Shifts in technology reflect how designers are creating experiences of architecture and cities. New advances engender novel ways of working, and in turn, shape our design process. As a practice defined by pushing boundaries, experimenting with workflows, and embracing new design technologies, Morphosis has a forty-year history of enthusiastically wondering at the future.
As the firm’s current Director of Design Technology, Kerenza Harris’ Advanced Technology team is developing systems and tools that can be integrated from concept design through fabrication. She works in tandem with Alessio Grancini of the Advanced Technology Team to head the research and development of immersive experiences (XR) and new technologies at Morphosis. In an exclusive interview with ArchDaily, Kerenza and Alessio discuss their personal backgrounds and current projects, as well as the role of design technology at Morphosis.
EB: Where did your interest in architecture and design come from?
KH: Even though you might say the work I do now is more technical, my interest initially came from the art world. I went to a high school in Belgium where you specialize in the arts—originally, I thought I might go into cartooning! —but in my final year I ‘discovered’ architecture. I was drawn to the unique combination of open-endedness and pragmatism (and maybe the greater stability it promised as a career choice) as well as the notion that architecture could encompass the narrative and storytelling qualities I was interested in to begin with.
AG: I also came from an art school background, in product design. But my undergraduate studies in Italy were focused heavily on theory, philosophy—less on technical skills or on digital production. So, I was initially attracted to architecture, and visualization specifically, because they bridged all of these—theory, technical production, as well as my own personal interests in gaming and animation. My first encounter with this more technologically-aware approach was when I was introduced to the parametric work of Patrik Schumacher. Not to say I agree with his vision or politics, but for me it was an important idea that discussions of aesthetics could overlap and influence and interface with discussions of socioeconomics. This deepened my interest in what a virtual environment was and could be.
EB: Your work at Morphosis is not produced in isolation; you are surrounded by a culture of investigation and experimentation through the practice itself and its history. How do past projects and ideas inform your work today?
KH: The past work at the office is very influential, but in ways that are not always immediately apparent or so literal. As you say, it’s more about a culture than about the work itself. There’s an expectation that your work will involve questioning the premises of a project or maybe the relationships between systems, and that you will take extra time to go through this questioning process. At Morphosis, this process is by nature more productive, iterative, than theoretical… it might involve many studies that are technical, formal, performance-based, and which might not lead anywhere. And in the office, on a day-to-day basis you are surrounded by these past studies, which might inform how you would go about approaching and testing a problem in a current project. In this sense, I would say we are a bit ambivalent about past work. There’s an inherent drive to evolve and move beyond pre-established ideas either in the practice or in any specific project, to experiment with whatever new knowledge or technology is available. Separately we are always looking around in other related fields and finding ideas and methods that might have a connection or a practical application in our work. In any case, yes - nothing is done in isolation. It’s always a response, maybe questioning or challenging, but always a dialogue.
As there’s an increase in the complexity of architectural systems, software and tools, we’ve learned that the practice of architecture is well-served by being collaborative. That translates into how my team works day-to-day. Each of us on the technology team have developed expertise in a certain area, and according to our expertise and the needs of a project, we might join a project from the start see it through until the end, or we might come in at strategic moments. The office is quite horizontal and flexible in terms of hierarchy in design and decision-making, so we’ve been able to do many different things based on our interests, which informs how we use technology on a given project.
AG: For myself, it is interesting to come into this working environment and culture at an early phase of my career, where I am still trying to figure out how to link my interests as a student with where I want to go in the profession. After graduating from SCI-Arc, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in architecture--I didn’t see how it could encompass some of the directions and platforms that I found promising and that felt more ‘current’ to me. But I had the chance to work here [at Morphosis], and with it, to see how experimentation might fit day-to-day into practice, in a pragmatic and organizational sense as well as in terms of a design ethos. Thom Mayne’s vision has always been incredibly cutting-edge and ahead of its time—he’s managed to continuously take risks while successfully keeping an international office and a relevant voice in design in general. It’s an interesting model of practice to see as a young professional.
But as you say, I’m also working amongst a whole history of this activity; exploring the Morphosis archive and finding a twenty-year-old drawing that resembles a contemporary art piece is definitely something that could happen on a daily basis in the office and makes you believe in your own personal contribution to enlarge a timeless and genius project. Sometimes, also in my position I am working with ‘archival material’ directly, you could say ‘remastering’ project files into a new medium of AR/VR visualization, for exhibitions, publications, or curiosity to see what we can make of past ideas in a new context. Also, the conversion of physical models or older files into a contemporary format or newer digital mediums like AR/VR/XR comes with a lot of decision making and somehow lets the projects being partially reinterpreted by yourself as a digital creator and developer.
EB: Can you touch on some projects you’re currently working on?
