above). It's made up of all these flourescent tubes, so it's way bigger and way cheaper than any super high-tech LED screen could be. And the best part is that it just plays artistic pieces, instead of being full of commercial advertising. The other really neat piece he described to us doesn't actually exist yet, but it involves really tall metal poles that can sway in the wind, as a result of some amazing design. Seriously, how cool is that?

Our second speaker, Mirjam Struppek, has done an incredible amount of research and documentation of urban screens. She shared with us a bunch of projects, many of them interactive, that have taken place over the past few years. She called to our attention the different uses for urban screens, whether they be commercial, artistic, informative, or some combination. They are becoming a common element of the city landscape, but we need to also look at how city culture is shaping and being shaped by these screens.

As commercial screens and advertisements, the things drive me crazy. They make a place feel so impersonal, and they draw attention away from the architecture and other things I actually want to be seeing. I don't like that advertisements are invading so many parts of daily life, and I feel like there need to be places to get away from them. However, I don't mind billboards as much. It's just something about the LED screen, the color, and the motion that draws my attention, as advertisers want, and presents me with advertising I'd rather avoid. Then there is this gray area of screens that were built not necessarily to sell advertising space, but just to make the building famous by being big and flashy. For example, the SPOTS facade realities:united built on an office building on Potsdamer Platz in Berlin was created because the building wanted to draw attention to itself and sell its unused office space. It has succeeded, because most people who travel through the area now notice this huge display of flashing flourescent lights. So, although it plays patterns and artistic pieces instead of advertising, it is still a form of advertising, as any urban screen will almost inevitably be. Then we come to the screens that are art for art's sake, or interactive projects designed to provide people with information or entertainment. Those might have some merit, and they are interesting ways of capturing the attention of people and making them think about things they never may have before. But, the things just bother me because of how flashy they are. They demand attention, and I don't like being told in such a blatant way what elements around me should be looked at.

On Saturday we went on a bus tour of Berlin, or at least the most historically significant parts of it. I won't go into too much detail, but I will say that it was a pretty eye-opening experience to see and hear about what Berlin was like in such recent history. As part of the tour, we stopped by the new Holocaust Memorial, opened in 2005 as a "monument to the murdered Jews of Europe." It is a sprawling area of large gray concrete slabs arranged in a grid. The idea, as it was described to us, is that as you wander the rows, people pass in and out of your vision, but you never really know if and when you will see them again. Pretty powerful stuff. I think the part that hit me hardest was that as I was coming out of it, I came across trees planted where concrete slabs should have been. It was like they were the ones who survived, surrounded on all sides by the graves and monuments of their loved ones. It is really a beautifully designed piece of architecture.

The historic city centre of Graz was awarded World Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 1999...read more

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