All over the world, from Manhattan to Macau, buildings are coming alive in new ways, announcing their presence not merely with dramatic exterior lighting, but with performative skins integrated with LED lighting to produce dramatic motion and video effects. These “media façades,” as they're often called, offer huge flexibility in the range of images they can handle. The LED technologies, which are quite energy-efficient, are rapidly advancing toward higher definitions and less obtrusive installation requirements. Three recent projects illustrate the astonishing capability of LEDs to help create unforgettable building façades, whether their purpose is to entertain, inform, or enlighten the viewer.

Architects: HOK Sport and JSK Architects
Lighting design: LightWild
Technology: LightWild Pixels LEDs

Berlin lately is besotted with media façades. In September, it added to its collection the 380-foot-long, 40-foot-high LED façade of the new 17,000-seat O2 World Arena facing the Spree River. The LED technology, custom-developed by LightWild of Overland Park, Kan., offers integrated monster-screen capability to project nearly any kind of video image.

“The way to think of it is to take a high-definition TV and stretch it out,” says Greg Sherlock, design partner at HOK Sport in Kansas City, Mo. Sherlock was seeking a flexible way to brand the building while the client, Anschutz Entertainment Group, negotiated corporate naming rights. The LED façade can change with arena events—whether the performance showcases Metallica, the Dalai Lama, or a major wrestling match—or if naming rights change hands.

The spectacular LED wall, conceived after the building's design had been determined, is relatively simple and was easy to install, says LightWild's president, Tom Stafford: “The concept was to leave the original façade design in place and leverage it by installing all our fixtures into the aluminum mullions.”

Across the canted, curving building façade, 117 vertical mullions are spaced 3 feet apart. Each mullion comprises six 2-meter-high units, joined and wired together in a power-and-data daisy chain (the wiring exits the mullion at the parapet level). Each mullion unit contains a control device and 10 LightWild Pixels modules, which hold 40 LEDs each. The mullion becomes a cable tray of sorts, with a translucent domed-lens cap along its length to diffuse light horizontally from the LEDs, which tend to project light straight ahead. In all, there are 7,020 pixels, for a total of 280,800 LEDs.

Graphics for the façade are created using Adobe Flash software. They run on a PC that sends DMX signals over the arena's Ethernet. “The color's wonderful,” Sherlock says. “My adrenaline starts flowing when I approach the building.”

Architects: Friedmutter Group Architecture & Design Studios 
Lighting design: John Levy Lighting Productions 
Technology: Color Kinetics LEDs

For a place that's seen nearly everything, Atlantic City has never seen anything quite like the new Waterfront Tower at Harrah's Resort, which opened in March 2008, and its nighttime tourist attraction, aptly called The Lights. The 525-foot-high tower, with 44 floors, is the tallest building in town—and the brightest. At night, its entire façade fires up with dazzling video images of falling dice, the American flag, and fireworks—about 30 images in all—with unbelievable 3-D depth (numerous videos of the show have already been posted on YouTube).

The building's architect, Friedmutter Group Architecture & Design Studios, had completed a lower tower with an LED façade in 2002 for Harrah's at the same resort, but the LED effects at the time were limited to changing colors, says Joseph Emanuele, a firm vice president. Since that time, the technology has dramatically improved. “The LED lights are more brilliant,” he says. “Now, it becomes almost a reader board.”

Each floor has 700 feet of wraparound linear LED arrays attached to the mullions of the building's custom curtain wall, for a total of 33,000 feet (or 6.25 miles) of lights. The total installation furnishes more than 4 million square feet of contiguous LED screen, visible after dark from as far as 10 miles away.

The older tower's lights were programmable by 1-foot lengths; the new one programs (from a desktop PC) down to the inch. There are 3,652 pixels per floor. The power source of the older arrays came from inside, complicating the installation. The new arrays' power source resides in the fixtures themselves, requiring only four penetrations through the façade, as opposed to the 30 penetrations needed on the earlier project.

Architect: A.C. Martin Partners and RMJM Hillier with Susan Narduli Studio
Lighting design: A2aMedia
Technology: GKD Mediamesh LED installation

According to Emanuele, Harrah's wanted an icon for the Atlantic City skyline. Safe to say that they got it, so to speak, in spades. At this new university library, opening in January 2009, the latest in LED technology will bring to life an ancient Native American art form. The architect, David Martin of A.C. Martin Partners, wanted to create “landmarks” reflecting local history inside the 283,000-square-foot building. University officials introduced him to the complex basket-making tradition of the Table Mountain Rancheria tribe, whose home is in the Sierra Nevada Foothills north of Fresno.

After meeting with tribal elders, Martin asked Susan Narduli, an architect and artist in Los Angeles, for help. “She came up with an incredible idea,” he says: Narduli's studio has been filming a woman in the tribe, one of its last master basket makers, as she weaves a basket to completion—capturing every moment of a process that takes her 11 months. The film will play at one-half to one-third speed on a translucent Mediamesh LED screen measuring 18 feet wide by 43 feet high, installed just inside the glass curtain wall facing the library's Peace Garden on the north.

The display medium, Mediamesh, is a woven, translucent, stainless steel fabric made by GKD. Linear tubes of LED nodes are woven in as part of the fabric's weft and provide the programmable pixels to display the film. At 2,080 hours, “It's arguably the longest art film ever made,” says Narduli's project manager, Gamynne Guillotte. “The film may play through twice before you graduate.”