ESR 6 – Paula Strunden

Simulating Atmospheres: How to digitize embodied design and decision-making processes in architecture.

Research Objectives

This project aims to produce a set of tacit design methods based on a multisensory index that could potentially be applied in the workflow of architects. As the topic of research turns into its own speculative tool, design-led research through making and experimentation will become the project’s primary source of data.

As the software architects employ in designing buildings is to a great extent based on the logic and set-up of the desktop computer, this research focuses on developing and testing architectural design methods that are native to immersive technologies by integrating the viewer’s location, its body and head movements, gestural interfaces and multisensorial feedback. The aim is to probe a new sensibility in the computer-aided architectural design process through embodied experimentation and simulation. Whether architects will be incorporating virtual drawing software in their ideation process in the near future or employ interactive mixed-reality experiences to facilitate decision-making processes, this PhD attempts to investigate and evaluate how the use of immersive technologies can potentially improve the quality of the built environment. And – at the same time – how architects’ knowledge can contribute to the future development of immersive design applications and tools. 


Project Description

This project researches the potential integration of soft design factors, to be understood here as non-quantifiable, sensory and emotive values of spaces, in the creative architectural design process through the application of immersive technologies, such as Virtual, Mixed-and Augmented Reality. 

Nowadays, digital tools and drawing software are primarily employed in architecture offices to facilitate planning, fabrication and production processes, as well as to visualize selected stages of the building design in development. However, in crucial moments of the creative design process, such as initial ideation or decision making, both digital design tools and representation methods lack implicit qualities that their traditional/analogue counterparts continue to offer. Thus, many practicing architects proceed with hand-drawn sketches, physical scale-models and mock-ups (if affordable), allowing for an intuitive, iterative and ad-hoc way-of-working that remains open to the viewer’s interpretation and that supports an embodied, multisensory interaction with the designed content at different scales and levels of abstractions. Due to this observed lack of embodied cognition in the contemporary digital architectural design process, this PhD aims to uncover why and how immersive technologies and three-dimensional, interactive, real-time simulations could address the shortcomings of digital tools and workflows and (re)integrate intuitive, emotive and soft design factors in the design and decision-making process. Finally, this interdisciplinary design-based research project investigates how immersive technologies can be applied to facilitate the communication of nonquantifiable architectural values, and thus help improve the atmospheric qualities of the built environment.


Tasks and Methodology

To achieve the above, this research will be conducted simultaneously on a practical and theoretical level. 

On the one hand, cutting-edge VR-related tools and usability testing methods will be applied directly to the architectural design and decision-making process in a series of consecutive experiments. These experiments will not follow the conventional logic of digital drawing software and set-ups, but instead, reinvest and learn from intuitive techniques such as hand-drawing and physical model making as well as historical techniques including 1:1 drawing and measurement methods through body size and movement. 

On the other hand, an inter- and transdisciplinary theoretical framework will be devised that includes readings from architectural theory and history, neuroscience, computer science and philosophy to evaluate the design process of the performative experiments. Parallel to the interdisciplinary literature review, the qualitative research will also combine a variety of methods and techniques, borrowed from the following disciplines: art and performance (embodied drawing), computer science and software engineering (3D modelling and programming), user experience and user interface design (prototyping and user-testing), film (time-based recording), video gaming (interactive and real-time rendering) and cognitive neuroscience (VR experiments with physiological measures).


Dissemination and Communication

Next to peer-reviewed articles, this research will be disseminated through a range of experimental formats, including location-based VR experiences, essay films, visual essays and performative lectures. Finally, the project will culminate in the production of a thesis in fulfillment of the requirements for a doctorate at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, including a potential exhibition of the research-led 1:1 XR models and design experiments.

On October 2020, Paula gave a lecture at the AA School about Virtual Reality. The video is available here.


More questions? Send Paula an email.