The light frieze was co-created by iart’s engineering and design team and architects Christ & Gantenbein. It was already part of the design for the extension to the Kunstmuseum Basel in 2010, located in the city center of Basel, Switzerland, at the intersection of five streets.
From the very beginning of the project, instead of using banners, flags or screens, the design team searched for a media solution that is both architectural and facilitates the external communication of the museum. To the designers, a building’s facade is always more than just a wall and a framework for the entrance. It always reflects—albeit in very different ways—the aspirations, the essence and the functions of the building.
The effect of the light frieze is produced through the symbiosis of stone and light. Designed to be an integral part of the architecture, it subtly enlivens the building’s brick facade with words and graphic elements. For the viewer, a play of light and shadow emerges, which is fleeting and yet seems to be as solid as the masonry itself.
The three-meter-high frieze encircles the building at a height of 12 meters that spans across seven facade segments, with a total length of 115 meters. It is comprised of 40 horizontal joints with 1306 pixels each—the equivalent of a total resolution of 1306-by-40 pixels.
Sensors on the roof of the building determine the amount of light that falls on each of the individual segments of the facade in order to adjust the luminance of the LEDs accordingly. The reflection on the bricks of the frieze creates an indirect light that can be used to display both text and graphics.
The subtle way the frieze is enlivened by light allows the facade to change its character, seeming sometimes more and sometimes less transparent, suggesting diverse interactions between the building's interior and the urban space. Depending on the time of day or weather conditions, the effect of the frieze is different; when the sun casts a harsh shadow on the facade, text and graphics are clearly visible, while at other times they can only be vaguely recognized. During the day, a fleeting play of light and shadow emerges, at night, the frieze creates the illusion that the facade is porous, as if it would enable someone outside to view into the building.
Through the use of feasibility studies and phenomenological tests, the frieze was developed and implemented iteratively over several years. The design and architecture team created a 3-D simulation to determine what is visible from the different axes and streets leading to the museum.
They also studied and experimented with the shadow effect of daylight, the quality and shape of the bricks with respect to optimal light reflection, the different qualities of LEDs, the control system of the frieze, the visibility and readability of visual effects, as well as the conception and design of the content. In addition, coordination with all relevant construction processes was necessary: production of the bricks, construction of the masonry, development and production of the specialty LED solution and ensuring of an easy maintenance.
The light frieze shows that the desire for “mediatization” and the timelessness of architecture do not have to be in contradiction to each other: By bringing the stylistic element of a frieze into the digital age both technologically and aesthetically—without removing its original context. By providing a dynamic element within an otherwise static architecture, it creates the impression that the museum itself is a dynamic organization.
The light frieze fulfills the museum’s need for communication by making visible its rhythms, exhibitions and events on the facade of the building. The museum is able to give an insight into its activities without actually revealing what is concealed inside and piques the interest of passers-by about visiting the building.
The design team does not consider the light frieze an isolated project, but part of an ongoing discourse. Their goal was not to create the a universally applicable product, but rather the perfect medium for that specific place and content as an integrated element of the architecture.
"This frieze is hot! Best in Show was achieved with a single still photograph that captures the integration of elegant graphics with the restrained architecture and underscored in a poetic video that elaborates on the media's conveyance of show imagery and events to the community in which the museum resides."
"This project is simply breathtaking. It redefines what it means to integrate digital environmental graphics with architecture in the public realm. It totally blurs the lines between communication design and built environment design where both are read as one unified expression."
"The Kunstmuseum’s Frieze is an unexpected and magical merger of light and stone that makes you look twice… and then try to figure out how they created it. I hope the future looks like this."
iart ag team: Valentin Spiess (creative director, chief engineer), Steffen Blunk (project manager), Oliver Heyerick (system engineer), Gordon Jaentsch (system engineer), Lucien Iseli (media designer)
Christ & Gantenbein team: Emanuel Christ (architect), Christoph Gantenbein (architect), Julia Tobler (project manager), Michael Bertschmann (project manager), Stephanie Hirschvogel (project manager)
ZPF Ingenieure AG (structural engineering), Pro Engineering AG (electrical planning), Ludovic Balland (typographer)
Petersen Tegl (brick fabricator), Multivision LED-Systeme GmbH (specialty LED fabricator)