What Can Regular Architects Learn from ‘Experience Architects?’

Kelly Chan Kelly Chan

Independent gaming collective Babycastles turns the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History into an immerse, 360-degree gaming platform. Image via.

These days, there are markets for two types of architects: the architect in its conventional sense, for our buildings, infrastructure and physical surroundings, and the ‘experience architect,’ the mastermind behind the ‘architecture’ of the virtual realm (though I did come across a third type at a hair salon that claims to employ ‘hair architects,’ as described in the signage). The appropriation of the word ‘architect’ to describe any exterior line of work naturally draws comparisons between said vocation and the designing of physical structures. But perhaps there is a greater degree of exchange between the traditional notion of architecture and its metaphysical counterpart. This is the premise behind the ‘Physical Architecture Meets Interaction Design’ panel at SXSW.

“At its best, [architecture] starts to create place. It responds to our existential needs, to our mind and body,” began panelist Sean Coulter, principal designer at Pugsley Simpson Coulter Architects. “We’re trying to quantify everything and leaving behind the qualities of space that we can create,” he continued. “Take the Excalibur in Las Vegas—it’s a simulation of real architecture, based on castles in Europe. With simulated architecture, are we starting to have simulated experience?” he asks.

In this day and age, the market for experience architects is likely more prosperous than the market for regular architects, and, parallel to this, simulated experiences cannot be dismissed and devalued just because of their inherent intangibility. Here is where Leonard Souza, the lead experience architect at UniversalMind/SpatialKey, chimed in, boldly comparing the earth, sky, human and spirit in Heidigger’s theory of phenomenology to the aesthetics, story, mechanics and technology of a video game, as Huffington Post reports. The question then becomes whether or not physical architecture can learn from interactive design—exemplified by video games—to achieve a transcendent experience, or in other words, return to that spiritual description of architecture Coulter began with.

“A building should absorb its context…It should respond to its surroundings so it isn’t all just about aesthetics. Sure, cool-looking spaces are great, but do they really do something for the soul?” asks Coulter. From there, he plays a skeptic of Frank Gehry’s buildings, calling them “amazing” but also noting how they fail to consider “metaphysical and cultural needs.”

But what would the ‘transcendental’ merging of architecture and interaction design look like? Here is where the metaphor becomes a bit too literal, and Coulter cites a video game that is super-imposed upon the architecture of a building for site specificity. Though we can appreciate the building-turned-video-game phenomenon, its allusion here is deceptively reductive. Nonetheless, we agree with Coulter’s heightened consideration of metaphysical space in physical architecture and the imperative to “engage the mind by altering perception in a space.”

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