Virtual Architectural Experiences

(A First Reading of the Design, Pedagogic, and Interdisciplinary Implications of a Representational Revolution)


University of Utah


Published in: Proceedings of the 11th. National Conference on the Beginning Design Student. University of Arkansas Fayetteville, AK (1947)

© copyright 1994 Julio Bermudez. All rights reserved.



The growing use of computers in the practice and teaching of architecture is putting into question the way we have hitherto approached architectural design and representation. This paper reflects on the design, pedagogic, and interdisciplinary opportunities created by one representational breakthrough: the electronic representation of the architectural experience. The narrative arts, notably cinema and storytelling, are proposed as possible sources for developing new architectural ideas and design methodologies.



Between Digital and Analog Civilizations

Time has been one of the most difficult issues to address in the visual arts (painting, sculpture, architecture). The major barrier has been the lack of representational tools and media to depict the dynamic nature of reality. If this has not stopped the arts from investigating time (e.g. Cubism, Futurism) it has been enough to keep them at bay on the subject. This representational limitation is particularly problematic in architecture. Whereas the incorporation of time in the canvas is more an intellectual exercise than a practical necessity of painting, architecture (like sculpture) unfolds in space-time and thus cannot be experienced or created without considering its temporal manifestation. In addition, and unlike most sculpture, architecture cannot be produced and tested using models that fully simulate the real object. The scale of architecture makes unavoidable a total dependency on representations (e.g. drawings, models) for designing, describing, and documenting architectural artifacts. In architecture, representations are not 'just' working tools but the very universe of discourse (i.e. language, symbolic space) wherein architectural thoughts and actions must initially occur and largely unfold.

It follows that the impossibility of still and non-immersive representations to depict the temporal and scalar dimensions of architecture is a much larger problem than usually considered because it places architects in the situation of having to deal with that which they have no representation for. The clear limitations of the human mind to generate and sustain any credible immersive and temporal simulation of architecture cast severe doubts to designers' capacity to imagine conditions transcending the given representational space of the discipline. The results are well known. Our design process fails to significantly address the phenomenology of architecture and, consequently, our design products are often stiff constructs that lack dynamic order and thus experiential quality.

We have grown accustomed to these shortcomings and accepted them in the light of the cost, limitations, and inflexibility of alternative diachronic representations of architecture (e.g. sequence sketches, photographs, film, video) and the relative effectiveness of architectural work produced with traditional representations. Yet there remains the fact that the nature of our media and techniques of representation have generated and supported a structural weakness in how we deal with the phenomenology of architectural orders.

Today, however, we are before a representational revolution that may change all this forever. Thanks to ever more powerful electronic simulations (e.g. 3D animations, multimedia), we are for the first time in history able to directly, affordably, and flexibly simulate the temporal dimension of architecture during the design process. [*1] While not yet fully immersive [*2], electronic media also manage to deliver unmatched representations of architecture at 'full scale'. The combined capacity to depict architecture in time and at 'full-scale' means that electronic representations are able to simulate actual architectural experiences. What is so appealing about this representational innovation is not its obvious practical application: the experiential testing and validation of design products. Rather it is the possibility of shifting our attention from the object to the experience of the object and in so doing reconceptualizing architectural design as the design of architectural experiences. This approach would mark a significant departure from the historical (i.e. object-centered, synchronic, and observer-independent) way we have thought, designed, and criticized architecture.



Designing Architectural Experiences

Although much has been said about the experiential approach to architectural design, this methodology had been hitherto closed to serious use or exploration due to a lack of appropriate representations. Electronic media not only unlocks this possibility but in doing so it may also fundamentally transform the way we have been designing architecture until now. For example, phenomenological considerations that historically eluded direct architectural scrutiny and manipulation can now enter the design process in an equal footing to functional, compositional, or technological issues. The growing power and use of computers to depict architectural experiences (e.g. walks through virtual buildings) indicate that we will not be able to avoid the design and pedagogic impact of this representational breakthrough much longer. The time is ripe for investigating and learning how to deal with architecture in a truly phenomenological (i.e. real-time, full scale) way. But what does this mean?

Phenomenological studies show that architectural experiences unfold as an organized, more or less continuous series of dynamic perceptions clustered around particular 'events' or 'episodes'. In other words, architecture discloses itself in experience as a multi-sensory (though largely audio-visual) 'narrative'. Hence, from a phenomenological perspective, designing, teaching, or criticizing architecture literally means to deal with the narrative nature of architecture.

