When media artist Refik Anadol arrived at Los Angeles International Airport in 2012, the first thing he did was rent a car and drive to Walt Disney Concert Hall. Jet-lagged after his long flight from Istanbul, where he was born and was immersed from an early age in computing, cinema, and photography, he stood outside in awe. “I was dreaming of what would happen if this building was embedded with memories, intelligence, and culture,” says Anadol.
Like Hollywood’s Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which once drew would-be starlets who imagined their handprints in the concrete, Frank Gehry’s icon enticed him with the hope of realizing a dream. Fame wasn’t part of the equation, exactly, just a desire to create a large-scale video artwork across the swooping facade.
After studying in Istanbul and creating digital and interactive artworks throughout Europe, Anadol moved to Los Angeles to pursue an MFA at UCLA’s Design Media Arts program. The Disney Hall project was part of his studies and led ultimately to a presentation at Microsoft Research’s 2013 Design Expo. As he spoke about the idea of architecture as a canvas and light as material in his eight-minute elevator pitch, Anadol caught the attention of Dennis Sheldon, chief technology officer of Gehry Technologies. Before Anadol knew it, Gehry Technologies offered the use of the original 3D model so he could create a full-fledged case study called “Ethereal.”
“They said, ‘Frank loved your idea, we’re giving you all the files,’” he recalls with the enthusiasm of someone who still can’t believe his good luck. The Los Angeles Philharmonic (LA Phil) later commissioned Anadol to create an immersive experience inside the concert hall that would be responsive to the architecture, music, and movement. With data from the Gehry model and a team of UCLA researchers, he created the 2014 Visions of America: Amériques. Inspired by Poème électronique, a 1958 collaboration between Le Corbusier, architect/composer Iannis Xenakis, and composer Edgard Varèse, he used real-time custom software to project images across the architecture, which changed and morphed according to the music and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s movements (tracked by a Microsoft Kinect motion-sensing camera).
The collaboration with LA Phil continues in 2017 with Phenomena, a research project and performance by Anadol, the orchestra, and academics and scientists at UCLA and UCSF, underwritten in part by Microsoft Research. The concept will use Enobio neuroelectric sensors to collect brain-wave information from participants as they listen to music. Emotions like joy or wonder will change the visual environment of the concert hall—and the experience of the audience.
“We have complete control of poetry— the image, the sound,” explains Anadol. “You’re inside a complete idea that is way beyond the screen.”
Architecture, of course, lives in the brick-and-mortar or steel-and-glass world of gravity and materiality, and is resistant to transcending itself. One has only to look to Times Square or Shenzhen’s skyline to find the limitations of LED screens and digital facades. Yet Anadol is confident that the post-digital is possible. In 2015, he installed his first public-art commission for 350 Mission in San Francisco. In collaboration with high-rise architects SOM and Kilroy Realty Corporation, he placed the artwork Virtual Depictions: San Francisco in the building lobby. A 20- by 40-foot LED display wraps around two walls. On-screen, a 90-minute generative animation, including a 3D model of San Francisco, responds algorithmically to location data collected from Twitter. “The city itself is so intelligent already,” he muses. “What would happen when public art meets public data?
He’ll find out when another permanent public-art piece opens next year. It will give him another chance to experiment with how to loosen architecture’s grip on reality. Developed in collaboration with Susan Narduli Studio for the mega-development Metropolis in downtown Los Angeles, the untitled artwork will be his largest to date.
Custom software will animate a 100-foot-long low-resolution screen that will be visible from the 110 Freeway. Anadol considers it site-specific sculpture, a foray into what he calls a “post-digital architectural future.” “Post-digital is what comes after the full digital immersion in everyday life caused by our devices, social media, and sensors,” he says. “Media architecture is bigger than cinematography or VR—people are so interested in virtual reality or augmented reality, but we haven’t fully explored the nature of reality.”