Many of you may recognize the always black, powered-down, street-facing video panel on the side of Moscone Center West. But most of you probably have never seen it turned on and were not aware that this is actually a public artwork by architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, titled 'Facsimile,' that cost $1.5 million that has spent most of the last 12 years since its installation totally broken. The SF Arts Commission voted last fall to finally dismantle and remove the thing, and now architecture critic John King provides us a happy eulogy in the Chronicle, calling the piece "catnip for the intelligentsia" but otherwise, basically, a technical failure.
The piece was supposed to broadcast live images from inside the building, as well as other pre-determined video. Per the description of the piece when it was first proposed back in 1996, the video installation was "'born from a paradox' of trying to create public art for a building that isn’t really open to the public (ooh!), giving outsiders a window into the privileged world of private conventions. But with images that can’t always be trusted, a conceptual mix and match that 'draws viewers into becoming voyeurs of ambiguous spatial narratives.'" And as King points out, while that all sounds interesting on paper, the fact is that the execution of the idea, which perhaps was ahead of its time in terms of the technology used to build it.
The 15-foot by 25-foot LED screen was intended to be mobile and dynamic, broadcasting its images while slowly gliding across the surface of the building, mounted on 100-foot-tall steel arms attached to the top and bottom of the glass facade. Unfortunately, the screen was prone to over-heating, it only functioned for about a month back in 2003, and during that time it even started to squeak as it moved.
Architects the world over should be familiar enough with the phenomenon of a vision that fails the tests of reality, but in this case, critics have bemoaned the loss of an arguably iconic piece by a pair of highly respected architects, with Architects' Newspaper deriding San Francisco's "short-sightedness and provincialism." The Arts Commission doesn't want to keep paying to fix this thing, however, or stare at its blankness, and we should probably applaud that decision, since 12 years is plenty of time to make something work. In this case, they just couldn't. The end.