City Turns New Leaf in Second Life

22 Aug, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

Architecture professor uses virtual world to teach collaboration.

From my home in San Francisco, I can go to Oakland across the Bay in two ways. I can take the Bay Area Rapid Transit system to the downtown Oakland station. Or I can let Terry Beaubois, director of Montana State University’s Creative Research Lab, instantaneously teleport me to the digital Oakland in Second Life, a virtual world maintained by Linden Lab. The virtual Oakland is the works of Terry, his students, and architecture professor Ralph Johnson, the co-teacher of the Research Lab class. For the purpose of this newsletter (and to avoid the weekend commute), I chose to let Terry take care of my transportation.

Can We All Work Together
“We’re still teaching architects to be like Howard Roark,” observed Terry, reflecting on the uncompromising, idealist architect from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. “We tell them, you’re great, you’re wonderful, and you can do everything yourself.”

Part of the problem with adhering to the Roark model, Terry pointed out, is the lack of collaboration. “Most architecture students haven’t done much of it,” he noted. “They don’t learn to work together, even with other architecture students. That’s been my observation.

“And after graduation, it’s a completely different situation. Professional architects regularly work with structural, mechanical, and electrical engineers, contractors, subcontractors, product manufacturers, material suppliers, property owners, facility managers. The ability to work well on a team of talented professionals from a variety of disciplines is key to the success of the individual architects as well as any firm to which they belong.”

In 2006, Terry and Ralph decided to give the students in the Research Lab class an ultimate collaborative experience. They all flew to the Bay Area -- not just architecture students but filmmakers and musicians as well -- to study a section of the economically depressed West Oakland for nine days, then come up with ideas to improve the neighborhood -- architecturally, socially, and culturally.

“We all viewed aerial photographs of the site before going,” Terry said, “but being on the ground, walking around, it’s always quite different … Even if the students are going to be working in [Second Life’s] virtual environment, putting them in touch with the real site is important, so that when they’re working in the virtual world, they’re thinking about the real place.”

On the Ground
One Saturday afternoon, with Terry’s Second Life avatar Tab Scott as my guide, I visited the Creative Research Lab’s private island in Second Life. I found on the ground a scale model of West Oakland.

“It shows the massing model,” Terry explained. “It gives you a general overview of what the city looks like and the streets look like.”

Later, I discovered the scale model was also an interactive map. A visitor can click on a certain color-coded section of the model to fly, or teleport, directly into the correlating street corner or the sidewalk in virtual Oakland.

On the billboard next to the scale model, some students had posted historical facts about Oakland and its flora and fauna. On another board I found aerial photographs of Oakland, along with highlighted traffic routes and patterns. Nearby, someone else had compiled data on carbon-neutralizing strategies, wind energy, tide generation, green roofing, photovoltaic panels, and so on.

“It encourages students to explore how they can fit sustainability into an urban renewal project,” Terry explained. “Bert Gregory, an associate from Mithun Architects in Seattle and a Montana State University graduate, had been a guest speaker in our class and introduced the class to Mithun’s approach to sustainable design.”

Following the field trip to the Bay Area site, the students benefited from the presence of a traffic engineering student on the team. One of the things they discovered was, “The average speed on the major freeway I-880 was 25 miles per hour,” Terry recalled.

So the students had a radical idea: tear the freeway down. They’re currently using the Second Life environment to show what traffic patterns would be like without the sluggish freeway. The proposed revisions could be seen on one of the billboards.

On Creative Research Lab’s private island in Second Life, architecture students studied the traffic flow of West Oakland and came up with an alternative.

Close Up and Personal
Terry teleported me to the corner of 12 th Street and Pine Street in virtual Oakland. He directed me to the benches and the bike parking racks before the storefronts.

“I was observing Tracy, the young woman who designed this street corner here,” Terry recalled. “She gave a lot of thought into setting the walls back to allow for benches so they wouldn’t interfere with the sidewalk traffic. She also considered where the bicycle parking spaces should be, where the plants could be -- she was so thoughtful, because the environment of the virtual world allowed and supported that.”

All these considerations went into the phase normally associated with rough sketches and plans, Terry noted. “It feels natural to take these elements into account because, in this environment [Second Life], you can. In fact, it would feel like something is missing if you don’t put those [trees, parking spaces, etc.] in.”

Designing street corners in Second Life is up close and personal. It makes the students consider pedestrian traffic, curb angles, bench placement, bike racks, and other items usually not associated with the planning phase.

Currently, there’s no easy way to import CAD models from outside into Second Life, or export Second Life models in an editable form into CAD programs. Structures in Second Life are created using the construction interface available within the virtual environment.

“Importing/exporting to and from Second Life is something we architects want to see further developed,” Terry said. “It serves the architectural profession best if we can move our models back and forth between the various software programs we use, because we may need to do something in one program, but something else in another.”

The Fruit of the Digital Labor
Turning one corner, we found ourselves standing in the middle of an urban garden, populated with realistically shaded plants and trees (the branches and the leaves sway in the wind in response to the Second Life weather patterns).

“Some of the students found out there actually is a viable urban garden concept, the movement to put people more in touch with what they’re eating,” Terry noted. This, he pointed out, is what the students consider an alternative to driving great distance to a supermarket chain for groceries. The little lush backyard we were standing in was the result of the students’ study to determine the volume of crops that would be required to feed a school.

“This is expanding the definition of sustainability,” Terry pointed out. “Most studies look at green building materials or energy conservation, for example. But the work that Ralph Johnson and I are doing is looking at the entire community and the full range of issues that effect a community’s sustainability: Are there places for musicians to play, for instance?”

The study gives the students a much better idea of the square footages of vegetation required to support a community of a certain size. Consequently, the space allocation for the urban garden became a part of their proposal for West Oakland revival.

The virtual environment allows students to study the viability of cultivating urban gardens to support the community.

Second Life Beckons
Several years ago, when Terry announced he was going to teach an architecture class in Second Life, some of his colleagues asked, “Why?” Now, they asked, “How?” Terry has become a frequently requested keynote speaker at architecture conferences. His subject: how to use virtual environments to advance the building design profession.

“Decades ago, when CAD programs appeared in the market, some architects asked why you would even want to use a computer to do architecture,” Terry reminded us. Now, producing working drawings on a computer is a given. He predicts a similar evolution will happen with virtual environments.

This fall, among the projects and classes in the Creative Research Lab, Terry and Ralph are gearing up for another Sustainable Community Planning and Design research project class; artist and researcher Mike Kippenhan is co-teaching the Alternative Creative Space class with Terry. More exploration will occur in Landscape Planning & Design in a Virtual Environment; Paleontology in a Virtual Environment; and Preservation of Historic Buildings and Towns in a Virtual Environment.

For more on Terry Beaubois' class in Second Life, watch for "Tech Trends: First Hand Architecture in Second Life" in the October issue of Cadalyst magazine.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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