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We Talked To The Architect Turning Selfies Into Giant Monuments At Sochi

Take the Mount Rushmore of Instagram selfies.

Architect Asif Khan's newest installation, premiering today at the Sochi Olympics, can literally turn you into a monument. Not only that, but it begs for people to take the most legendary Instagram selfies of all time in front of it.

The work, titled the MegaFon Pavilion, turns photographs of visitors into a massive, three-dimensional facade that moves on a building that's smack dab in the middle of all the Olympic action. Many are calling this the "digital Mount Rushmore," as the project turns participants' faces into 8 meter high, 6 meter wide, 2 meter long, textured monuments. In other words, your portrait can get magnified to 3500 times its original size, even bigger than the Statue Of Liberty's pretty mug.

"This is going to be something we have literally never seen before," Khan told The Creators Project. "It's about the avatar--physicalizing the person." 

The 170,000 people filing into Sochi will all see humongous version of themselves, but the installation is also set up so that it can be shared through social media. "I actually hope a lot of people take selfies in front of it," said Khan. "There will be a little amphitheater where you can sit and watch your face, but you'll just turn around and take a photo of yourself in front of a giant version of yourself." 

The architect, who also designed the interactive Coca Cola Beat Box installation at the London Olympics, spoke to The Creators Project about his game-changing mixture of portraiture and monumentalism, including what it could mean for the future of architecture. Think of rippling, shape-shifting buildings that could project and extend into any shape imaginable. Statues might never be the same. 

The Creators Project:  What inspired this project? What was your goal with the MegaFon Pavilion?
Asif Khan: I started to think about the fundamentals of communication and what I found quite funny and interesting is that even in the digital age, the quickest and strongest way to express emotion is with a smiley face or an emoticon.

The best way to record your own history or tell people what you’ve been up to is to send a selfie. Facebook and Instagram are constantly added to by our selves. We are building a kind of story of ourselves but also something that can be shared, and the face is basically the only piece of consistency in that. It’s the one communication tool that’s been used for thousands of years. It’s a universal language.

What about the history of giant monuments, sculptures, and statues? 
Absolutely. When I looked from an architectural standpoint at how faces have been used, you find buildings and symbols in ancient Egypt, or something like Mount Rushmore.

Human beings have tried to immortalize their heroes–at that scale–for ages. We still do it. And what I wanted to do was to pair those two strands together: using a platform that’s open to anyone, and creating some kind of monument for all people.

If we thought of architecture as a living monument, and people could upload themselves onto this thing, then it becomes an avatar for people and it becomes a way of turning the every day guy into the hero.

I wanted to make this living monument to people and in some ways embrace a bit of the language of Russian iconography. All those kind of things, but twist it into something democratic–it’s a democratic monument. It’s about all of us. It’s unifying in some way.    

Do you still consider this portraiture, though? 
Oh yes, absolutely. That’s what it is, and it’s a natural progression of portraiture. There’s a line between monumentalism and portraiture. The monumental is distant in some ways. In a broad sense, you venerate a piece of sculpture or a monument and you’re looked upon by it, and you have no real connection with it besides from a hierarchical one. With a portrait, though, it’s personal and you emote with it.

This thing is different in that we’re transferring what’s contained within the world of portraiture and making it monumental in scale. It’s going to be quite interesting when people see themselves and see how they view that and connect with it.

You know when you see your house, and you go "I love my house!" But, it’s a bloody building. You have this physical, personal connection with this edifice, though. I think the MegaFon Pavilion might spark a feeling like that. There will be some kind of bond, but it’s also a performance piece where you become a part of the spectacle. But you have some personal connection, too. It’s boundary crossing and it’s weird. Can you tell me a little about the mechanics behind the device? How does the information go from the photo booths to the actuators to the wall and so on…There are a million different facial structures, does this wall have the possibility to make a million different face shapes and monuments?
The flow is like this: People enter the building. When they enter, they go to a photo booth with five hidden cameras behind a two-way glass. The visitors position themselves and match their face with a square, then are given a QR code. They swipe that first, then take the photos, then they press a button that says they're happy with that photo. Next, the image needs to pass a technical moderation–meaning, if you’ve put your head in a stupid position then it won’t be able to get the data it needs to make a match. Then it gets sent to a human moderator who ticks off the faces of people who go through, one by one. Then it goes to the queuing systems as one face.

Three faces will be shown at a time–we thought it’d be the right size, and allow friends to go in together. It also doesn’t limit things to couples: two parents and a kid; three friends; whatever. So it composes those 3D models into a 2D bit map. It’s like a depth map. 

We’ve implemented a parallel system that works a long with it. We call it Creative Positioning Pipeline. Imagine it this way--you know how that old pin toy works? The default way this façade works is that it takes an input, positions it head-on, and then positions out the output.

We have this positioning tool, which basically takes the output from the queue of faces, processes them using software we've developed, then sends them back to the queue re-positioned so that one guy might be face-forward, one might be a side profile, and one might be looking upwards.

It allows for that Rushmore effect and looks like it’s been sculpted as a composition. It also continuously changes through the day and is parametrically controllable.

So, for example, say the sun is hitting the building at a particular angle, we can create shadows and highlights using LEDs to accentuate the face. It really is 3D, but this makes things look more 3D, more statue-like. 

How many colors can it actually change to?

It has over 10,000, 3D pixels and each have an RBG, LED tip. There are two modes that work in parallel: one is actuation–in and out–and the other is display, which is how the tips are used. We tried using color and it looked scary. It looked like a giant human being, and was totally intimidating. The project is going to be something we have literally never seen before. That’s why adding all the flesh tone and color is superfluous. It’s almost too much. You miss what’s amazing about it.

Do you imagine the technology of this project being used for your average office building? Will this become a commonplace, architectural reality in the future? 

These projects are research, but they are real things. They aren’t paper research. They are research through practice. My studio is trying to move towards and discover permanent architecture that can begin to incorporate some of these ideas. It’s about finding the analogs in permanent architecture. We may need to invent them from scratch. These projects are all steps towards that--this new language of architecture.

It takes time for these things to become omnipresent. We’re trying to make the first step here. There’s a slow progression, but something we’re trying to learn from the digital world and the world of technology. There’s definitely a possibility for shape-changing buildings in the future. 
 


The MegaFon Pavilion premieres today during the Opening Ceremonies. Stay posted for original footage of the installation, and more thoughts from Khan about what the future of architecture may look like. Selfies have never been this impressive. 


Images via Asif Khan

@zachsokol