Thinking inside the box with augmented reality

Essay

How AR can make all buildings a place for learning

‘We have come to realise that all our projects are educational.’ This observation of Asif Khan’s in his lecture to the Glasgow School of Art earlier this year is astute: space and learning are closely linked. We can move forwards or backwards in understanding, flip our perspective, or even take an idea for a walk. These might be turns of phrase, but they demonstrate how our mind spatialises thinking and the role architecture could play in learning — and how the advent of augmented reality has a significant role to play.

Educational architecture

Certainly, buildings can be important sites of learning — many of Kahn’s most notable projects are museums and galleries — but contemporary architecture takes an educative back seat. This is exemplified most by the acute angles and colliding forms of Liebskind’s seminal Jewish Museum which evoke feelings of loss and pain. But without the exhibits they contain, you would not know why.

Historically, architecture has not only created buildings to learn in, but also buildings to learn from. In 1845, Henry Acland, the Lee’s Reader at Oxford University, joined forces with John Ruskin to champion a museum for the university’s natural history collections. Acland envisaged the Oxford Museum not only as an opportunity to showcase the natural world, but also as a chance to frame an understanding of it: he brought the university’s specimens under one roof and curated a cabinet layout that demonstrated French naturalist George Cuvier’s categorisations.

Acland envisaged that the architecture would be part of a great lesson on the order of the natural world. Subsequently, the design of the Oxford Museum by Dublin-based architects Thomas Deane and Benjamin is full of nods to nature. At the heart of the museum is a central court ringed by arcades of columns; each of the capitals represents a different plant, chosen to represent every taxonomic order of botany; and each of the shafts is a monolith from one of the four nations of the British Isles, chosen to represent each epoch of geology.

Yet our times are very different to Acland’s, whose catalogues in stone embody a distinctly Victorian approach to knowledge, fixated on creating definitive intellectual resources like encyclopaedias and dictionaries. Today we see knowledge as something more open and dynamic. We have moved towards new media, like Wikipedia, which can be updated in real-time and edited by all its users. This new digital frontier poses challenges for an educative architecture, signifying a move away from static cues, a la the Oxford Museum, to more fluid and transient methods of communication.

The advent of AR

This is why augmented reality (AR) is such a powerful prospect for architects. AR interfaces (like smartphones) overlay digital elements into the space you inhabit. Where the Oxford Museum’s capitals were carved in sandstone, the detail of tomorrow’s architecture could be a virtual skin. AR would align the way we experience architecture with how we learn. AR elements, as digital fabrications, can be updated as readily as a webpage, unlike cumbersome and costly traditional materials. AR can be participatory: gestures, speech and movement can all be cues to change the space you inhabit, to perhaps reveal new details, uncover urban histories, or leave a mark. If we experienced architecture through AR it could be open both to change and to public participation; it would be a contemporary mode of architecture to not only learn in, but to learn from.

London-based studio, Space Popular is currently pioneering the use of AR in architecture. Their Kazymierzowsky Rebound (see video below) is a proposal for a multimedia memorial combining built form and AR. The memorial commemorates the history of its site, Cubryna Park, which was once the grounds of the Kazymierzowsky palace. Space Popular’s scheme involves the recreation of all five evolutions of the palace as digital models, for visitors to see with true-to-history scale and siting through their smartphones. Kazymierzowsky Rebound shows how AR can create designs that could evolve as their cultural context changes: whereas a physical reconstruction of the palace in situ would have necessitated fixing on one of its iterations, Space Popular turn to AR to allow the visitor to experience a historical continuum.

AR has been more widely adopted in visual arts, but there too its potential for architecture is clear. Last summer Olafur Eliasson launched an AR app, Speakr, to give children too young to vote a voice in discussions about the climate emergency. Speakr allows children to transplant their faces onto nature — it works with trees, rocks, and more — and speak up about protecting the planet.

Timothy Morton perceives that an environmentalist mindset depends on ‘a sense of my weird inclusion in what I’m experiencing’. We learn best as active participants in the discourse of the climate emergency, not as passive recipients of it. If buildings remain equally passive, we might never be able to let them reach their potential of providing educative experiences and raising awareness of the threats to nature. Architects could follow the example of Eliasson and embrace the possibilities of AR. The participatory approach of Speakr, which could be integrated into architecture rather than nature, shows how this educational intent could be possible through design, and not only through words.

Perhaps this isn’t architecture, at least, not our contemporary understanding of it. The design of digital environments and ‘real’ environments are mostly treated as two distinct disciplines. However, it’s worth revisiting the Oxford Museum, whose informative ornament was the work of masons and not architects. Ruskin, as co-champion of the Oxford Museum, shared in Acland’s vision to show the breadth of nature in carving, but had a further motivation as a proponent of the closer integration of architecture and other arts. Ruskin believed that no distinctions should be made between craftsmen, architects, painters and masons. If architects were to adopt this Ruskinian attitude today and embrace the new digital art of AR, they could design truly educational projects and rediscover a voice to engage us all in the issues that matter to them most.