Limited by the available representational space of the discipline, earlier narrative approaches to architecture either focused in grammar (i.e. formal order) and signification (i.e. symbolism, meaning) or inaccurately speculated about the possible phenomenological outcomes of a particular narrative. Considering that it is the pragmatics of a text (i.e. how it unfolds as experience to the viewer, user, listener, or reader) which defines the success or failure of a narrative (and not necessarily the quality of its syntactic and semantic dimensions 'per-se'), past narrative propositions may have provided new insights to our discipline but neither challenged the way we had seen and designed architecture nor got across the nature of architectural narratives.

In contrast, the representational revolution underway allows us to pursue a complete narrative approach to architecture.[*3] The novelty and potential of such a proposition are only matched by the seriousness of the challenge. A multi-sensory narrative approach to architecture requires an understanding of how to construct coherent temporal assemblages of experiential events that unfold as and tell 'architectural stories'. This, however, is well beyond the operative limits of our discipline. We have little or no knowledge or historical tradition in how to design, teach, or evaluate architecture as a real-time and immersive experiential narrative.

It is precisely here where interdisciplinary study and collaboration are necessary. In this case, the narrative arts (especially those involved with the temporal representation of audio-visual narratives) offer the best insights and knowledge that are transferable to our design challenge. For example, theory and practice of cinema provides us with principles and techniques (e.g. storyboards, production, screen direction, transitions, script, image quality and composition, camera angle and move, lighting, soundtrack, editing, set construction, etc.) to organize architectural experiences into events that in turn unfold in conjunction with an underlying story (i.e. the parti). Basic principles of storytelling (e.g. theme, rhythm, episodes, structure, storyline, characters, etc.) are also quite relevant in designing balanced yet memorable architectural narratives. Incorporating the techniques, knowledge, and criteria of the narrative arts to those of our own makes us reconceptualize architectural design as the design of experiences that have a structuring theme (parti) and plot (order), and unfold through episodes (rhythm) and events (details). In a way, approaching architectural design phenomenologically means to play the role of the architect, the user, the film director, the cameraman, the scriptwriter, the storyteller, the spectator, and the listener.

If this may appear far fetched, we should keep in mind that using today's off-the-shelf multimedia and 3D modeling/animation softwares already requires us to perform each and all of these functions. Therefore the problem is not technical anymore. Instead, the problem is our built-in inertia against fully incorporating the new representational innovations in our practice, teaching, and critique of architectural design. In this sense, our efforts should be geared toward understanding (1) how and why the use of virtual architectural experiences affects ('deforms' or 'reformulates') architectural thinking and making, (2) what is qualitative different about this new electronic representation,[*4] and (3) the medium's potential for advancing architecture and the (interdisciplinary) concepts and techniques to unleash it.

As in all paradigm shift, the one before us (originated in the invention of new and powerful representational media that simulate the phenomenology of architecture) is resisted. However, as the implications of this representational revolution become more obvious and widespread, the whole discipline will switch to a new way of practicing and teaching architecture. At this point in time, our task is not to resist this trend but to facilitate it by proactively studying, applying, and communicating our insights on this area.




[*1] Photographs, film, and video have been effective in recording the built environment but have never responded well to the high simulational demands of the design process.

[*2] The only fully immersive representation of architecture available is provided by Virtual Reality technology. However the cost (and degree of development) of these hardware and software do not grant their widespread use in offices and schools any time soon.

[*3] The fairly accurate simulation of architectural experiences lets us consider first hand the pragmatics of an architectural narrative, namely, the temporal and immersive quality of the architectural 'text'.

[*4] It is the qualitative differences between distinct modes of depiction that define the nature and value of a media or technique of representation. Electronic media offers at least two great representational benefits unmatched by any other system of delineation: (1) the simulation of the architectural experience (discussed in this paper), and (2) the instantaneous and flexible articulation of several traditional and non-traditional representations (e.g. orthographics, modeling, animations). Any of these two properties of electronic representations opens large territories for architectural investigation. It is my belief that little research efforts should be devoted to study the computer power to do what we already know how to do (only faster, more efficiently, or 'sexier').



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