KH: My team’s work falls into two domains—R&D, which is more exploratory and not necessarily connected to any particular project, and project-based work, which often ends up with just as much potential for ‘innovation’ so-to-speak, as you are wrestling with the unpredictable reality of a building or site. For the past few years we’ve been working on the new US embassy campus in Beirut, which is very interesting from a technical standpoint. With a 44-acre site, it’s quite large, and it’s also sloped; to further complicate the project, it must be as self-sustaining as possible in terms of living needs, energy, water, waste, and so on. To address this, we’re having to develop new workflow strategies in terms of coordinating with a huge consulting team, and we’ve also had to create very specific tools and ways of working to preserve a flexibility in design while meeting the complex goals of a governmental project. For example, this includes higher performance demands, which we respond to with smarter, more data-rich, more granular model elements that we can in turn mine for various analysis purposes later on as the design evolves.
Often, we’ll get a chance to further develop a system or concept across several projects. For example, we have two large commercial buildings in Korea—one completed, one under construction--where we’ve been exploring ways to collapse complex, multilayered facades into increasingly integrated systems. On the first project, Kolon One & Only tower, the challenge was to create lightweight modules for the brise-soleil with minimum supporting structure, and which could be varied to account for different light angles on the façade. We were able to partner with our fabricators to design and create each façade element as a mold-formed fiber-reinforced polymer (FRP) monocoque shell structure that supports its own weight, a process which involved iteratively sculpting the element until it achieves a certain performance level for shading, weight, and views outward from the building. We pushed this concept further in the Sejong M Bridge, currently under construction, that uses a system of glass-fiber reinforced concrete ‘megapanels’ that are fully unitized with the building envelope. For both projects my team works primarily in the cloud-based 3D EXPERIENCE platform by Dassault Systemes (CATIA is part of this software platform) to design, rationalize, and evaluate the building elements, trading geometry back and forth with the main project design team.
On the R&D side, we’re also creating immersive experiences (falling under ‘XR,’ a catch-all term for augmented reality, virtual reality, and mixed-reality), where we’re working with a broad approach that’s either linked to a project and client needs, or we have the other end of the spectrum, which is pure experimental, about storytelling, art, returning to unfinished ideas in past projects or playing with the representational tropes of architecture. We’re ‘leveraging our assets,’ as they say in the business, to explore new ways of thinking about space. I think that’s where we’re having the most fun right now.
AG: I mainly work with Kerenza in the R&D capacity, though I also create visualizations and immersive experiences for projects, for clients. One of the recent projects has been an AR application, called “Interfaces,” which corresponded with the Dassault Systemes x Morphosis installation at the 2019 Milan Design Week. It was more of a prototype—our first try creating a bespoke phone application that incorporated AR--and we wanted to capture an idea about the process of making and the plurality of it. So we juxtaposed study models, 1:1 virtual mockups of building facade elements, floating video portals, finished building images, immersing and maybe overwhelming the viewer in a kind of installed AR space surrounded by design process material.
We also did a project for the 2019 Architecture and Design Film Festival where we took older digital model studies from past projects and embedded them in abstract virtual reality environments, completely transforming the context and experience of interacting with them—altering them to be sometimes infinitely larger, or smaller, or destroyable, or multiplied, or otherwise manipulated by the viewer. There’s also the aural dimension that we don’t talk about as much in architecture, which is integral to your experience of space and very conducive to experimentation in VR.
We’re now working to expand this idea in a new project I’m really excited about, a portal where we can host these ambient experiments with archival material, and whoever is interested from the public can join in and experience. Indeed, Morphosis has a huge digital heritage of projects and tangents and concept studies collected over the years. If you want to engage a public audience toward architecture, I think it is more likely to be successful if you have an approach that partially disregards technical architectural needs that can be understood by architects only and leave room for play and for the audience’s interpretations and fantasies.
EB: New technologies in architecture have been used as a way to visualize designs and ideas. How do you both approach the use of technology in the office, and how does it relate to the design process at Morphosis?
KH: As architects, we have these concrete, tangible notions of design and physical space… we get obsessed with quantifiable performance and sometimes downplay the way that spatial experience extends to feelings, memories, and intangible ideas, and the different experiences individuals—say, the experience of 60-year-old women, compared with a 5-year-old child—will have within these spaces. But when we create immersive XR experiences, where we must design the entire environment, choreography, atmosphere, and so forth, not to mention the avatar that the viewer inhabits to enter and interact with the space, we’re faced with addressing the whole experience beyond just shaping a physical structure. It demands a different way to understand architecture. We have to look back at what we are doing and ask ourselves how we design, how do we conceptualize experience, and can we deconstruct it in a way that can be reproduced in immersive (XR) space. It’s forcing us to work with a different point of view, and a new range of questions are starting to appear. Maybe they are not ‘new’ questions, actually, as the work at Morphosis especially in the 1980s was always playing with affect and the way of influencing a psychological state of a visitor, sometimes provocatively. Immersive experience design expands the scope and possibilities of these experiments and puts them in dialogue with other contemporary media, like gaming and immersive cinema. And we can bring these investigations and that knowledge back to the creation of architecture, and it influences how we approach design in general.
