Virtual Bauhaus

Stuart Gold & Bruce Damer - August 2004


The Bauhaus school of design founded in Germany in the early years of the 20th century by architect Walter Gropius was perhaps the most prominent movement  influencing architecture and industrial design at that time.  Bauhaus was however one of several artistic and architectural ideologies that had emerged after the end of the  nineteenth century, including Constructivism, Modernism and Futurism that were inspired by the apparent democratization of the industrial landscape.

Satisfying the burgeoning middle classes necessitated the replacement of labor-intensive handicrafts by factory-style production.  Consequently, architectural and industrial design had to eschew the individualistic embellishments of previous eras in order to provide state-of-the-art buildings and artifacts to the maximum number of people at the minimum price.  Catch phrases such as "Form Follows Function" and "Less is More" have become less ideological war cries than practical necessities in today's modern industrialized society.  In consequence I believe that the Modern Movement in architecture, which emerged from the Bauhaus school and its progenitors, is still alive and well today even though architecture would prefer to see itself as a more post-modernist, broad-based and eclectic discipline and not subject to the whims and exigencies of passing fads. 

The early 20th century movements were either a product of, or catalyst for, the dramatic changes that were to take place in the developed world after the second world war.  The meteoric rise of the middle classes being the main driving force for both social and industrial change, which started at the end of the nineteenth century culminating with the fall of communism in the 1980's, was a fitting legacy to Bauhaus ideology. However, this apparent 'democratization' has gone only so far.  The famous Henry Ford quote "You can have any color as long as it's black" serves to illustrate that the old aristocratic elite has just given way to a new elite in the form of big business and their advertising and marketing agencies.  The notion of real choice in everything from fashion items to new cars may just be an elaborate illusion but being able to choose your cell phone design from various manufacturers and even being able to customize its color to differentiate you from the crowd is a vast improvement on early industrial products.

Perhaps the computer and Internet revolutions, following hard on the heals of post industrialization, will further change this picture or merely alter its granularity.  Certainly the Internet is providing us an opportunity to drive our industrial society to offer more and more personalization which serves to further the impression we have of greater choice.  There are few areas of human endeavor that remain untouched by this revolution.  From being able to customize new cars and order them through the web, to self publishing, people are in a better position to wrest control of their lives from the hands of an elite few to a greater extent than ever before.

By its very nature however, unlike industry, the field of architecture has been slower to change and although modern building is a potent symbol of industrial and post industrial society, to some extent it is stuck in a pre-industrial age.  True,  most building components are now manufactured rather than painstakingly crafted, but building assembly remains a labor-intensive task aided by machinery but not replaced by it.  The distant promise of robotic technology or even nanotechnology may be the only way that architecture will truly emerge into the age of industrialization let alone the age of the Internet.  This chasm between developing an architectural concept and its realization in the form of a finished building is well illustrated by the example of CAD (Computer Aided Design) which was enthusiastically embraced by architects as long ago as twenty years.  Unlike industry which moved smoothly from CAD to CADCAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing), offering a seamless progression from concept to the finished product, architecture has yet to realize this essential step.

Away from the 'bricks and mortar' environment, much of the work that Digitalspace has undertaken over the past seven years in the field of Virtual Worlds or Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVE) has allowed us to 'play' with concepts of three dimensional space in a way that would have been impossible in earlier times.  This is not because one can create an architectural model  in the memory of a computer, manipulate it and create walk-throughs and then use them as merely a stepping stone to a finished building.  On the contrary, all of our work has involved the design and creation of simulated spaces that are never actually built in the real world.  What makes these projects quite different to mere simulations is that they can be inhabited by anyone in the world with a computer and a simple Internet connection.  Represented by avatars, people can 'walk' around and experience these creations and see and communicate with other people using either text chat or voice (VOIP) in real-time.  This makes the online spaces much more than mere simulations.  There have been many commercial Virtual Worlds systems that have appeared over recent years; some allowing people to easily assemble simple structures and others with community affordances that allow trading and the building of social hierarchies while others fit under the heading of online games where the simulated environment is pure fantasy.  Either way, for reasons I won't explore here, most online 3D spaces have in large part simulated the built environment, giving their users a true sense of place.

Taking this idea further at the same time as reaching back to the Bauhaus ideals, CVEs could be seen as the next step in the democratization or humanization of architecture in one very important aspect; the involvement of computer intelligence to somehow manage the experience of three dimensional space and make it more personal and relevant to every visitor.  To make an analogy to the aviation industry, anyone who has been to an air show and seen the latest giant airliners behave in ways that seem to defy both gravity and aerodynamics will recognize that there has been a very important, if subtle, development in aviation.  This is the advent of fly-by-wire systems that operate between the pilot and both the engine and the control surfaces of an airplane and has enabled the technology of flight to go far beyond what would be possible with human control alone.

