Emblazoned with LEDs and pulsing with color, video, and scrolling text, the Hanjie Wanda Square shopping plaza in Wuhan, China, has all the makings of yet another three-dimensional electronic billboard. Instead, Amsterdam-based UNStudio merged the latest electronics with thoughtful design to turn the five-story building into a veritable work of art.
“We wanted to avoid designing a high-definition surface that could be used purely as an advertising platform,” says principal architect and co-founder Ben van Berkel, who also oversaw UNStudio’s first animated façade in 2003 for a department store in Seoul, South Korea. “For us, it is always essential with these façades that they not only avoid a Times Square effect, but that they result in a more holistic form of branding for the building and create a kind of urban effect.”
Another distinction is size: Hanjie Wanda Square boasts 192,000 square feet of illuminated area—bigger than three football fields—while the largest video display in Times Square measures only 5,000 square feet.
Beyond sheer magnitude is the fact that UNStudio’s design is far more sculptural. In the daytime, the façade looks like a giant silver cuff of aluminum panels studded with 42,333 stainless steel spheres. At night, it becomes a curvaceous medium for a light show.
Each approximately 2-foot-diameter, hollow spherical body contains multiple colored (red, blue, green) LEDs: one inward-facing fixture with 32 diodes, and one outward-facing fixture with up to 104 LEDs. The inward-facing diodes illuminate the building’s aluminum cladding, located 5-1/8 inches to 15-3/4 inches away, through four apertures capped by translucent mirrored acrylic lenses that further reflect the diffused light.
The outward-facing LEDs in more than three-quarters of the spheres shine through apertures that are covered by a patterned glass lens that concentrates light into a tight, circular beam. The 9,700 spheres that remain are capped with translucent, mirrored acrylic domes that match the stainless steel body, creating the impression that the balls are blank. To create wavelike patterns that enhance the cascading light effect, UNStudio designed nine different ball profiles, ranging from hemisphere to sphere.
The net result is 3.1 million LEDs working in sync to create a mesmerizing, fully programmable curtain of light. An astounding 99.5 miles of digital multiplex (DMX) cable connects the LEDs to a Coolux control system. At 100-percent illumination, the façade consumes 792 kilowatts, the equivalent of 7,920 100-watt lamps. On average, the façade consumes around 317 kilowatts.
When illuminated, the dense array of mirrored spheres, coordinated by digitally programmed choreography, effects “a fluid, flowing current of light around the building, with smooth color changes and soft waves of motion,” van Berkel says. “It also provides directionality on the façade flow, with a climax around the mall entrances.”
Get a glimpse inside UNStudio's Amsterdam studio with firm co-founder Ben van Berkel in our ARCHITECT Visits video series.