Virtual Zumthor: An Interview with Creator Ihssane Alami

A key advantage to working in communal spaces is the sudden, unanticipated opportunity to broaden one’s knowledge on their area of interest by engaging with the people who inhabit it. Late last year, I had one such experience as I sat alone coding for my own thesis on SocialVR in the VRFirst Lab at Bahcesehir University when segments of the University’s architecture department quickly descended on the space and an encore thesis presentation by now-graduate Ihssane Alami broke out. I stopped what I was doing and took a multi-hour break from my own work to learn about VR’s relationship to architecture.

The subject was the Steilneset Memorial by architect Peter Zumthor and artist Louise Bourgeois. It was constructed in Vardø, Norway to commemorate the 91 people convicted and executed for the practice of witchcraft in the 17th century, more than 300 years after their passing.

The Steilneset Memorial

The history and architects were unknown to me, but I picked up enough shards of my architectural knowledge from visits to Taliesin West and 99% Invisible episodes to have a short conversation on the topic. Alami had me try the VR experience “Virtual Zumthor” and she also agreed to an interview.

Could you please start by telling us about yourself and any collaborators you had on this project?

I’m a recent graduate from Bahcesehir University with an M.A. in Architecture and originally from Morocco. My brother Khalil Alami also joined me in creating the VR experience. He is an applications developer for games and the web. He is also an artificial intelligence project developer and the one who introduced me to the concept of VR by developing this gamic project called “Virtual Zumthor”. I’m also deeply grateful to my adviser, Assistant Prof. Dr. Dürnev Atilgan for her guidance and continuous support.

I was fortunate enough to catch a repeat presentation of your thesis work and participate in the VR experience. What do you think are the benefits of doing architectural research in VR and how common is it in your department?

I believe that the implementation of VR in Architecture will strengthen the architectural experience of space and time, as well as help in a better understanding of the two concepts space and time in the architectural field. As far as I know, research using VR is not very common in my department, yet it is gradually becoming an attractive topic.
Project Zumthor
Could you briefly describe the project and its underlying philosophy for those who haven’t experienced it?
Architecture can turn VR into an instrument toward generating an architecture that combines the immaterial and the material, so they are in juxtaposition, not opposition, with the drive of enriching the architectural spatial experience. Therefore, my thesis is in experiencing the effects of displacement of real architectural materiality, caused by virtuality, on architectural spatial experience, through developing the gamic project “Virtual Zumthor” as part of the thesis.
“Virtual Zumthor” is the reproduction of the Steilneset Memorial by Peter Zumthor and Louise Bourgeois. The gamic project is intended to add the virtual dimension, emphasizing materiality, and its effects on architectural spatial experience. The user will experience a 1:1 scale reproduction of the memorial, gradually in four different levels, each level with higher material definition.
The concept of Virtual Zumthor focused on offering the following points:
- Extension of the human body experience.
- Adding a virtual dimension to the human spatial experience.
- Reflecting and enhancing the variety of human spatial experience.
- A navigational choice; yet, at the same time a coherent experience.
- Experiencing materiality, and its effects on architectural spatial experience.
-Users playing an active role, both implied and implicated in the construction and composition of the experience.

However, the immaterial aspect of virtuality and the missing senses in the virtual environments, due to the technological limitations, virtuality in Virtual Zumthor challenged the familiar spatial categories by extending the variety of experiences offered to the participants. Through filling the gap in spatial experience engendered by the missing senses and by other factors affecting the spatial experience, such as memories, imagination and background information, Virtual Zumthor offered a unique spatial experience to each of the participants. Virtuality offers to architecture an entirely new way of experiencing space, referring to Pabst, virtuality offers a unique experience to each person, illustrated by sense of scale, adjancies, context, and overall feeling of space and time.

Project Zumthor

We’ve seen VR become a relatively inexpensive and effective design tool for many fields, including machine parts and interior design alongside architecture. In fact, I visited Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg last year and learned that people buying custom designed private jets first preview its interior in VR. Apart from cost, do you think there’s a benefit to using VR over other methods, like models and sketches? Are there some things that VR cannot yet do for designers? And is this improving?

I believe the one of benefits of VR in such situations is that it helps clients feel and understand the space better compared to models and sketches, which is rarely understood by clients as it is more of a professional communication tool than a client communication tool. The immersion of the human senses in VR and the virtual space into the real space is still very weak, yet it is improving.

Have you used or considered using VR to experience design that would be impossible to build in real life? For example, because they’d be too expensive or they break the laws of physics? What might that teach you about more conventional architecture?

Yes I did consider so, as it will allow and extend the architectural spatial experiences and help in a better understanding of the architectural space.

During your VR experience of the Steilneset Memorial, my mind was often drawn to the distant past. Do you think VR is good medium for connecting us to the past in this way? Have you had experiences of that?

“Virtual Zumthor” gives evidence for that. It revealed that while many materiality aspects are missing in the virtual environment, due to technological limitations, other aspects rise. For instance, memories of the past, pure imagination and knowledge related to the scene’s background. The mind fills in the gap engendered via the missing aspects to attain a complete experience required from the body and mind of the subject. Virtual spatiality might be considered an experience of another dimension, one that emphasizes mental perception more than the physical perception.
What are your plans for this project and what will you do once it’s completed?

My ongoing plan is a phenomenological approach to virtuality since I believe it is significant and also required. Once my project is completed, I’m planning to publish it and pursue PhD studies that continue my research into VR and architecture.

Ihssane Alami