This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Questions &Answers

Published: November 11, 2004

Omar Khan, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture, School of Architecture and Planning, is co-director of the Center for Virtual Architecture.

The term "virtual architecture" seems to be an oxymoron. What does it mean?
Since we normally associate architecture with the built environment, virtuality would imply something that is not yet built. This we see as a positive attribute since it implies multiple potentials for materialization, placing emphasis on the possible, rather than the actual. A second definition uses virtual as a euphemism for digital computing. In this regard a virtual architecture would imply one that is built through and possibly within digital technologies. The definition that we are working with is a combination of both. It suggests a speculative architecture that sees in digital technologies new ways of thinking about architectural space, designing and fabricating architectural components and communicating architectural ideas to a larger public. It does not see any difference between bricks and mortar and pixels and processors. They are all components of this new responsive architecture.

What kinds of new computer and other applications are used in virtual architecture and how?
The specific computer applications are not so relevant as they keep changing with the requirements of our research areas. Suffice it to say that we are working with 3D modeling, animation, digital video and interactive media authoring software. At the same time, we also are using digital/analog machines like digitizers and laser cutters for fabricating our prototypes. The use of these technologies is in the service of conceiving, designing and communicating architectural ideas. Some aspects of the software that are important to highlight are the speed by which 3D studies can be generated, animated and viewed immersively, and communicated through multimedia means. Moving beyond these formal qualities, the software provides a useful means to prototype responsive environments since conventional methods are inadequate for the task.

How has the use of the tools of virtual architecture changed your own practice?
The tools that we use are not all particular to architectural application. In fact, we find ourselves borrowing the digital tools of graphic designers, Web designers, animators, videographers and programmers. This is to be expected since these disciplines have taken center stage in designing our modes of communication. As architects, we need to be engaged in this evolving phenomenon since our ideas of function, use and aesthetics are contingent upon these developments. My practice with my wife, Laura Garófalo (adjunct instructor, Department of Architecture), has changed dramatically in two ways. In the first instance, we see that to accomplish this type of work we need to collaborate with people working in the media disciplines. It is impossible to work on these problems alone and from a single disciplinary position. Secondly, attaining some expertise in these tools has opened our practice to new forms and materials that facilitate the integration of networked and projective technologies into architecture. This has changed dramatically our understanding of what architecture can be.

How does virtual architecture better explain the world to us? What are some future applications you envision?
I don't want to characterize "virtual architecture" as a product, but as a process for making more responsive environments. Currently, there are products being developed under the designation of "smart" technologies that influence lighting and environmental controls for better energy performance and comfort. We are not working in this area. Our interest lies in the way digital technologies assist us as architects and as users to become more aware of the nuances of our built environments. As architects, these technologies allow us to design for very particular situations, as well as simulate manifold possibilities. As users, these technologies once properly embedded in our architecture enhance our perception and pleasure of that environment. In the future, we see new possibilities for human and computer interaction that makes lived space the vehicle for this communication. Areas that would greatly benefit from this include educational (schools, libraries and museums), performance (theater, galleries) and entertainment (shopping, tourism) environments.

What is the Center for Virtual Architecture?
The Center for Virtual Architecture (CVA) is a research center in the School of Architecture and Planning that was founded five years ago by Shahin Vassigh (assistant professor), Jean LaMarche (associate professor) and Wassim Jabi (former faculty member in the School of Architecture and Planning). I joined the center in 2002 and it presently is co-directed by Vassigh, LaMarche and myself. The center's areas of research include screen-based learning environments, digital/analog design and fabrication and digitally enhanced interactive environments.

What are some of the center's recent projects?
Screen Based Learning Environments:

  • Interactive Structures: Interactive Structures is a multi-media learning tool that utilizes digital graphics, computer modeling, animation and audio narration to demonstrate the principles and application of structural science and building technology. Interactive Structures is built on a pedagogy that responds to the skills, disposition and learning needs of architecture students. It harnesses the capabilities of advanced multi-media graphics and Internet-based communications technologies to provide a tool that improves the content and delivery of structures instruction. The Content of Interactive Structures has been developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education. The project also has been supported by seed grants from the Educational Technology Grant Program at UB.

