The Nobel Field

06.01.06   By David Small, Timon Botez, John Rothenberg

Beneath the classic Victorian ceiling of Oslo’s former railway station, you enter a room of glass where, amongst many hundreds of points of light, you find glowing portraits of all the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates. This is the Nobel Field, the centerpiece of the new Nobel Peace Center, a virtual garden grown from one hundred LCD displays planted among a thousand twinkling blades of LED grass. Each display honors the winner of a Peace Prize and reacts to the approach of a person, revealing the winner’s story and philosophy.

Directed by Grete Jarmund and Paul H. Amble, the Nobel Field was an extensive collaboration between the architects Adjaye/ Associates, Small Design Firm, and Timon Botez. From its conception, the Nobel Peace Center aimed to be the realization of a new kind of museum: one where the message and words of the Nobel Laureates become both content and artifact. Grete describes her initial vision of the Center:

“At a very early moment, Paul and I knew that the Laureates and their commitment had to be communicated in a way that appeals both to the emotions and to reason. Save for a single Nobel Peace Prize medal, the entire content of the Center was created through digital technologies. It was our task to take the words of the Nobel Laureates and bring them to life. Paul insisted that this was not going to be a memorial, that it should be dynamic, it should look and feel contemporary.”

Fittingly, the electronics, software, sound and graphics were entirely custom, designed specifically for this space. Each Laureate has an individual screen display, enclosed in a lucite stem, that comes alive as you approach. A small sensor at the bottom of the screen registers your presence, triggers animations on the screen, and sends a wave of color across nearby LED stalks. Synchronized audio spreads throughout the space. Architect David Adjaye said of the room:

“What is beautiful is that we’re living in an information age and for me the fabulous thing is to dissolve the hardware and to make the software speak. Because thats what’s precious, and thats what’s delightful about the time we are in.”

The Nobel Field becomes a living instrument, played by visitors to the Center.

Adjaye/Associates imagined this unusual and hauntingly beautiful space, including the crystalline details of the flowers and grass. Small Design Firm expanded Adjaye’s initial vision of the space, adding reactive sensing and multi-channel sound to the brief. We then set about designing the hardware, software infrastructure, and aesthetic qualities of the space.

The electronic hardware was designed and fabricated by John Rothenberg at Small Design Firm to manage a hundred Sonar sensors and illuminate a thousand individually controllable LEDs. The Sonar units are placed just below each LCD screen and emit pulses of sound and wait for their reflection off nearby visitors. By timing the interval between sending and receiving a pulse, we can determine how close a visitor is to each screen. Sonar allowed us to create a reactive space that responds automatically to the presence of people within the Field. Visitors move through the Nobel Field and it responds to their presence in turn.

Together, Peter Adjaye, Eric Gunther, and Timon Botez produced the sound for the installation. Timon explains:

“Every graphic element holds a piece of information. The sound has been produced as an extension of this content. The composition is interactive and every piece of audio has a connection to the visuals.”

The music in the room is a wonder unto itself. The composition is distributed throughout the space, and the music dances between all 16 speakers. Sounds move through the space with a life of their own, the arrangement changing in response to the visitors and their patterns of movement.
We imagine this space as a single continuous display that surrounds the inhabitants. Although a visitor might be looking at an individual screen, their presence registers across the Field in sound and points of light. As this person moves through the space, they leave traces and echoes. Each display, every blade of grass, and all sound are bound together by a central logic of the space as a whole. At certain moments in time, this centrality takes over the space and plays sequences of sound and image across the entire Field.

A great deal of work went into designing an infrastructure that could support the synchronization of so many unique hardware and graphical elements. Timon and Eric collaborated to develop the information structure, responsive behaviors, and graphic content of the installation. Eric explains the challenging architecture of the system: 

“The brain of the field is a complex network of 34 computers running three different pieces of software talking to each other and to 30 pieces of custom hardware. The elegance of this system is that it clarifies the space. The discrete design elements come together in a seamless whole, enabling you to conceive of the space as a continuous display.”

The portraits of Nobel laureates breathe in a gentle transition of color. The speed with which each one breathes is related to the age of the laureate – those that received the prize at a young age breathe more rapidly than those who were honored relatively late in life. Each of the 100 screens has a unique pulse and collectively the screens produce a twinkling surface. Timon explains:

“Information about the laureates drives the activity on the screens. Although it might not be immediately obvious to the visitor, this means the field can be explored on different levels.”

Although each Laureate’s contribution to peace is unique, we can group winners into six general categories: those involved in peace movements, humanitarians, human rights workers, disarmament activists, negotiators and those who worked towards a better organized world. Each portrait has been tinted in a shade of blue corresponding to one of these categories.

The content is presented in three sequential stages, triggered by the proximity of a visitor to the screen. The raw Sonar data is visible as a bar graph along the left margin. The content is presented in relation to three thresholds. If there is no sonar activity the Laureate’s portrait pulses gently. As you approach, color fills the screen and the Laureate’s name is revealed. If you come even closer, you release a sequence of information about that year’s laureate.

One of the biggest challenges in working at this scale is providing the visitor with enough information without overwhelming them. To avoid congestion, we wanted to show only enough to satisfy the viewer’s immediate curiosity and encourage them to explore the Laureates more deeply in a later exhibit. We decided to present a brief description of the Laureate’s achievements, followed by a representative statement in their own words. All of this could be displayed in Norwegian and English over a sixty second interval.

Every so often the field undergoes a global transformation, where all the design elements coalesce in a synchronized performance. Like a passing rain shower, these events combines lights, screens and sound together in a burst of activity independent of the visitors actions. These performances contribute to a sense of a the Nobel Field as a living space, surrounding the visitors.

This room is an example of a new kind of relationship between viewer and medium. The screen diffuses into the space and takes on the characteristics of architecture by defining space and creating paths through that space. Rather than facing a display, as you would in a theater or your living room, or even moving around it, as you would with a museum object, the Nobel Field invites the viewer to inhabit the landscape of displays. As you pass through the space, your perspective is continuously changing.

Each viewer has a unique perspective and these multiple views form a conceptual space in the mind of the viewer. You become an active participant in creating your own narrative of the Nobel Peace Prize and its impact over the past century. Just as our perspective from 2006 changes the way we see, for example, the prize given to Henry Kissinger, we find that there is no one fixed view of the prizes or prizewinners. Rather than an honor roll, or worse a graveyard of names and faces, the Field should be seen as an organic, living, and evolving garden whose fruits are the ideas and ideals passed on to us by the Laureates.

At the opening of the Center, Wangari Maathai spoke of the Nobel Field.

“As you walk through the halls of this center and reflect on the men and women who have been honored over the years, you will see your own thoughts, dreams and aspirations. Indeed a part of all of us is reflected here. As you see the challenges and opportunities, you too will be inspired to take action to make your world a more peaceful place.”

The Field is a place where the dream of Peace comes alive. More than a memorial to the Laureates, it is a living testament to their ideas. The meaning and power of these words deserve a stage of their own.

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