Saturday, July 24, 2010

Architecture and Virtual Reality

1.  Department of the Navy virtual reality training.
We cannot detach architecture from its environment and study it as an isolated object. The sounds and scents of nature contribute to the feelings we have about our buildings. The mood of the Golden Pavilion in Japan is very different from the surroundings of Villa d'Este in Italy.  Neither can be removed from its setting and maintain the same meaning. 

Yet there is serious talk about the idea that architecture might someday, somehow be replaced by virtual reality.  Read various architectural journals like Architecture or sci-tech magazines like Wired, and the idea crops up perennially.

For readers not wired into the terminology, this is how Wikipedia defines virtual reality:

2. Golden Pavilion (Kinkaky-ji), Kyoto, Japan.
Virtual reality (VR) is a term that applies to computer-simulated environments that can simulate places in the real world as well as in imaginary worlds. Most current virtual reality environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. Some advanced, haptic systems now include tactile information, generally known as force feedback, in medical and gaming applications.

The Colombia Encylopedia has a similar definition.  They are basicaly saying that it is possible to create the experience of riding a digitally-simulated roller coaster, for example, that is indistinguishable from riding an actual roller coaster.  The two experiences would be identical. 

3. Garden of Ryoanji.  Kyoto, Japan.
Let's be clear about this:  the environment around a work of architecture contributes to its character.    Context matters.  Time and space affect architecture and become part of it.  For these reasons, VR will never replace architecture. 

Well, I should temper that assertion:  VR will never replace architecture unless and until we reach some sort of Matix-like level of experiential unreality.  (To coin a phrase.)  We're a long way from that event.

4. Villa d'Este.  Tivoli, Italy.
There will come a time when architects will use virtual reality to make presentations of their ideas to clients. The technology is already available, but the techniques are expensive and cumbersome. Will virtual reality ever completely replace architecture? Will a virtual Notre Dame substitute for the real thing? It will only if you believe that Walt Disney’s Epcot Center is a viable substitute for a tour of Europe. The real thing contains  too many layers of subtlety, nuance and detail – not to mention spontaneity and serendipity - to faithfully be replicated.  The muscular movement of negotiating steps, the feel of ambient sunlight on a wooden porch, the temperature of filtered light through a carved screen. These ways of experiencing architecture have nothing to do with vision alone or any form of virtual reality now possible. Architecture is a total immersion experience. A computerized substitute will be a great presentation or teaching tool. However, there will be no Star Trek-like holideck for architecture in the foreseeable future.
5. Vekomaboomerang steel roller coaster.

If a building does not evoke some sort of emotional or intellectual response it probably isn’t architecture. Architecture has meaning. That is what distinguishes architecture from mere structure and simple shelter.  And it will be what distinguishes real architecture from a virtual fake. 

6.  Trekkie Borg.
So, to all you trekkies, avatars, and simulacra out there:  fasten your seatbelts; you'll be riding the real architecture roller coaster for a long time.


1. Interior Dept.
2. David Monniaux
3. S. Fujioka
4. Mmxbass
5. Will McC
6. Bruno Girin 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Architecture, Symbolism, and Signs

1. Las Vegas welcomes you to a land of illusions.
Architecture has meaning.  To say that is to say that architecture conveys information and is a means of communication. Communication can be overt or subtle. Literal or symbolic.  The first, overt communication, is the most recognizable.  In this category are ordinary conversation, print media, and graphic communications such as television and movies. The second category, symbolic communication, includes the arts: poetry, music, paintings, architecture. Subtle communications may include empathy, sympathy, mental telepathy, and body language. Obviously, these categories overlap and the boundaries between them are somewhat arbitrary.  Movies, for example, often contain a lot of symbolism.

Architecture overlaps categories as well.  A building sends overt messages by being -- sometimes very literally -- a sign.  A steeple communicates church and golden arches say hamburgers.  The 1972 book, Learning from Las Vegas, explored this idea.  The authors (Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour) contend that, in Las Vegas, entire buildings are really nothing more than signs.  Driving up Interstate 15 at sixty miles an hour, the Excalibur Hotel, among others, acts as a billboard.  It is an improbable fantasy of King Arthur's court.  Its disproportioned towers and turrets are bright with color and impossible to ignore.  The entire structure screams, STOP!  We can entertain the kids and the parents!  Go no further! One can easily imagine a family with children immediately persuaded to spend the night.  Other Las Vegas structures beckon with exotic facades promising a night in Venice or a romantic stay in Paris.  Most of these venues took shape long after Learning from Las Vegas was published.  However, it is more true today than ever:  Las Vegas hotels are not architecture;  they are signs. The most honest assessment of this is contained in the name of one of the hotels:  Mirage.  These buildings are illusory. The over-scaled pinnacles and turrets of Excalibur have no interior resolution. There is no place inside the Excalibur where you are actually in a turret.  It is an illusion.  A mirage.  A big sign.  The Venetian hotel has indoor canals (astonishingly, flowing above the casino through a second floor shopping mall).  The Paris hotel offers a one-fifth-scale Eiffel Tower.  There is a pyramid down the street at Luxor.  None of this is architecture.  It is a collection of signs.  Or, perhaps more charitably, grand theater.
2. Excalibur promises Camelot with a riot 
of turrets, pinnacles, and battlements.