  • Visualizing the Temporomandibular Joint: This collaborative research project with the School of Dental Medicine looked at the possibility of using 3D models and digital video to teach the complex functions of the temporomandibular joint. Animation, with a combination of textual information and still images, became the main vehicle for communicating these ideas. The tool is to be used for instruction in the dental medicine program. The project has been supported by a grant from the Educational Technology Grant Program.

Digital/Analog Design and Fabrication

  • Cara(s)pace- Skin, Surface and Enclosure: Cara(s)pace's research agenda is to develop techniques for using digital modeling and fabrication tools to design complex structures. Students involved in this research look at skins, both organic and artificial, that exhibit self-organizational characteristics. These studies form the basis for developing virtual models using 3D NURBS, fabricating tiled and arrayed structures using the laser cutter, and creating analog equivalents in hybrid materials, including rubbers and plastics. Recent work has looked at sponge structures, tree bark, human hands and gestures and search engine-controlled virtual tattoos. New agendas in this research include cellular automata and sensor-embedded materials.

Digitally Enhanced Interactive Environments

  • Remote Space: A research agenda that looks at the potential of projection technology for designing and constructing architectural space. It involves studying the optical potential of projection systems, the informational and aesthetic possibilities of the projected image and the consequences of user interaction with the projection in a particular space. With a keen desire to move away from the purely cinematic experience—where the image dominates the space of viewing—these projective environments enhance the experience and understanding of the architectural spaces they occupied. The speculative prototypes include projective, and in some cases interactive, enhancements to escalators, subway trains, doors, rooms, road intersections, building interiors and building facades.

  • Home/Work: A study of gender ads of the contemporary workplace. The research establishes four criteria for reading these ads: the physical, digital and somatic boundaries in the image and the camera point of view of the image. The physical boundary refers to the architectural space, defined by walls, furniture and symbols. The digital boundary is the interface with networked technologies, usually an electronic gadget like a cell phone or computer. The somatic boundary is the body language of the protagonists, while the camera point of view is the way these boundaries are composed within the image, as well as the nature of the camera's gaze. This project has received funding from the Institute for Research & Education on Women & Gender (IREWG).

As the field develops, new academic opportunities have arisen at many universities, including UB. One of these is the new master's degree program involving the departments of Media Study and Architecture. Can you describe this program and the kinds of professional and theoretical training it offers?
The joint degree in architecture and media study (MArch/MFA) is open to graduate students with an undergraduate degree in architecture. It is one of the few programs of its type in the country and fills the growing need of architects to become technically and intellectually proficient to perform in a world dominated by new media technologies. We are extremely fortunate to have a vibrant media study program whose areas of study (film, video, virtual reality, net art and media robotics) will expand on our own professional curriculum. Students will engage faculty in both departments to formulate a focus in their studies. In addition, we are offering courses jointly taught by faculty in both departments that provide a venue for synthesizing interdisciplinary ideas. Currently, I am teaching a seminar course with Marc B�hlen (assistant professor of media study) entitled "Confluence of Practices," where we are looking at new media and architecture practices that are setting the agendas for this new type of work.

What question do you wish I had asked, and how would you have answered it?
What role do you see the center playing in the larger research and development agenda of UB? Architecture as a discipline clearly locates itself on the boundary between the sciences and humanities. The center has, and can continue to provide, unique opportunities for cross-disciplinary research. We see that our work benefits immensely from the content of other disciplines but it also reminds us of the significant role architecture can play for those disciplines. One way in which the university can assist in this is by encouraging and funding research in these emergent areas. This requires a sustained effort in terms of providing equipment, supporting research staff and nurturing cross-disciplinary relations, which can yield promising results in the years to come. Also, our participation in the design of the university environment, especially those dealing with teaching and or student life, would provide our work with a real life laboratory and elevate the quality of the environments we spend most of time in.