The Architecture of Change is a paradigm shift that embraces the transience in today’s culture and life in an age that worships change.

Architecture has always served to protect, shelter, contain and memorialize our enterprises and lives. This type of architecture has intentionally strived for permanence. Being able to withstand the forces of time and elements requires sturdy, durable materials and an enduring mind set.

The Architecture of Change is a paradigm shift that embraces the transience in today’s culture and life in an age that worships change. We are the most news-centric generation ever, ruled by flux and mobility. Process is as important as the continually morphing goals. We are beset with styles, trends and other forces of change. A new means to help sustain our adaptability in the built world is rapidly emerging and can be termed The Architecture of Change. It frees us from buildings and environments that are bland boxes made of immutable materials and mute walls. It enables us to design with more emotion, and deliver experiences driven by content and meaning.

Design and architecture mirror a culture’s ideas, values and traditions. Since we are now so mutable (and the prior built world has been mostly about permanence), a new set of tools is necessary to more accurately reflect our society.

The Architecture of Change employs refreshable information, messaging, content, images, transparency, luminosity, activity and digital technologies as key components in shaping and choreographing social experience. The focus is on people—setting stages for their lives and roles using communication as both message and medium.

Will this vernacular be a brief era, a fad? Or is it deeper? Some would say buildings are a means to counter change, strengthen traditions and affirm existent cultural values. Maybe, but there is a basic human need to share information, tell stories and perpetuate myths, lessons and knowledge through our structures and dwellings. Early evidence of this is on the caves at Lescaux; Egyptian tombs bear tattoos of hieroglyphics. Ancient South American and Asian temples are covered with sculpted stories and bas-reliefs. Cathedrals and palaces are laden with murals, mosaics, paintings, stained glass windows, and entablatures—all imbued with messages. This practice continues through Louis Sullivan, Art Deco, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Rockefeller Center. The ongoing need to communicate within and on buildings seems to transcend time, history and culture. This graphic, story-telling portion of architecture has created much of its richness. Could graffiti be a populist reaction to our present modernist muzzle of structures?

Also consider today’s digitally trained generations who are adept at processing multiple interactive image and text tracts simultaneously. CNN’s message scrolls would have been migraine material 20 years ago as were the multiple images and messages of the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, conceived by one of the pioneer teams of environmental messaging, Charles and Ray Eames.

The need to tell stories on buildings to a media-savvy culture and the possibilities of digitally-empowered technologies can combine to create a place where you are more likely to be engaged by sight, touch, sound, and thought.

Examples of digitally-enabled places are occurring right now, in ground-breaking applications. Karim Rashid’s Asian noodle restaurant, Nooch, opened in New York’s Chelsea district this August—with architectural elements that include high transparency, luminosity, digital imagery and even LEDs in the sidewalk that provide menus and wait times.

Variety magazine recently lauded the architectural emergence of clear glass and transparent buildings as New York’s “Glass Act.” Celebrating activities within, removing the barriers between inside and outside space and showcasing them with light and information, has always been a great animator of streets and spaces.

The Helmut Lang Boutique in Soho uses LEDs with sophisticated restraint and effectiveness. Chicago’s State Street will soon be sporting new urban corners with the Architecture of Change that use breakthrough digital information, imagery and branding on a major facade. L.A. Live, a four million square foot hotel, entertainment, retail, dining and content plaza will occupy the parking lot directly across from Staples Center. Opening in 2006, it will be fully loaded with digital communication capabilities that, while enhancing visitor’s experience, will add millions of dollars, yearly, through this return on innovation.

The digital reskinning of Salt Lake City’s skyline for the 2002 Winter Olympics is another example of digitally-alterable architecture with demonstrated affordability ($15 per square foot), drama and new possibilities of scale. Brooklyn’s Library for the Visual and Performing Arts by Enrique Norten/TEN Arquitectos, features an eight-story glass skin with color projections, light, movement and see-through activity. Herbert Muschamp called it “New York’s first full-fledged masterwork for the information age.”

It’s said, “If everything is energy, anything is possible.” The Architecture of Change — using glass, light and digital media — presents a rich palette of possibility.

Mechanical, security, engineering, construction and enclosure systems now allow building skins to be anything or seemingly nothing. Digital systems now can take a pure glass, completely transparent curtain wall and turn it into a full video screen with moving images in color. The dinosaur that walks across a building facade in the film “Lost in Translation” is now achievable for $1,800 per square foot. The glass is a clear, nonwired window wall that uses new electronically charged polymers to produce a moving image, at any size, in color.

Who can afford this? Any location with traffic counts or exposure for brand presence marketing can have companies lined up, waiting to lease it. A 600 square foot installation costs about $1 million. Four companies, sharing and occupying that facade, would pay off capital costs in about one year. Outdoor advertising rose 5.2 percent in 2003 to reach $5.5 billion in part by selling time (rather than space) at these desirable locations.

Many other noncommercial applications can be accomplished with these same technologies. Jenny Holzer has shown how elegant her poetry of thought can be artistically and architecturally interpreted in space, form and diodes. Churches, museums, governmental buildings, plazas and schools can now advance ideas, share values and build community with this approach.

Certain districts such as the Ginza and Times Square have a history of some of the elements in this discussion. However, only in the past five years have these areas started to gain the more deliberate character and focus being referred to here. Prior to that (and much of what exists now) appears to be an additive afterthought, scabbed onto buildings with little concern for a fully-integrated interior and exterior user experience.

Some reasons that may be fueling this resurgence in talking buildings:

  • Historical architecture and archaeology is rife with static messaging offering evidence of a need for human expression as part of structures

  • Architecture has always seen itself in terms of cultural reflection, ideas and authenticity

  • Multimodal information processing via computers and telecommunications is rapidly becoming a cultural norm

  • Digital technologies in imaging,communications, projection and interactivity now offer a multitude of architectural applications and modalities with a wide range of costs

  • Glass and other non-barrier materials and their necessary supporting systems are easily achievable and affordable

  • There are users, sponsors, companies and institutions that seek these channels of communication

  • The convergence of all these technologies—the information age culture, economics, communication, art, marketing and commerce—are setting the table
    for serving up The Architecture of Change

  • It is occurring, everywhere, as we speak

When Vienna was being built at the turn of the century, its leaders and planners were attributing its future greatness to qualities of “Memory and Prophecy.” Their hope for a great future city was to be realized by melding the comfort of their traditions with the excitement of the new. In any content rich environment, communication has to occur by referencing existing knowledge, engaging one’s audience and mutually exploring and discovering new ground.

Thriving on the progression from permanence to change from chaos to Chaos Theory and from static to fluid is further evidence of our ability to grow and adapt. Embracing these changes means relaxing our grip on past comforts and proven formulas for the promise and excitement of newer evolving challenges. Being able to harness change in built structures can have positive impacts for users, owners, design professionals and even society.

This blur of change can serve to remind us about living in the ever present moment, to appreciate, and to relish it. Embracing these changes with a new Architecture of Change frees us to connect and communicate in the realm of ideas, process, emotion and exchange. This, in a very real way, is quite timeless.

—Richard Foy