In May visitors to Sydney were probably shocked to see the vaulted shells of the city's landmark Opera House "rippling" in the wind and the tiles of the its exterior peeling away to reveal a purple core. At the end of URBANSCREEN's "architectural projection" for the Vivid Sydney festival (which also includes a huge hand deforming the structure, among other surprises), the vaults crystallize into triangles of light that fall away toward the water, leaving darkness where the Opera House once stood.

Mesmerized by the video documentary of the performance, World-Architects.com contacted the URBANSCREEN team, based in Bremen, Germany, to ask them about their background, how they work, what they hope to accomplish, and where they see themselves heading next. Their website has a helpful Q&A, but we wanted to build upon and go beyond that with our questions. Read below for our correspondence and some video highlights of their large-scale projections.
"Large-scale projection on urban surfaces" is URBANSCREEN's focus. At what moment was it determined that the team with its various backgrounds would devote itself to this?

The initial motivation of getting involved with mapping video projections onto architecture surely differs with everyone on the team, given our diversity of backgrounds. However, there is a key aspect which pools forces and forms a shared vision: a passion for modern and contemporary architecture.

In 2009 we were asked to work on O. M. Ungers Galerie der Gegenwart at the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg. It was our first on-the-spot concept of "architecture within a project—" very distinct construction-wise and visually very strict.
555 KUBIK, "How it would be if a house was dreaming" (2009), on the Hamburger Kunsthalle's Galerie der Gegenwart designed by O. M. Ungers
The intense involvement of each team member during the production enhanced our artistic concept in terms of finding a balance between respecting the existent architecture and revealing our artistic interpretation.

The interdisciplinary structure and contribution of every team member enables us to constantly reinvent and advance our scope of work. Avoiding content-wise repetition and comfortable routine is an important principle for us, so we can adjust the application of our approach according to the diversity of the architecture and its urban context.

Keeping this idea in mind, the versatile aspects of each person and craft involved generate a unique contribution toward an innovative and project-specific approach.

What is URBANSCREEN saying about architecture by creating "the optical illusion of physical transformations"? Is there any commentary embedded in the transformations?

The majority of our works are homages to the concept of the architect, emphasizing a building's features and extending the perception of its construction. Every artistic method we decide to work with (film, dance, performance, sound, graphics) consistently derives from the architecture we are working on. This approach forms the core of our every production.

As for the use of optical illusion and physical transformation, our intentions offer a temporary shift in perspective, questioning and extending one's habitual angle on urban space and its characteristic facades. Rather than embedding a commentary through altering the physical appearance of a building, we are aiming to establish an enhanced perception of its layers of construction by revealing a temporary flexibility of the otherwise static architecture.
KREISROT, “BAUHAUS celebrating 90th anniversary” (2009), on the Bauhaus Dessau designed by Walter Gropius
We perceive our stagings as analogous to natural phenomena located within the urban area, rather than as multimedia spectacles. The focus lies within offering a tangible experience of space and architecture.

Our intention is not to establish a direct form of communication that is explicitly addressing the visitor. An installation refers to the architecture and the surrounding space – its form of communication is centrifugal and therefore undirected. The staging takes place by means of the occurrence itself, shifting between experience and depiction in the form of its perception.

Due to the fragile, temporary character of projections, in combination with the physical presence of the architectural surface, an installation gains a very special appeal. On the one hand it embodies a monumental immediacy through its experience and interaction with passersby, while on the other hand its impermanence and elusiveness basically leave no tangible trace of existence.

The phenomenon only persists through afterimages, photographs, and films. The tangible trace of existence is one's memory and involvement with the encounter. Analogous to the concept of the afterimage in optics, the staging’s persistence is a mental image emerging from the visitor’s interaction with the architecture.

The exploration of the contrasting effects of immediate, temporary, and continuous perception forms the basis of our approach to altering the physical appearance of architecture.
WHAT IS UP?, "A virtual site-specific theatre" (2010), on the side of a typical Dutch dwelling in Enschede, Netherlands
Your projects entail massive amounts of coordination, moving from the full-scale reality into the virtual realm, the studio, and then back. What are the main issues or limitations you confront when realizing a project?

As we always switch between the virtual and actual realities throughout a production, a core aspect of our trade is the accurate reconstruction of the existing architecture within a 3-D environment. We request blueprints or CAD plans of the architecture in order to have a reliable reference.

Acquiring those references according to our requirements is quite a challenge. While working on the Sydney Opera House project, we weren't able to find accurate 3-D modelings of its architecture at all. Thus, we had to start from scratch and recreate the architecture within a 3-D environment by imitating architect Jørn Utzon's construction approach extracting the shapes of the sails from a virtual sphere and accurately equalizing its elements with pictures taken from different viewpoints around the Opera House.

Step by step we traced the architectural features in 3-D space until we ended up with a matching model of the architecture, which was then transferred onto a small-scale replica as a stage for the dancers. The filmed footage of the dance performance was transferred back into the 3-D environment, combined with 2-D motion graphics and 3-D transformations of the architectural surfaces, in order to create a final composition that accurately fits onto the architecture and merges between the virtual layer and the existing structure of the building.
SPACING, "Abstraction of movement & dimension" (2010), a performance uniting dance, graphics, sound, and architecture on the side of Stubengasse Münster
How does sound enter into your installations or the way you think about them?

We never really considered sound a major part of our installations until 2009 and the Hamburger Kunsthalle project. Our aim was always to create artificial phenomena in urban space, communicating rather non-directionally rather than serving a certain purpose or intention. Therefore our modes of action were supposed to significantly differ from entertainment or event purposes, which often make use of sound as a distinct way to raise attention and obtain the focus of passersby.

Being idealistic regarding our involvement and distinction toward advertising purposes, we avoided this medium for some time in order to explore the potential of solely showing projected content without audio integration. We felt that the emerging medium of mapped video projection should have its own history of technical advance, analogous to the evolution of moving images, starting with silent film.

While working on the 555 Kubik project for the Hamburger Kunsthalle, we felt the urge to underline the optical illusion of physically transforming the facade through the integration of audio components. At this point we did not use music or ambient sound at all. The audio layers served to illustrate the sound of stone cubes moving out of its solid bond. We wanted to alter the existent architecture on a visual and aural level, emphasizing its impact and creating an immersive, immediate experience.
SYDNEY OPERA, "Lighting the sails | VIVID Sydney 2012," on the Sydney Opera House designed by Jørn Utzon
The Sydney Opera House piece seems to be a high point for URBANSCREEN, at least in terms of it being a large and iconic canvas on which to project. Do you know how you will follow it up, and how it might build upon what you did there?

Having been able to work on the Opera House definitely forms a high point for us — with equal regards to both the attention we received and the challenge it provided. Some of its impacts are: Dealing with numerous visitors with different viewpoints moving constantly and changing their perspective towards the content; learning to think of video content as a sculptural experience for viewers moving along the harbor; the possibility of creating different viewpoints in artificial 3-D environment/software; changing settings through distance from the projection.

Lastly, is there a dream project for the team, a building you would love to transform but might not be able to for practical reasons?

Until technological advances enable us to project on the moon, finding something to follow up with might be hard! However, there are many other buildings we would love to lay our hands on: Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum, Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall, Rem Koolhaas's Casa da Música, or Alvaro Siza's Iberê Camargo, to just name a few. Not to forget the Vitra Campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany — we have been dallying over an extensive staging of this outstanding architectural composition for some time now.

Email interview conducted by John Hill
John Hill
Published on
Sep 24, 2012