The Fourth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2002
Berkeley Prize 2002

Nadia Watson

Today's Street: The Virtual Domain of the Architect?

The Future Of The Architect In Shaping Experience: Two Possible Futures 

The street, or more specifically the buildings which shape it, has always mediated between our public and private lives. While the development of virtual interaction has certainly altered our reliance on the physical environment to provide this filter, it has by no means made it obsolete. We now live in a culture in which the material and immaterial have different but equally valuable roles to play in our social lives. The concept of architecture as the design of physical environments requires redefinition to take account of this changing context.

The issue at hand is not exclusively that the traditional social value of the street is losing its 'human element' at the hands of technological development. In fact it is possible that the human authenticity of street interaction is even more cherished, because it caters to needs that cannot be provided in the virtual realm. The real challenge is that in accepting that we live in a context where the function of the street is controversial, the architectural profession must also accept that its role and responsibility within that context must also adjust to address a new set of design issues. Architecture may choose to embrace the virtual as part of its professional domain, or to focus on that which can only be provided materially.

This paper explores possible future roles of the architect in designing space for human experience. A overview of current work which explores ideas about interaction, and the part played in it by various environments, provides a framework for exploring the feasibility of different responses to the changing role of the street in today's context - real and virtual, material and immaterial. It explores two extreme directions which architecture might adopt as its future role in such a context.

Virtual Interaction And Today's Street 

Part of the postmodern world in which we live is a new understanding of 'reality' encompassing the real and the virtual, material and immaterial. The street is no longer the only mediator between our public and private lives, as screens and networks join physical doors and windows to the street as our interfaces with the world outside. The physical and the virtual are both 'real' elements of our experience and interaction. Life is enacted in the realms of both abstract communications and physical being; interaction and experience are as often virtual as they are real, and simulation is employed so habitually that it blurs the distinction between the two. French sociologist Jean Baudrillard is an influential theorist on postmodern culture, who suggests that, in a culture increasingly saturated by simulation and interaction via screens and networks, the physical environments in which these interactions occur have become insignificant and useless, an abandoned stage where the interactions of daily life not longer take place. He contends that simulation has been absorbed into reality, effacing the distinction between real and imaginary, and leaving us with a 'hyperreality' more real than real. His work intimates that architecture has in many ways become obsolete. (Baudrillard, J. (1996) Symbolic Exchange and Death. In L. Cahoone (ed), From Modernism to Postmodernism (pp 437-459) Cambridge: Blackwell). The street and its built structure, as the material context for physical interaction, however, still have a vital role to play in shaping social life.

Developments in telecommunications and media technology change the type of interaction which can occur in the physical domain but, far from making the physical set for human activity obsolete, the possibility of virtual experience simply means that the street must focus on facilitating activity which only physical experience can provide. Just as there are many places in the world we see on television or the internet, which most people will never actually visit, there are many experiences in life that cannot be simulated or replaced. Where they occur must still be designed physically.

Architecture's Role In This Context 

Changing perceptions of space, and the absorption of simulation and virtual interaction into reality, issue a challenge to the traditional domain of the architect. The situation has been described as a crisis of reality, because the 'electronic paradigm' values appearance over existence, and the material existence of buildings, on which the profession is based, can so easily be simulated. Suddenly a field is emerging which deals with designing 'virtual environments'. Numerous public buildings take account of the fact that many of the people who experience and recognise them will never visit them physically. This is a phenomenon that began with photographic reproduction and has expanded with digital media to include virtual tours. Architecture has become increasingly focussed on building envelope aesthetics, and the image projected by a project, of itself, through the media, but this does not reflect the experience of actually visiting them. Images of a building do not necessarily accurately represent the place the way it would be traditionally experienced.

The challenge posed to architects is to redefine a role within this new context. Theorist Peter Eisenman argues that while the foundations of science and philosophy are continually being questioned, architecture, which was once based on these now uncertain foundations, is reluctant to revise itself. As a profession that has always prided itself on reflecting the worldview of its time and society, it is imperative to take an active role in the context of today. With design professions under constant pressure to claim defensible professional domains, it needs to be clear what part the architect will play in designing space, and therefore shaping the social life of the street.

The hypothetical responses, or futures for the profession, may be examined under the framework of two extreme positions, by looking at a number of projects within each, their impact on street and social life, and their response to context.

A. Focusing on Authenticity 

The first involves focusing on the physical domain to create 'authentic' experience for the users of the street, as opposed to 'virtual' visitors. This is about narrowing the field of design to focus on the genuineness of experience that can only be provided in a physical sense, to anchor 'real' human experience. The one aspect of architecture, which cannot yet be challenged by virtual experience, is its materiality. Tactility, in particular, gives physical experience something that can't be reproduced or replaced by other types of interaction. Sharing experiences with other people in person, in a shared context, fulfils a different need from that catered for by email, for example, just as the feeling of sitting in certain light against a particular texture and temperature of surface provides a vastly different experience of a place from a virtual tour. This is not to suggest that abstract experience is in any way less powerful or valid, just that there are diverse experiences of places, which cannot replace each other.

This response calls for design that is sensitive to the street and its buildings as touchstones of reality, and demonstrates that the physical environments in which virtual interactions occur have not become obsolete. It aims for buildings to provide both a point of reference for what the experience of reality feels like, and a comfortable context for 'real' human interaction. Architecture has historically provided a balance between experiences that are real and authentic, and those that are not, satisfying a need to discriminate between the actual and the illusory.

It is difficult to cite examples of projects that fall under this category, because it is a part of all projects to varying degrees. However, some, like the work of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto are widely recognised for their success in creating unique experiences. The approach is best understood through texts attempting to teach how to achieve successful spaces that capture 'something more'.

Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language describes a pattern of relationships between building elements, intended to replace a fragmented building language that is not based on human considerations. It is a system formulated to make people 'feel alive and human' by employing patterns that are considered to be archetypal parts of nature, and looks at spatial relationships between public and more private places.

Jonathan Hale's recent The Old Way Of Seeing examines principles he believes can animate buildings and the street, to produce an expression of the human spirit, which is present in older buildings. The premise is that by engaging intuition to consider buildings as patterns of proportion, light and shade, and spaces for dwelling, a certain magic can be captured in everyday street life.

These ideas, about creating enchanting spaces for human habitation, through tactility and patterns and human-scale detail, as opposed to a focus on high technology, are not only universally accessible, but equally applicable to all cultures, and hence a more general proposition may be made for the future role of architecture in shaping street life. It may be that an approach such as this is necessary in today's context, to ground our experience of life, but it may be argued that it is equally valuable to engage with the new environment. 

B. Embracing Virtual Environments 

Architecture may choose to absorb simulation technology, to conceive of itself as part of a future where the distinction between 'real' and 'virtual' is collapsed. Virtual reality is "something that exceeds the metaphysical system that opposes reality and imitation" (Gunkel, D. (2000). Rethinking Virtual Reality: Simulation and the Deconstruction of the Image [Full Text]. Critical Studies in Media Communication. Retrieved June 11, 2000 from the World Wide Web: http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb), and this poses an incredible challenge to a profession so intrinsically rooted in the physical. Focusing on such a challenge would effectively mean that architecture risks losing its traditional task of communicating culture through physical media, but also gains the potential to embrace changing perceptions in the design of space and foster social life through virtual interaction. 

This approach addresses 'the role of the architect in shaping social life' by recognising the contribution of the new realm of social interaction. The problem is that limited access to technology in many parts of the world restricts admittance to this architecture, to the worldwide minority who are included in the 'new community' enabled by virtual experience. The underprivileged are even more isolated in this context than in traditional communities, and this direction efficiently separates architects from their past ambitions for social reformation, but that is already a faint memory for most of the profession.

Whether 'cyber-architecture' can successfully intervene in the physical environment is debateable. To date, ideas about how to respond to the convergence of real and virtual space have been almost entirely rhetorical, and there is a very small amount of uilt work that even attempts to address it. Existing theory on the subject is more descriptive of a hypothetical future than of the current environment, but the following examples provide some insight into a couple of the new directions in this area. 

Some projects focus on reflecting and engaging with the developments and cultural changes of society. It may be argued that, as more urban street space is controlled by the media, it becomes fluid; pulsing with constantly changing information. Architect Stephen Perrella's 'hypersurface' architecture explores new thinking about architecture in a bid to move beyond the traditional dichotomies of real/unreal and material/immaterial, to address this idea. Perrella attempts to create a new representational model or diagrammatic infrastructure of fused (real and virtual) dimensions, and to merge the human subject with form, arguing that we have ourselves been absorbed into the information network. 

Perrella believes that humans will become inseparable from their communications, and that the combination of digital network and physical city creates a new urban system to which the architect must respond. His proposition involves three horizons or types of space, which organise layers of activity (such as communications) but become interwoven, and the relationships that occur within this construct he calls 'hypersurfaces'. The concept is of breaking down the division between image, or information, and form, between structure and ornament. It attempts to reflect the new social condition of the western world, where part of 'street life' is the 'information highway'. 

The work of New York based firm Asymptote is at the forefront of new approaches to the design realm, reassessing the role of architecture within 'cultural practices which determine meaning' (Asymptote (1995) in Asymptote: Architecture at the Interval New York: Rizzoli). Their work explores possible architecture for a context of virtual connections and new ways of navigating space. Their scheme for the Guggenheim Virtual Museum is exemplary in that the aim of the project is to provide remote access to not only the services and collections of the Guggenheim Museums, but a unique spatial environment. It is also to be utilised for art and activities created specifically for the digital medium. 

The social success of the Virtual Museum is in making its activities available to 'visitors' who cannot physically visit, and its professional success is in engaging with an increasingly immaterial context. However, this architecture does not engage the entire community in the way that a building does, because the technology is not universally accessible. 

Christine Boyer, with a background in urbanism, computer technology and city planning, is interested in the convergence of the real and hyperreal in terms of the impact, on the city, of the modes of activity enabled by electronic media. Her work falls somewhere between that which explores what can be achieved by merging real and virtual, and that which investigates how architecture can fulfil the need for authentic experience. She considers technology in terms of an imagery or pattern of electronic networks which parallels, rather than merges with, reality. 

Technology, Boyer believes, has generated a new urban typology of an immaterial city of illusion, in which certain groups are excluded. Her work focuses on the isolation of the disadvantaged and the degradation of the community in a new city altered by electronic networking. She asserts that this new community fails not only because it excludes large segments of society, but also because it operates through virtual representations of ourselves. Boyer's book "CyberCities" expresses a hope that 'decaying cities' might be healed by attention to the in-between spaces and human scale details. 
Where To From Here? 

The role of the architect in shaping the street depends upon a redefinition of the profession. Architecture, traditionally the design of public space, is suddenly confronted with a crisis. The choice is between expanding to take up the design of both physical and virtual space as parts of the real environment of daily interaction, and refocusing on its traditional materiality to anchor human experience.

Will the profession split into two factions? How everyday practice might be affected by an extension to the realm of the architect, as designer, is open to debate. It is likely that as the virtual environment emerges as inseparable from physical space, designers of virtual environments, and a contradictory group focused on tactility and materiality, may become part of the already mixed bag of design professionals loosely linked under the heading of architecture.


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Nadia Watson, Queensland University of Technology, Australia
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