Big Solar LED Art in China: Interview with Simone Giostra, GreenPix Media Wall Architect


Walls are big in China, both in size and stature, but the GreenPix Zero Energy Media Wall is wildly different: it couples -- get ready for this -- the world's biggest color LED display with China's first photovoltaic system to be integrated into a glass curtain wall. Designed by architect Simone Giostra with solar technology by China's solar powerhouse Suntech, the wall, which we wrote about in May, forms the curtain wall of the Xicui Entertainment Complex in Beijing, turning the solar energy it collects in the daytime into Beijing's coolest after-dark digital screen in parallel with a day's climatic cycle.

Comprised of 2,292 color (RGB) LED light points, the screen is comparable to a 24,000 sq. ft. (2.200 m2) monitor. Unlike the typical high resolution screens that increasingly plaster Beijing's facades with ads, starchy local news programs and corny animations, this screen will keep the resolution low -- catering to arty abstract visuals by a group of artists including Xu Wenkai, Michael Bell Smith, Takeshi Murata and Varvara Shavrova -- while keeping the carbon footprint low too. In a city with lots of awful examples, GreenPix is architainment and mediatecture at its best.

The wall opened this week and I spoke with Simone Giostra, the New York-based architect, who shared his ideas about and inspiration for the project.

TH: How did Greenpix begin?

Simone Giostra: We are generally interested in addressing interaction and change in the built environment, possibly without populating contemporary cities with extravagant objects...

Our initial reference is often a natural phenomenon and GreenPix takes inspiration from the ever-changing visual experience of seascapes. The particular design of the wall reflects the different light conditions of its environment, reproducing the flickering light on an ocean's constantly undulating surface.

We make a critical distinction between form and performance. The building is obviously not replicating a natural organism in formal terms, in the way so much contemporary architecture does. GreenPix performs like an organic system, similar to a tree or a flower, first absorbing solar energy and then generating light from the same power that evening, without supplements.

We are also interested in the abstract visual quality of low-resolution screens in contemporary art and we talked to artists Gerhard Richter and Jim Campbell for inspiration. The wall will showcase low-resolution imagery, both to conserve energy and to provide an art-specific communication form in contrast to commercial applications of high resolution screens in conventional media facades.

TH: Whose idea was the PV/LED glass?

SG: I first conceived of a building's skin responding to its environment and users in a project for the Art Academy in Leipzig, Germany, about ten years ago. The façade was a "narrative skin", capable of displaying the story of the building activities and its inhabitants, a dynamic and interactive version of the illustrations found on the stone walls of churches across Europe starting from the 13th century.

The original idea of combining a sustainable aspect to the digital media performance was driven by an ethical obligation I felt while designing a proposal for the "World Trade Center" in New York with Steven Holl in 2002. A truly organic system should depend on its own ability to gather resources and, at the same time, it should remain vulnerable to changing environmental conditions. Similarly, GreenPix relies on the solar energy accumulated during the day and its lighting performance is affected by the daily amount of solar exposure reaching the building. This is just another way of defining a system as self-supporting, interactive and narrative, one that conveys an ongoing story about the surrounding light and weather conditions.

Q:How did you get the commission?

SG: We were appointed to design the envelope of the Chang'an Jingya Complex after successfully completing the Jinbao Entertaiment Center in Beijing with Raimund Abraham for the same client, a restaurateur. We were charged with enlivening the opaque, box-like structure's presence and connecting it to its environs and we responded with a truly utopian concept deploying experimental technology to achieve a new kind of "digital transparency." The client immediately embraced the design and enthusiastically supported us all the way to the final completion of the project.

Q:Why is a project like this important for Beijing right now?

SG: GreenPix represents a great advancement for the solar energy industry in China and, at the same time, it provides the city of Beijing with its first venue dedicated to digital media art, a new kind of communication surface devoted to unprecedented forms of artistic expression. The new-generation showcase is a highly visible venue, both within the Beijing metropolis and internationally, and a powerful platform to display the work of emerging Chinese artists. Its high visibility will be conducive to interactive projects and artistic dialogue within and beyond China's borders.

The innovative use of technology and experimental approach to communication and social interaction defines new standards in the context of urban interventions worldwide, while reinforcing the reputation of Beijing as a center for innovation and urban renewal.


TH: Can you describe how the solar curtain wall works?

SG: The polycrystalline photovoltaic (PV) cells are slices of silicon laminated within the glass of the curtain wall. In GreenPix, we placed the PV cells with changing density on the entire building's skin, perhaps the most extensive use of this technology in a building curtain wall to date. The density pattern increases building's performance, allowing natural light when required by interior program, while reducing heat gain and transforming excessive solar radiation into energy for the media wall.

Through the use of LED lighting, the façade has the ability to show playback videos, live content, including live performances, and user-generated content. The "intelligent skin" interacts with the building interiors and the outer public spaces using embedded, custom-designed software, transforming the building façade into a responsive environment for entertainment and public engagement.

TH: It looks awesome, and it's a great concept -- but how realistic is it?

SG: Apparently, the reality of GreenPix isn't realistic enough. When we've showed photos of the actual building, people asked me if it will ever be built. That's exactly what we like about this project. Design magazines are crowded by sexy renderings that not only will be never constructed, but that were never considered for construction in the first place. GreenPix was conceived as a feasible project from the start and, paradoxically, seams to belong to a
fictional and fantastic world even after completion.

[Director] Ridley Scott transformed entire skyscrapers into immense screens and citizens into an audience in permanent transit in "Blade Runner" about 25 years ago. After the playful and armless detour of "movable cities", "cushicles" and various love-bubbles by Archigram from the same years, we now have the opportunity to realize a high-performance, interactive and dynamic environment, not by using wheels and pistons, but through hardware integration, software development and user-generated content.

TH: Okay, but how practical an example is this for other buildings now, given the cost of solar?

SG: Photovoltaic technology today is not just about being practical, it is about survival. Solar technology is still relatively expensive if compared to other sources of renewable energy. On the other hand, projects like GreenPix support the photovoltaic industry and provide opportunities to optimize the technology and lower production costs in the future. It's a virtuous cycle initiated by a handful of pioneer architects and we are proud to have contributed to the production of the first glass solar panels by a Chinese manufacturer.

TH: Was this project easier to implement in China than it would have been elsewhere? Or not?

A: Working in Europe or the US, you often feel the alleged obligation to create only what seams feasible to the eyes of the developer. If we present an unconventional or experimental project to our clients, they ask if we have done it before, if the technology has been tested and they possibly like to see a previous example already completed. This mentality has been stiffening innovation and frustrating younger generations of architects for decades in the West. When we presented GrenPix to our client in China, he wanted to be absolutely sure that we
had never done it before and that it would be the first ever built of its kind.

TH: Cool! What will you take away from this project for your own work?

SG: We believe that the fundamental role of the architect is the translation of scientific and technological revolutions into approachable environments that change people's lives. We will continue experimenting with new technology that can improve building's performance while providing new and exciting experiences for the users. We remain interested in the convergence of creativity and innovation, where invention, performance, aesthetics and a deep knowledge of the human factor combine to create visionary design.

Simone Giostra & Partners

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Big Solar LED Art in China: Interview with Simone Giostra, GreenPix Media Wall Architect
Walls are big in China, both in size and stature, but the GreenPix Zero Energy Media Wall is wildly different: it couples -- get ready for this -- the world's biggest color LED display with China's first photovoltaic system to be integrated into a

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