Page T1.2 . 24 April 2002                     
ArchitectureWeek - Tools Department
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Exploring a Virtual Future


In the creation and delivery of their designs, Gehry's office has used two tools that are rarely found in architecture firms. Gehry sculpts a building form by hand, then his staff imports the design into digital form using 3D-scanning technology. They use Catia, a design program created for the aerospace industry, to compute, optimize, and document these complex forms. The Catia files often go directly to building component fabricators.

Eisenman's firm is one of several that have adopted animation software as a form generator. They create a 3D model of an architectural program, assign numeric weights and directional forces to its various elements, put the assembly into motion, and observe the forms and relationships that result. Although the architect remains the final arbiter of form, this method reexamines the architect's role in design.

In addition to the more common work with high-end visualization software, students at Iowa State University have begun experimenting with computer-aided manufacturing methods, in which their digital design data drives milling machines to cut wood, metal, and other materials for building scale models. They have performed this work at Quality Manufacturing Corporation, a local fabrication and prototyping shop.

As architects begin to use the tools and methods of other professions, it's important to remember that, just as have a drafting program doesn't turn an untrained lay person into an architect, having animation software doesn't turn an architect into an expert filmmaker.

Nevertheless, the additional professional services now provided by these architects are only a fraction of what the construction industry will soon have at its disposal. What is more, the "radical" architecture of Gehry and Eisenman may not seem so radical compared to what architects will be designing in the future.

But if we understand ourselves solely to be building designers and construction administrators, we will miss the opportunity to go further. One important new trend is in the creation of real spaces that incorporate virtual spaces, such as when a wall is part real construction and part video projection.

In Shaking the Foundations: Japanese Architects in Dialogue, Kengo Kuma describes the future architect as "media" designers rather than "material" designers. He also describes the combination of media and material as stronger than the sum of the parts. Kuma says: "Architecture no longer only deals with enclosed space or that of a city and its buildings, but it also deals with psychological, virtual, or electronic space."

Creating Hybrid/Virtual Spaces

Just as it is now more difficult for moviegoers to tell the difference between real photography and special effects, in the future it will become difficult for occupants of a building to tell the difference between material and media.

The distinction will become harder still as media components of a building become a larger part of the "architectural solution." One example of a hybrid environment is in the realm of medicine, where physicians examine and treat patients at physically remote locations.

The firm Asymptote has approached architecture though multimedia in its New York Virtual Stock Exchange. The "3D trading floor" immerses the user in an environment filled with current and changing data represented as objects. This "spatial" data environment empowers users to interact with information as if they were manipulating objects. The 3D trading floor has none of the "materiality" we associate with architecture, but it suggests future opportunities for solving design problems.

At the Virtual Reality Applications Center (VRAC) at Iowa State, experiments in virtual reality are being conducted to study how hybrid real/unreal spaces can provide better, more useful places for people. One of the current projects creates an intuitive, interactive, 3D design environment in which designers can perform the actions of standard rendering software.

VRAC's central facility, unlike most university laboratories, is housed in a central public space. This gives it an important relationship with the public as visitors cross back and forth between reality and virtual reality.

In the future, architects will also need to design the real spaces in which virtual activities will take place. Today, VR occurs at workstations, in conference rooms, and in small theaters. But these are not necessarily the most appropriate solution. Architects will need to consider novel programmatic elements as these technologies grow.

If we can embrace the idea that architecture can be informed by new media and different disciplines, then we may be able to slow the loss of authority architects are experiencing and assert stronger leadership within construction and even in other industries.

Pete Evans, AIA is a temporary instructor at the Department of Architecture, Iowa State University and practices at Baldwin White Architects in Des Moines, Iowa. He worked on the VRAC C6 Research Installation while with Brooks Borg Skiles Architecture Engineering.

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The Virtual Reality Applications Center at Iowa State University. The C6 research installation establishes a highly visible presence to the university community and public.
Photo: Pete Evans, AIA

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An Iowa State student project involves new media including virtual reality.
Image: Drew Steffen

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Stills from a video showing a surreal proposal with surfaces reflecting graphical representations as well as materials.
Image: Landon Burg

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A student's cumulative digital timeline from the semester's inception to midterm.
Image: Nathan Robertson

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This collaboration explored the flexibility of off-the-shelf design software for rapid development of virtual environments through a novel XML interface.
Image: Tim Griepp/VRAC and Pete Evans, AIA

ArchWeek Image

The C6 research installation is a light-tight elliptical enclosure of intersecting brushed and perforated metal panels, heat-bent acrylic, and micro-embossed holographic film.
Photo: Pete Evans, AIA

ArchWeek Image

A hybrid real/virtual environment made of computer graphics, mirrors, aluminum, and fiberglass.
Photo: Pete Evans, AIA


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