Building façade generates electricity and tells you stories

base of building
© MVRDV Milestone

The skin of MVRDV's new Milestone office building is very busy.

Years ago when smart phones were new, I visited Paris and complained that their historic marker plaques were all in French. (In Canada, where I come from, they are mostly in English and French). Frustrated, I wondered why one couldn't have a bar code on them that connected you to a virtual plaque in any language, so that any tourist, including the typical unilingual North American, could read them.

MVRDV building© MVRDV Milestone

Now MVRDV are proposing The Milestone in Esslingen, near Stuttgart. It is an office building with a façade that does a lot more than just keep out the weather; according to New Atlas, it is covered in photovoltaics and QR codes that provide information on the town's history, people and landscape . The architects' website phrases it slightly differently:

The façade is designed as partially mirrored, with fritted glass containing PV cells that mirror the environment, the town, its hills and its people. It shows the pixelated map of the area of Esslingen and around. Each pixel carries different information, featuring the stories of the city and its inhabitants. Accompanied by a smartphone app one can discover its richness, creating the public library of the town.

Milestone view from train© MVRDV Milestone

I find this fascinating for a number of reasons; it is great to see building tech evolve so that the facade actually generates electricity while keeping out the sun with fritted glass (the baking on of ceramics in a pattern that reduces the amount of light coming through and of course, makes an architectural statement). But also that the building talks to you through your phone, telling you a story.

Murmur Project© The Murmur Project

On the other hand, buildings last a long time and information technology doesn't, and maybe it shouldn't be baked into the building façade like this. Years ago, the Murmur project in Toronto had plaques all over the city (where the red dots are) with numbers on them, that you could call and hear a story about where you are standing. It's long gone, superseded by smart phones.

Having to point the camera at a QR code may be passé too; the GPS and mapping in the smart phone could do it all without anything being put on the building. It is a good place to have a conversation about Open Building, how different parts of a building last different lengths of time, and should be able to be easily replaced or modified. Building in PV is one thing, though it might fail before the glazing does, but information technology has the shortest life of all. Perhaps a façade should just be a façade.

Marker in ParisLloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

And that cast bronze marker in Paris? I do not know when it was installed, but it is likely to last as long as the building it's standing in front of. Perhaps that's better than a bar code. Perhaps I should just learn French.

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