AG: To speak about visualization, specifically – in architecture there has come to be this notion that what looks “good,” which usually means the most realistic, time-consuming, and expensive, is the most successful and desirable outcome. This doesn’t always align with the reality of a project, in terms of what you want to communicate, what you want the design team or client to focus on, or the workflow of a project and resources you have at your disposal. At Morphosis, we’re interested in how we can optimize visualization, make it more efficient and embedded in the designer workflow, leveraging as we said earlier the BIM assets as well as real-time technology and avoid rebuilding models just for the purposes of visualization. Instead we are making more useful, more data rich and at the same time lighter project models that we can take from to be deployed to multiple platforms, including XR.
EB: Alessio, I’m wondering if you could talk about your experience working with project teams and what your process is like?
AG: Every time we start a visualization project, we begin with the current form of the project model and start thinking in terms of staging it in a “scene”. Visuals are just an extract from the central dynamic file the project team is creating, and then we go through a process of making the composition be more natural, focused, or whatever our needs, to convey the message or information we are trying to communicate. Our projects are very narrative-based, and there’s a reason we have a very precise sequence of images that you see in every project proposal. These ideas can be deployed in AR or VR, or simply baking an extraction of an animation to share a specific view or idea.
For immersive experiences, we want to do more than give you an atmosphere, we want to give you the narrative of the project. This narrative also drives the entry points, interactivity, choreography, and movement parameters like speed and field of vision of the immersive experiences. The scene is alive with you, and you are free to navigate around it and discover more about the project for yourself.
In a pragmatic sense, I use the Unity platform and Unreal Engine expanded upon with C# scripts very regularly to build visualizations. I want to give a shout out to Damjan Jovanovic, who is faculty at SCI-Arc and whose work introduced me to the concept of script-based animation workflow made in Unity. These tools bring a whole new dimension to visualization; it’s very similar to what a game developer would do.
EB: Drawing from your current work and investigations, where do you see technology and architecture headed in the future?
AG: I would like to think architecture in the future will more fully embrace new technologies that help automate certain repetitive tasks, making more room for a software development practice where architects are not only designers but also technologists deeply aware of the tools they are using.
But, from my own perspective as a young professional, I worry this is being inhibited by the way architecture education today is framed. Students are required to be superficially productive with a large variety of different software and technology without going very deep into how they work—not deep enough at least to understand where they can be creative or advancing the tools themselves. There is too much generalization, and at the same time too little cross-disciplinary discussion. We fall behind other disciplines where people might specialize within their field earlier in their studies, understanding they will be working on a team of experts, not individually… and then, to make it worse we don’t look outside of architecture to draw on these skills and ideas to pull us forward.
Architecture needs to be evolving, and its insularity means it is having a hard time catching up with advancements we see in other disciplines. In software or in apps, for example, there are movements from two dimensional ways of thinking to more three-dimensional models, like instead of having to physically hit a button to have a desired effect you can simply create a motion in space. For XR, that’s really interesting to me, this movement from 2D UI (user interface) design to 3D, movement-based interfaces, and is easily translatable to architectural concepts.
But changes like this aren’t something that you can really build in one generation, it may take many steps from one generation to another. So, we should do a better job of defining our own advancements, maybe creating our own technology and media, recognize more the common ground we have with other disciplines, and be better at using and ‘leveraging’ the complex digital assets we make, as Kerenza said. Everything is becoming very decentralized, and I think eventually that everyone will be creating what they need instead of only receiving their platforms, services, components from massive third parties.
This I think is also where there is huge opportunity for architecture to redefine its products and scope. While architecture of course is ubiquitous, the audience for an architecture firm is very small and the penetration of its products into people’s daily life is very limited, especially compared with a software company where the impact can be worldwide. Architects are often making change at the scale of a single site. I would love to see the education of architecture expanded so that students can learn a range of ideas and platforms that have a broader influence, more flexibility. It’s not easy to say exactly how this would work, but I’d love to see architecture aligned with practices that have a greater and broader impact. Maybe architecture becomes more of an approach to the creation of flexible digital assets that don’t end at a single building.
KH: Yes, this makes sense. I think the future will be less about making architecture, as it will be about breaking things down into systems, with architecture as just one product or asset resulting from that system. To address this, we’ll have to build new ways of working and thinking about the scope of our work. Ultimately, I think it will come to the point where it doesn’t matter if it’s a chair, a room or whatever, because we are building a systematic understanding about these things, and how they can start to merge together or react to each other depending on each situation’s needs and parameters. Maybe that is a bit vague… In any case, architecture, visualization, building sciences are changing at faster and faster rates, and for any architect or designer to make any meaningful change in these fields, they must come with an integrated system approach rather than from siloed departments or disciplines. Day-to-day we’re working to anticipate and manage and push this convergence.