The arrival of this service means that the details of a building -- who designed it, even descriptions of its cultural importance -- now hover in the ether around the building itself, waiting to be downloaded onto a portable screen. A new world of architectural literacy could open up as a result.
But there is a price to pay for that stream of information, or at least a new kind of architectural way-finding to get used to. The phone becomes, in essence, the set of eyes we use to see and make sense of the city, or a second set. Even as Google Goggles and programs like it bring architecture closer to us, they also push it away.
There are yet other ways that digital screens are allowing developers and marketers to rewrite the basic definition of architecture. Two significant examples can be found in a single, albeit massive, building: the new Dallas Cowboys stadium in Arlington, Texas, which just wrapped up its first season in operation.
Designed by Dallas architecture firm HKS, the extravagant stadium cost $1.15 billion to build. Football fans have nicknamed it "the Dallas Palace." Suspended over the center of the field is its most attention-grabbing element of all: A huge four-sided video board that shows replays, and live action of the game itself, in crisp high-definition. The board -- 72 feet tall and 160 feet wide on each of its two biggest sides -- is so much larger than existing stadium screens, and its images so much sharper, that it seems to create an entirely new category of sports-world amenity.
Though the stadium holds up to 100,000 fans, depending on the configuration of the seats, and includes 300 luxury boxes and large-scale, site-specific artwork by Olafur Eliasson and Matthew Ritchie, none of that seems to matter once the video board, the largest in the world, is switched on. Many fans inside the stadium simply capitulate to its overwhelming presence. In December, the team handed out special glasses and showed part of the matchup between the Cowboys and the Chargers in 3-D -- the same game that was going on live on the field below.
Like many new sports-world facilities, Cowboys Stadium also features long, thin video screens -- so-called ribbon screens -- ringing the field and its interior concourses. Even the menu boards at the concessions stands are digital.
The presence of all those screens has opened up fresh revenue streams for the Cowboys and their marketing-savvy owner, Jerry Jones. The signage in the stadium, as it is nearly all digital, can be endlessly reprogrammed and shuffled during the course of a game or a season. Companies can buy ad segments during pregame warmups or halftime, say, when fans are out of their seats and walking around.
The result is a piece of architecture that exists not just as an arrangement of steel and glass but also, fascinatingly enough, as a broadcast medium, like television or radio. Thanks to the number and variety of screens inside the stadium, from the giant video board on down, what Jones sells to advertisers is not space but time.
Ornament as content
Ornament has long been among the most controversial subjects in architecture. A century ago, architect Adolf Loos, a self-appointed evangelist for the modern movement, infamously compared building decoration to degeneracy and crime. In the 1970s, architects including Robert Venturi and Charles Moore dusted off ornament and made it respectable again. And in recent years a new generation of digitally savvy architects have begun to weave ornament into the skins of their building designs, blurring the distinction between decoration and structural engineering.
But the rise of the digital screen has left many architects flat-footed, slow to respond to changes in the basic definition of ornament and decoration that have profound implications for the future city. In Loos' day, ornament took a very different form, and filled a different need, than it does today. The neoclassical colonnades and Gothic gargoyles of the 19th century city gave richness and depth to facades -- and stitched connections between new buildings and the architectural past. Loos argued for rejecting that sort of ornament in favor of the lean smoothness of a Modernist building -- a building shorn of extraneous detail and thus liberated from the weight of history.
The digital screen, by contrast, combines both sides of the old smoothness-versus-ornament divide. It is decoration and flatness at the same time, which is precisely what makes it so powerful.
As screens begin to cover more buildings, the city will become capable of effortlessly updating its architectural content. In the most extreme scenario, a sort of Marshall McLuhan-meets-"Blade Runner" fever dream, the skyline may begin, like television, to broadcast a continuous, all-encompassing present. Every building will be a contemporary building, carrying an up-to-date visual message, which means that no building will be a historical building. Digital screens seem likely over time to render the architectural past fainter and fainter -- and maybe even lead the city to forget itself.
That prospect remains a long way off. But it suggests that it is not just architects who ought to be paying attention as the screen continues to change the way we interact with buildings. It is also preservationists, novelists, developers, politicians and planners -- anybody with an interest in understanding the forces shaping architecture in the digital age.