“How shall we hew the sun / Split it and make blocks / To build a ruddy palace?” wondered Wallace Stevens in his 1918 poem Architecture for the Adoration of Beauty. Inspired by the verse, in his essay The Room, the Street and Human Agreement, Louis Kahn paraphrased “What slice of the sun enters your room?” The great architect also spent his entire career experimenting with those dual protagonists: light and shadow. Kahn’s obsession with light, and in particular the architectural control of it, influenced countless architects, including Peter Zumthor and Tadao Ando.
Kynthia Chamilothori shares that fascination. A 2014 Architectural Engineering graduate from the Technical University of Crete, where she received the Limmat Stiftung Excellence Award, and current PhD candidate in the Laboratory of Integrated Performance In Design (LIPID) in EPFL, Chamilothori’s research diploma project focuses on how the patterns of light and shadow shape the way we perceive architectural spaces. But, while Kahn and other architects throughout history have relied on little more than intuition, Chamilothori is using far more scientific methods, working with a tool that wasn’t available to the great masters: virtual reality.
Thus far, the most visible uses of VR in architecture have been in the communication between architect and client, with many clients finding such immersive demonstrations a huge improvement in understanding their architects’ design intent. But Chamilothori’s studies work somewhat differently—while designers create VR experiences to transfer information to their client about the design, for Chamilothori the key information is the unconscious feedback that test subjects provide during their VR experience. One of her recent investigations, on which she has been working with her colleague Dr Siobhan Rockcastle, consists of monitoring participants’ head movements in scenes with different architectural and daylight characteristics and looking for patterns.
“It raises a series of interesting questions,” she explains. “what part of the field of view did the participants spend the most time exploring? Does this behavior differ between spaces, or between scenes with diffuse light or sunlight patches in the same space? Are there common traits in the most often explored areas of the scene? Does the behavior suggest attraction or avoidance towards particular features of the architectural space, such as the contrast or the light distribution in the scene?” All of these questions, in the end, serve to answer one overriding concern: “Does the behavior suggest attraction or avoidance towards particular features of the architectural space, such as the details, the contrast or the light distribution in the scene?”
And head tracking isn’t the only feedback mechanism that can be investigated with VR. In another study, conducted by Chamilothori in collaboration with Giorgia Chinazzo, the researchers aim to get a greater understanding of facade design by tracking test subjects’ physiological feedback, focusing on responses that have been linked to a person’s emotional state, such as skin conductance. She hopes that “the outcome of this study will further our knowledge on how the built environment affects the human body and mind.”
Despite her extensive work with VR in her research, when it comes to design Chamilothori is no technological evangelist. She believes that VR is best used at a later stage in the design process: “In the initial design stage, I like the idea of using models or sketches with rough shapes and lines that have an inherent lack of precision. They allow for a multitude of interpretations and assist the creative process of design exploration.” The idea is that VR should support, not replace, the architect’s intuition.
Chamilothori’s ultimate goal is to help architecture develop beyond the purely visual into something more phenomenological. She’s particularly excited to see what the future holds for VR, and what new ways of measuring physiological feedback could do for our understanding of design. “I think that tactility and thermal sensation could immensely deepen the feeling of presence in the virtual environment. Imagine if you could trace different materials with your fingers, feel the warmth of sunlight patches or the temperature difference as you explore a sequence of spaces! And at the same time monitor people’s physiological responses, from brain activity or skin conductance to gaze. That could greatly advance our understanding of how architecture influences human perception and behavior.”