2.  Gondoliers serenade tourists in a
fake canal beneath a fake sky at the Venetian.
In architecture, more impressive messages fall into symbolic and subtle categories. If a message is too obvious it is kitsch. A hot dog stand in the shape of a hot dog is kitsch. Most of Las Vegas is kitsch, along with much of roadside America. However, if a message is too subtle -- “in jokes” that only architects might understand or obscure historical references that are lost to time -- then meaning is lost as well. The most enjoyable and most enduring meaning in architecture is in the subtle nuances of space, texture, shadows, scale, rhythm, etc. These things convey information about how we might feel and provide spaces that encourage reflection. Really good architecture offers depth to the experience.  One fine example of this is Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.  It conveys strength in its structure and a sense of melancholy in its colors and siting.  This information is conveyed in the architecture through subtle signs.

3.  The giant hot dog in Bailey, Colorado.
 It is obvious to most people that architecture has meaning in pedigreed structures that are sanctified by history and authority. It may be less obvious in more humble architecture, such as the buildings we live in. But residential architecture is also capable of highly personal and rewarding meaning. If this concept holds for the great architecture of the world, then why not also in our homes — the buildings where we spend most of our time? Consider Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin. Hearth and home could hardly be expressed in any more meaningful way. It is a celebration of home. The warm colors, rich textures, and central weight of the fireplace all beckon in a primeval way to experience the comforts of home.

Residential architecture can enhance experience with meaning in varying degrees of subtlety and nuance. Among the possibilities: architecture can create a sense of arrival at the front door. It can convey charm and grace in our living spaces, relaxation where we sleep and communion with nature as it extends outward to terraces and gardens. Kitchens and breakfast areas can be bright and cheery; dining rooms can be romantic or or grand, depending on personal preferences and the weight of the occasion. Perhaps above all, architecture of all types can provide a sense of shelter and protection beyond the practical needs of keeping out bad weather or bad people. Architecture can offer a deep-seated assurance that all is well in our environment.

Interior decorating can augment these environments, but it is a failure of architecture if surface treatments and furniture arrangements are the only means to convey meaning. Architecture is meaningful in a powerful three-dimensional sense. It is accomplished by manipulating interior volume, controlling color and light, and arranging structure to support the intents of the design.

5.  Bernard Maybeck's Palace of Fine Art.
Architecture can be appreciated at face value (fa├žade literally means face) with a great deal of enjoyment. However, like any art, the more we understand how it works the deeper and more profound is our appreciation. When we realize that architecture has meaning it becomes obvious that it is created by following principles of design to transmit its meaning, just as the principals of grammar are used to convey meaning in language. The grammar of architecture is a search for meaning in the spaces we create and inhabit.


1. Madcoverboy.
2. Excel.
3. Urban 2004.
4. John Perry.
5. Roger 469.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Visit With Lloyd Wright

1. Lloyd Wright's home -- almost unphotographable
behind the thick vegetation.
2. Sowden residence from the same period.
Architecture feeds the brain and is sustenance for the soul. When I was just out of architectural school, I took a road trip with my friend, Greg Walke, to find some of that nourishment. We traveled west in Greg's tan MG convertible to see iconic examples of mid-century modern architecture. One afternoon we stopped to visit Lloyd Wright, the talented, but overshadowed, son of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was an old man at the time and looked just like his father. (But a full twelve inches taller!) He graciously received us in his Doheny Drive home, on the boundary between Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. Despite the August heat, Lloyd Wright lit the living room fireplace to demonstrate how his design employed natural convection to coax warm air out of the house.  He opened a glass wall onto a patio shaded by the branches of an enormous ginkgo tree. The ginkgo sheltered the entire house and the fireplace drew in this cooler air to exhaust it up the flue. No artificial air conditioning. Wright was very proud of the organic qualities of the room.  His home was like an enchanted cave, designed and built in the in the 1920s.  And we were entranced by his stories.

“Why are you boys here?” he asked. We told him we were in California to see some of the great works of twentieth century architecture. (Much of it authored by him.)
3.  Sowden house today. (Extensively remodeled.)
Of course, Wright had already pegged us as eager neophytes, seeking wisdom from one of the masters.

“Ah, yes,” he said. “You’re here to eat architecture.” We knew immediately what he meant, sharing a mutual understanding. Great architecture provides sustenance; it nourishes the spirit as food does the body.

4. Another Wright design from the same period. (Derby house, 1926.)
I learned years later that we were not the first guests charmed by Wright in this manner. It was practiced theater for him. The novelist Anais Nin wrote of meeting Lloyd Wright for the first time in his Doheny Drive home. He lit the same fireplace and talked about the natural ventilation through the house, filtered by the cool of  the prized Gingko tree. He expostulated about organic architecture in the same way. At least he was consistent. The lesson I took with me was the importance of architectural input in everyday life. It is healthy to “eat” good architecture.

5. Ramon Navarro house, from the 1920s.
Note: Since it is almost impossible to get a good picture of  the Doheny Drive house, the accompanying pictures show Hollywood-area  projects by Lloyd Wright from the same decade.  His architecture during this period was monolithic, closed, and fortress-like.  They are all located on busy streets, which partially explains this.  However, he was also supervising his father's local projects during the 1920s: among them, the Ennis house and the Barnsdall house. They all had similar characteristics.   This was a brief period in the elder Wright's career when his projects -- mostly located in the Hollywood Hills -- resemble Mayan temples.  Lloyd Wright's later work became much looser and more transparent, including his  famous "Glass Chapel" in Palos Verdes from 1951.  (See blog entry March 4, 2010.)


1. Minnaert
2. U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Historic American Buildings Survey
3. Los Angeles
4. la photo
5. la photo