The Conversation Series
Transcripts of recordings between Michael Rotondi and colleagues in architecture and academia,
taken from video meetings. The dialogue has been lightly edited for text format.
With Prof. Michael Benedikt, Architect, Author and Distinguished Professor at University of Texas at Austin
October 7, 2020
Michael Rotondi :
I had a student who is in the class now build a virtual SCI-Arc, and each person has their own avatar. We put mats in the main space of the lecture hall – they’re zafus, meditation mats. So, everybody comes in, they have to kneel down, and I'm in front. And we chat for a while – it's like a homeroom, we treat it as a homeroom.
Michael Benedikt :
How is this all done – in Second Life?
MR : There's a platform called Core. And it was made by the company that produces a big game called Fortnite. And what they've done, is taken crowd sourcing of game design so anybody can use this platform to design a game. Which, if it's a good game, it gets launched by the producers of Fortnight. So when you arrive at Core, there's always new games, there are about 20 little windows that show.
We're using the platform and took all of the tools that were useful to us, and the library of forms that I decided : ‘OK, let's use these and not those.’ So in the beginning of the semester we spent a week just doing workshops, we call them showcases, and then they have to start building worlds based on the parameters that I gave them.
Every Monday we all stay together and go through all the worlds together. Because then they start to say, ‘Wait a second, how did you do that?’ And I say ‘OK, afterwards you can talk about that, or if it's really critical, you can go off and do that right now.’ The Teaching Assistant who worked for three months over the summer putting this all together with the guy in my studio called Nels, he's also available to show them how to do things.
There is a social media platform called Discord, so we're using that to communicate with each other. And that's the way you enter SCI-Arc, through Discord. We have a place where we put things for them to read, things to research, we put up syllabi. And we also get access to each other – like the voice channel that I speak to them on.
MB : Right, but when you're in your meditation room or your class, you have it with avatars. Because the primary experience of campus, our campus, anything – is crowds, is people. So, to have hundreds of thousands of people wandering around the campus where everyone's invisible to everyone – it's a kind of a desolate feeling.
MR : Yeah, that's a real apocalypse. Some of the students have populated them with people that are moving around, but they’re holographic. You know, there is kind of an energy field in the figure of a human.
MB : And can they walk through walls and things like that?
MR : No, some things you can actually move, you can pass through, and there's other things that you can't. Like matter, you can't walk through. You know, it's post-Zoom, so we were keeping a list of all of the things that I'm saying, ‘well can we do such and such’ and they said ‘no, not yet.’ So before we started the class, I said, ‘let's keep a list of all the things that I'm asking us to do, and then we'll figure out how to do that the next iteration.’ So we'll keep developing this.
MB : Second Life and these virtual worlds with, dinky little buildings and avatars stiffly walking around, I just feel like that's a lack of creativity there.
MR : That's what the objective is with this. Just to get rid of the awful aesthetic – you can't even use that word – just the shit-looking stuff… They can't use any existing architecture that's in the repertoire of that particular software. We just said no – you can’t do that. So they're constructing. They’re not doing the architecture yet, they're making worlds. And these worlds are matter to light, basically, which is pretty interesting for them. The adventurous ones are trying to figure out how to use air as a medium for making things.
MB : Pretty interesting..
MR : And how to use energy, or fire, which we call energy, as a medium for making things.
MB : Wow, are there computable objects that behave like that? Is there fire in the game engine?
MR : Yeah, there's fire. Or you can dematerialize things, and so it looks like you have an energy field – you see a pattern constantly moving, and it's shaped like a solid object, but it's not a solid object. The ones that are the most curious will begin to read about, which I've asked them all to, but they all don't do it, to read about the physics of what they're doing so that they can at least begin to understand it. To see if it has any impact on the way they're thinking.
I was showing them things like how to make architecture from subtraction instead of addition. Or if it is addition, it's cut and fill. And then we gave them examples of all of the architecture made from earth and mud in the Middle East. You know, villages that look like Eraserhead haircuts in Yemen – Petra.. And they go, ‘Oh wow, how do they make that?’ I say, ‘You cut the stone, you shape it – it’s sculpting.’ ‘Wow, you sculpt the whole building? That is so cool!’ We have those kind of conversations – I’m like, ‘oh yeah, it's cool.’
MB : ‘Yeah, this old guy knows a few things.’
MR : I know.. they always ask me, ‘How do you know all this stuff?’ I say, ‘I just don't sleep. Sometimes I eat, so I'm always studying and collecting images.’
MB : We did something called sun shade boundaries. This is a little bit about what the screen porch does. But you know, talk about shade as a volume with body, sunlight as a volume with body. We identify the intersections between sun and shade. One guy took a building, did a digital model of it, cast shadows from it. Then took the volume of shade itself and took out the building, so all that was left was the volume of shade, and then threw sunlight on that. So the shade itself, through its own shade, it was the shade of shade and the shadow of shadows.
And then there's a lot of aesthetics, sort of built into trying to make human bodies intersect sun and shade, so that the shade creates sections across the body. I have lots of pictures of people under umbrellas, people under arcades, with the varieties of sunlight falling on them. I'm very big on the idea that sunlight has to be given shape and structure before it hits a window. So, it doesn't matter how good a design you come up with if you do a high-rise apartment, or anything you want, you'll never get the light right, or good. Because you go right up to the outside edge and you put a shitload of glass on it. The light that comes in has no structure. The light that comes in is just, you know, clouds or sunshine. But if you have a house, or something that's near the ground or on the ground, by the time sunlight gets to your window, it's already shredded by fences, trees, overhangs all the shit that's outside.
It's not only bouncing, right? It's actually structuring the light that comes through the window. When the sun moves, the pattern of sunlight actually has a 3-dimensional transformation inside the house. And there's also varieties of edge sharpness. The more distant objects make fuzzier shadows, more close objects make sharper shadows, and so you can just look at the pattern of sharpness and blurriness of shadow, and form a 3D picture of the world that’s projecting those shadows.
So, I sensitized them to all of that and I think I now have them all thinking that part of architecture, and part of the landscape around architecture’s job, is to make sunlight have form before it gets to the building.
MR : That's nice. Shaping light instead of space.
MB : Yeah. Well, in addition to – It's all good, but I know that the structure of sunlight is not something people talk about. So that's my little contribution.
MR : Well it likely has an impact on a few of the students. All of them are wrestling to do whatever the exercise is, but there's a few of them that it gives them the opportunity to use their mind in ways that they wouldn't normally use it. So, this is really a kind of medium for that.
MB : I used to give an exercise where I'd say, ‘You have to make a four inch cube out of anything. And you have to make 2 settings for it. In the one setting, in the background, the cube has to appear, and the other cube has to disappear. That's the project.
MR : That’s a twister.
MB : Yeah, there's a lot of conventional solutions, you know using color contrast, shadow contrast, form contrast – every kind of contrast to make the cube pop. And everything that showed up very consistently, was that the cubes that were designed to go away had more presence than the ones that were given presence. Because, when something tries to escape from you, it calls your attention to it – instead of you run after it. And so, one kid made a cube that was just a piece of wire that went four inches this way, four inches this way, four inches that way.
They came up with all kinds of clever things. One of them made a beautiful four-inch cube out of wood, he put it down on a wooden table, and he said, ‘It disappears.’ And then he just pushed it to the edge, half over the edge, and he said, ‘now it appeared.’
But the cleverest one was, he took a pretty ordinary looking cube and put it down on the table and said, ‘OK, that appears’ and then he pulled out $100 bill and put it next to it.