This is what happens when LEDs get cheaper and better: designers use more of them. Someone predicted this once.
We are really not supposed to talk about the rebound effect, which is often confused with Jevons' Paradox. That's where as energy efficiency increases, people use more of it rather than taking the savings. So as cars get more efficient, they get bigger. It is often used by the climate deniers and delayers as a reason not to bother about efficiency. As Zack Semke of NK architects wrote:
But Zack Semke shouldn't conflate the rebound effect and Jevons' Paradox; they are different things. Let's look at LEDs. They have caused a huge reduction in domestic energy use for lighting. But they are so efficient, compared to what came before, that they are being used in ways that could never have been imagined.
The Jevons Paradox and its narratives are just too attractive to folks opposed to energy efficiency mandates to let the idea die, so a cottage industry of Jevons' Paradox storytelling has emerged.
I have shown LED-encrusted buildings before as examples of this, but my new poster child will be MVRDV's Taipei Twin Towers. It is wrapped in "interactive media façades"...
...that artistically communicate the diverse program contained by those blocks. The aim of the project is to provide a vibrant and charismatic destination that re-establishes the central station area of Taipei as the city’s premier location for shopping, working, and tourism — a Times Square for Taiwan.
“Arriving at Taipei Central Station is currently an anti-climax. The immediate area does not reveal the metropolitan charms and exciting quality that the Taiwanese metropolis has to offer,” says MVRDV principal and co-founder Winy Maas. “The Taipei Twin Towers will turn this area into the downtown that Taipei deserves, with its vibrant mixture of activities matched only by the vibrant collection of façade treatments on the stacked neighbourhood above.”
The timing is appropriate, too, given that 2019 is when Blade Runner was set, and the Taipei towers would fit right in. The technology for printing LED screens onto building glazing is not too far-fetched either. Samsung just introduced "The Wall" at CES – a modular TV design "with MicroLED technology [that] delivers incredible definition, without restrictions as to size, resolution or form."
Winy Maas calls this project a vertical village, where he breaks the program down into blocks that are essentially buildings stacked on top of buildings. It has pedestrian routes over the bottom twenty floors, and so that each block can project its own identity.
Thanks to the small size of the retail blocks, it makes it possible for each to contain just a small number of tenants – and in many cases just a single store. This opens up the possibility that each block could communicate its unique character through an individual façade. A number of these facades are also proposed to feature interactive media displays, making the buildings dynamic hosts for showing major cultural spectacles, sporting events, and of course advertising.
It is true that LEDs are getting more efficient all the time, and that a new flat screen television uses a fraction of the electricity that an old one did. But when you start rolling out LED building facades by the acre, as we will see soon when every building is like the Taipei Twin Towers, it is going to add up.
This is where I believe that Stanley Jevons is misunderstood. He was not talking about incremental energy efficiency mandates, but a major technological change from the "atmospheric" Newcomen steam engine that was used to pump water out of mines but used a huge amount of coal, to a vastly more efficient engine that was quickly put to use in locomotives, ships, factories and buildings. People invented new uses for steam power as fast as they could build them. It was not just incremental energy efficiency, it was a seriously radical change in the economics of steam engines – which is exactly what has happened with LEDs. A radical improvement in the technology has led to an explosion of new opportunities to use them in imaginative and sometimes silly new ways.
That's why the Taipei Twin Towers and its inevitable imitators are as inevitable as steamships and locomotives were after James Watt fixed the inefficient steam engine; it is too good an advertising and design opportunity to miss.
But I worry about birds, about people trying to sleep, about distracted drivers. And of course, the energy being used to run building-sized monitors where before there was just a wall.