These new technologies are often quite transparent as in modern airplanes and show little indication of the subtle but powerful technologies that are operating under their skin.  To some extent this has happened in modern buildings too but as mentioned earlier, due to the inherent nature of buildings in the built environment, computerized systems can as yet do little to change the experience of the architecture itself.

In virtual environments we have the opportunity to experiment with the idea of spaces ameliorated by computers in a way that would be almost impossible with real buildings.  After all a CVE is merely an illusion of a 3D space stored in a computer's memory and manipulated in a CPU, so making that small step to having the computer manage the spatial experience in some useful way is not difficult.  One can look at these experiments as valid projects in their own right without needing to make that final link to the 'real' world or to view them as the fore-runners to what may be achievable in the built environment in the future.  Following is a brief description of just some of those projects.

Since 1998 the Contact Consortium has been putting on Avatars conferences annually which were held completely in cyberspace, using specially constructed virtual worlds.  The conference in 1998 (called Avatars 98) was designed to look like a typical trade show with exhibitor booths in rows and special areas called pods that were reserved for speaker sessions.  The booths were manned by various exhibitors and kitted out with clickable posters that would link to web resources that were specified by the exhibitor.  Over four thousand people donned their avatars and came through the conference hall during the course of one day.  As in many real world trade shows the booths were priced by size, were modular and could be assembled using standard components.  However, in order to simplify the specification of the booths, a database program was developed to enable the exhibitors to choose the position of the booth, the components from which it would be assembled and the URLs and images that were to be linked to their poster boards; by simply completing a series of forms on a web page.  On the eve of the conference the database was closed and was instructed to assemble the complete trade show floor of thousands of components, in a matter of seconds.  In the 'real' world the database could well hold the required information to build the various exhibits but the assembly would have to be done by hand.

One of the booths at Avatars 98 Avatars 98 entrance

Later in 1998 we were approached by a Danish health insurance company whose business was international but had an office in Copenhagen only.  To establish an international presence, the company, in addition to their web site, wanted to establish a virtual headquarters (VHQ) in a fully multi-user 3D virtual environment.  It was to take the form of a prestigious virtual building designed by architects, where visitors could be greeted by bots (virtual robots) and where company employees could meet with existing or potential customers.  The most ingenious part of the scheme was a virtual auditorium where a bot (in the form of an avatar) would deliver a lecture on a health related matter, on a giant screen.  A further sophistication was developed to allow a user to request that the bot deliver the lecture to him personally in the language of his choice.  Thus a number of people could be in the same room at the same time, but be 'hearing' the lecture in their own language.

Entrance Foyer of VHQ VHQ Elevator at Upper Level VHQ Auditorium

In 1999, using lessons learned in the previous two projects, we developed a system called the Virtual Discussion Room (VDR) which was in effect a virtual conference facility completely managed by seven bots centrally controlled by a powerful database program.  This could be used as a permanent conference center with a continuous program of lectures or be used for speaker sessions at scheduled events such as the Avatars series of conferences.  Being the most ambitious project we had tackled to date, it consisted of six large auditoriums opening out onto a central hub.  Each of the six rooms were of the same design but could be customized interactively at any time while not actually in use, by linking various URLs and graphics to wall posters and by designing a complete lecture through a key-frame process via a web form.  A lecture bot permanently residing in each room would assist the lecturer in his task.  Each speaker could then book his session in an interactive event timetable via a web page and after the customization process was complete, the room would be literally collapsed by the bot and be rebuilt in its default form. 

On the  scheduled date and time reserved by the speaker, the bot would make the necessary announcements to the assembled attendees and the room would be rebuilt with all the customization specified previously by the speaker.  If requested, the bot would deliver the lecture on behalf of the speaker using the text chat box coordinated dynamically with the previously arranged slides on a giant screen at the front of the room.  The speaker could be therefore absent from the room, or if present, could answer questions at the end of the lecture.  In addition the bot could be instructed to turn off the text chat for the attendees during the lecture and only allow them to whisper to each other.  At the end of the session, exactly in accordance with the timetable, the bot would announce that the next lecture would start in five minutes, collapse the room and then rebuild it to the specification of the following speaker.  All of the six rooms could function independently and concurrently; each with its own bot controlled by the central database.

VDR Lecture in Progress A VDR Auditorium Ready for Customization

In conclusion, it may be seen that the Bauhaus movement ushered in an age of architecture that managed in part to marry industrial techniques to the construction of buildings.  However, due to its very nature, architecture still lags behind the enormous advances we have seen in the industrial and consumer products of today.  I hope that the above descriptions of a few of the projects undertaken by Digitalspace over the last few years serve to illustrate an exciting exploration of a virtual present and the possibility of a real future where architecture can fully capitalize on the benefits of a wired world.

Stuart Gold
Bruce Damer

Other writings by Stuart Gold related to this subject:

Intelligent Environments (or My Friends and Other Floor Tiles)
MONTE: Madeira Organisation for Networked Technology Environment
The Architecting of Cyberspace - Biota II
Architectural Bulletin from May 1996
Architecturel Bulletin from July 1996