The age of Facsimile is over. Conceived at the dawn of the virtual era as a public art piece that would mix both fact with fiction, and the (then newly) ubiquitous news blips that surround us with ;the insular world of commerce—along the way breaking through a building’s thin skin—was Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s moving screen on the façade of San Francisco’s Moscone Center West, dubbed Facsimile. It has never worked the way it was intended, and now will be dismantled.
I am particularly saddened by this news, as I was a member of the committee that helped select the piece in 1996. As somebody trained in architecture and friendly with the designers, I might have been biased, but at the meetings I had to say nary a word: The proposal was so visionary and beautiful that it was easily the committee’s top choice.
The idea was to open up a window between the inward-turned world of conventions and the city around it, showing that the internet, newly accessible to wide swaths of people, was making images and information available everywhere, while also questioning the nature of reality. Mounted on a planned dumb-box expansion of the Moscone Convention Center, whose first two phases were hidden underground, Facsimile was to be a giant electronic display screen of the sort that were then just becoming technically viable. It would travel along the Center’s glass façade, turning the corner as it went back and forth. The display was off-limits to advertisers (there even was a lawsuit about this), and alternated images from the Convention Center’s inside with staged scenes of office and hotel room relations, mixed together with news snippets grabbed from the Internet (using a program developed by collaborator Ben Rubin). It used technology to make the building’s skin unstable, while presenting the mundane world of business and the fleeting ether of information at a monumental scale.
It never worked. First, the expansion went on hold due to a holdout parcel on the site. When the building finally went ahead in 2004, the designer/artists had to scramble to adjust their design to the building’s slightly changed contours and new schedule. Once Facsimile was installed in 2006, there turned out to be endless problems that prevented the screen from moving. According to San Francisco’s Director of Public Art Trust and Special Initiatives, Jill Manton, the City brought in a forensic engineer, who couldn’t figure out whom to blame. Various fixes and adaptations ensued, with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, having long since spent their fee, donating their time and travel expenses, but costs still continuing to mount—though Manton says they still stayed within the original $2 million budget. By the time some of the mechanical systems were fixed, electronic bugs appeared in a display array whose hardware could not keep up with the quickly changing reality of software development.
For a brief period, Facsimile worked, sort of, though it never turned the corner seamlessly while displaying the mix of images the proposal promised. Now the City, under pressure from the Convention Center and some of its users, has given up, planning to dismantle the whole set-up by the end of the year (if you want to follow the whole saga in real time, you can listen to the Committee’s meetings here).
Diller Scofidio + Renfro have shown that they can mount complex projects that mix advanced display technology with sophisticated structure (their exhibition at the Cartier Foundation, Musing on a Glass Box, opens October 25th), and have also shown that they can create buildings—at a large scale and complexity—that work. What this project wanted to do was combine the virtual and the mechanical, as well as the public and the private. That turned out to be, at least in this situation, too much and too soon.
Perhaps, with today’s technology, both real and virtual, Facsimile would be doable. But, it would involve and investment that Manton estimated at several hundred thousand dollars, and that is not something the City wants to allocate. I can understand that reluctance, though I also note that the project was always one that was challenging in a social and political sense as well. It asked us to confront the blurry boundaries between fact and fiction, between screens that we expect to sell and seduce and those that tell us truth, between things that move and stand still, and between the secrecy of commerce and the supposed openness of the public street. Those are big issues that take a big artwork, and today I see few artists or architects willing or able to take them on.
Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.