How architects are using virtual reality to walk through buildings that don’t yet exist

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In the studios of Morphosis Architects in Culver City, it is possible to step into the lobby of the new Orange County Museum of Art — even though construction on the museum, which will occupy an empty lot in Costa Mesa, isn’t scheduled to begin until sometime next year. By donning a pair of virtual reality goggles, however, you can stand before the planned museum’s large outdoor plaza at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and step into the soaring atrium, where, if you look up, you’ll see a pair of sky bridges and a skylight.

Two-dimensional renderings (such as the ones you see on this page) can deliver a general idea of a building’s form and scale. But virtual reality’s uncanny ability to convey a sensation of depth and three-dimensionality can create the impression that you are standing in the middle of OCMA’s lobby in Costa Mesa — all without leaving the technology desk at Morphosis.

“It is total immersion,” says Arne Emerson, who oversees business development at the firm. “Virtual reality is the closest thing to seeing that is on a one-to-one scale.”


For centuries, architects have employed drawings and models to display and explain design plans. Virtual reality has turned things up a notch — some architects use the technology because it not only allows them to see a proposed building, it lets them get a sense of what it might feel like.

“I’m playing with time,” says Thom Mayne, the Pritzker Prize-winning founder of Morphosis. “I’m walking through the building before it is built.”

On a more practical level, VR also allows nonarchitects — the public or a client — to register architectural concepts in more accessible ways.

“We talk about 3-D space all day long,” says Kerenza Harris, who serves as director of advanced technology at Morphosis. “We don’t understand the difficulty a layperson has in understanding 3-D space sometimes.”

OCMA Director Todd D. Smith says the museum trustees recently paid a visit to Mayne’s studio to have a look at the current iteration of the design..

“It was the first time any of the trustees experienced it, and it gave them an easier way to talk about the building,” he says. “It really brought it home. To stand there and see how it works. It was fascinating as a client.”


You can come up with an idea and now you move through it. And you perceive it and you say, ‘OK, this surface — I want this material.’

— Thom Mayne, architect

VR has historically been hyped to revolutionize film and gaming, but as the goggles become more economical and processing speeds are improved, the technology is now becoming more accessible to architects and designers.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of developers and real estate companies have used VR as a way of pitching unbuilt condos or showcasing a luxury home to buyers who might live in another city.

Now more conceptually driven architects are beginning to use the technology as another tool in the design process.

Presenting the VR of his proposed OCMA building before a group of journalists at his studio in Culver City earlier this month, Mayne noted: “They put me in it last week, I made three changes afterwards.”

The design process at Morphosis still takes place in traditional software such as CATIA and Rhino, which is displayed on a two-dimensional computer screen. But once a rendering is close to being fully fleshed out, it can then be transferred to VR — which offers some tantalizing architectural possibilities.


“You can come up with an idea and now you move through it,” says Mayne. “And you perceive it and you say, ‘OK, this surface — I want this material.’”

David Nam, a partner at Gehry Partners, Frank Gehry’s architectural office in nearby Playa Vista, says that their studio is also using virtual reality as a way of examining and conveying designs.

“We use it as an analytical tool,” he explains. “It’s giving you a sense of what the space is, so you are making decisions based on how you experience the space. For our design of [a] concert hall, it’s informing us, ‘This sightline is not working.’ It is impacting the fine-tuning of the design.”

Gehry Partners began using VR about four years ago, when a client in Arles, France, turned one of the studio’s design concepts into a VR experience.

“We recognized that if you wanted to understand what the precise experience was going to be, it could be useful,” says Nam.


Morphosis has been experimenting with VR for more than a year but has begun to use it more intensively during the last eight months. “I’m always on the lookout for any new kind of technology,” explains Harris.

Keely Colcleugh, the founder of Kilograph, a Los Angeles-based design studio that creates renderings and visualizations for architectural and real estate firms, has seen an uptick in demand for virtual reality walk-throughs of buildings over the last several years.

This includes so-called “gaze-based VR navigation,” which allows a viewer to stand at a single point in a room and look around, and “multi-point navigation,” which allows an individual to navigate through a space. (The latter, notes Colcleugh, is commonly used in gaming.)

“You can move through the space, you can be in the space,” she says of the technology’s appeal. “It puts you there.”

But none of this means that virtual reality will replace traditional forms of design any time soon. VR can be inflexible, requiring a high volume of data to render an idea. Architecture, on the other hand, often begins with a simple line or a loose arrangement of building blocks.

Nam notes that the design process at Gehry Partners is still driven by drawings (digital and otherwise) and the creation of a 3-D model (some rendered in software, others built at various scales with physical materials).


“We are so physical, so model-based,” he says. “In terms of being loose, the sketch still allows you to do that. You can’t do that in virtual reality, which is more exact.”

Leaving room for improvisation is likewise important to Mayne.

“You want that spontaneity,” he says, “that element of surprise.”

As VR technology gets better and cheaper, however, expect to be able to walk into many more buildings before a single brick has been laid.


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