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With the recent advances in elearning, there is a growing interest in how the expanded functions and interconnectivity of the Internet will change educational and learning processes. Much of the current discussion focuses on the effects and opportunities raised by "virtual" architectures for learning, such as online course platforms, portals, e-libraries, interactive learning software, and course management systems. In the excitement of these technologies, most people have neglected to consider the impact of web-based innovations on the "physical" architecture for learning—the physical spaces where teachers and students physically stand, sit and work together. Will we keep our old classrooms and training spaces, when more and more of our learning is webified? We believe, like many others, that physical spaces will not disappear for learning—but they will be profoundly affected by the new horizons created by the virtual.

What emerging typologies for learning combine physical and virtual, clicks and mortar technologies? We would like to present a case study of a novel physical/virtual architecture for knowledge exchange that we designed for construction in Boston: the Swisshouse. We believe the Swisshouse is a prototype for a new generation of learning space that understands the dynamic interplay between physical, face-to-face learning and technology-enhanced teaching, discussion, and community formation. It redefines the “learning experience” in ways both familiar and new, traditional and innovative—and overall may represent a harbinger of more such hybrids in the future.

Convergent Architecture

The Swisshouse is a new type of consulate for science and technology, dedicated to knowledge exchange between two countries. The project originated as a donation by Lombard Odier & Cie, a Swiss private bank, to the Swiss Confederation, in celebration of their 200-year anniversary. The design concept emerged from brainstorming sessions with Xavier Comtesse, the future Consul of Switzerland in Boston, and was further refined through discussions with Thierry Lombard and Patrick Odier from the sponsoring bank, and Charles Kleiber, the Secretary of State of Switzerland.

The Swisshouse had three objectives: to facilitate networking and knowledge exchange among a distributed Swiss scientific community in the greater Boston area; to build a bridge between academic institutions in the greater Boston area and the network of universities in Switzerland for distance education; and to provide a platform for interdisciplinary interaction among participants from research, education, business, law and politics.

The original program called for a physical building only. But in order to expand the scope beyond the limits of the physical boundaries and enable the geographically dispersed community to actively participate and cooperate, we proposed a concept that comprised not only a physical but also a virtual component, to be designed together from the beginning.

We conceived the physical building as a 3,200 sq.ft. wired loft located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It provides a sense of place and belonging to the community, and acts as a physical portal to broadcast and receive knowledge. The digital world is a web-based platform for matching distributed interests in the community and fostering continued synergetic exchange. It integrates into the physical space and enables the Swisshouse to reach out far beyond the defined physical walls. Both worlds are intimately connected.

The Swisshouse by night: a wired loft

Design Principles

The programming, design, and articulation of the Swisshouse reflect its unique nature as a physical/virtual construct. The underlying design principles were the following:

1. Embedded information devices. The information appliances that make the connection to the virtual world are embedded in the architecture and furniture of the building, and become space-defining elements themselves. The devices are social and cooperative in nature.

2. Intimate link between physical and virtual space. The physical building is conceived as a spatial interface to the virtual community. We paid particular attention to the different types of spaces and elements needed to connect with the virtual community.

3. Design of the boundary between public/private space. The boundaries between public, private as well as semi-public and semi-private spaces are clearly defined both in the physical site and on the web.

4. Deliberate use of the senses of perception. The senses of perception—acoustic, visual, touch and smell—are choreographed for enhancing the design principles (e.g. virtual/physical, public/private).

The Swisshouse Floorplan

A first challenge was to determine which activities should be facilitated by physical infrastructures (hardware), and which activities should be accommodated by virtual infrastructures (software). In order to make those distinctions, we devised several knowledge exchange scenarios. Sample scenarios included: remote lecture, brainstorming session, scientific exhibition, and visit/information gathering. We show some scenarios of how this all works at the end of this article. To support these activities we then designed new types of architectural elements to act as human-computer interfaces. We describe them in detail in the following section.

The Physical Swisshouse

The Kinetic Arena

The convergence point in the physical Swisshouse is the “Arena.” The Arena is a trapezoid shape that slowly steps down 3 feet into the floor slabs. This Arena forms the landscape of the Swisshouse. Activities happening in the Arena are transmitted in real-time onto the virtual sites via "net-eyes" mounted onto the ceiling.

The Knowledge Café

The Knowledge Café

The Knowledge Café opens directly to the information space. The tables of the Café are networked media objects, large and long, creating informal groupings and enabling geographically dispersed brainstorming. A small kitchen located in the back wall serves small snacks and coffee. The senses of smell and taste are added deliberately to the Knowledge Café to enhance brainstorming by reaching deeply into personal and intimate experiences. The Knowledge Café is a semi-private space that can be accessed from the web, but users in the physical site remain in control of the content transmitted.

Loft with Media Spaces

Media Space

The media spaces are in glass and open to the loft. They remain visually open to the hall and the Arena, but acoustically separated by a specially frosted glass. In a learning setting, the media spaces are used for breakout sessions and private conversations.

Nomadic Learning Spaces

Personal Space

Open nomadic workspaces are distributed throughout the loft-space. Individual learners share the public tables, but each member has his/her own “corpus.” The corpus is personalized storage used in the physical space, and has its counterpart in the digital space (Furniture Eleven22 by USM Haller).

Digital Wall—physical

Digital Wall

The digital wall is composed of three 6' x 10' room-height glass panels with specially coated film for rear projections. The total size is 18' x 10'. The digital wall is used for distance learning, interactive presentations, exhibitions, real-time information, and asynchronous connection with the distributed virtual community. The digital wall is a public element that belongs to and represents the distant audience.

The Virtual Swisshouse

Digital Wall—virtual

The Virtual Swisshouse is the virtual counterpart and extends the idea of the Swisshouse into the Internet by offering a platform for exchange of information, networking among individuals, distance education, and creation of a virtual community. What is happening physically will be apparent on the virtual site, and vice versa. For example, whenever a visitor logs into the virtual site, a physical icon ("phicon") will start to move in the physical building. Alternatively, a visitor entering the physical space in Cambridge will be captured by the neteyes and transmitted to the sites around the world in real-time.

Navigation Interface

Digital Switzerland

A high-speed computer server, located in the basement of the physical Swisshouse, will host the web-based environment, and facilitate networking and interaction among the Swiss-American scientific community. The virtual site on the web is a "digital Switzerland," a neutral space in which ideas can flow freely, and discussions among distant parties can be held openly.

Digital Community/Idea Marketplace (in collaboration with Paul Keel)

Idea Marketplace

The site is also a growing knowledge base. Community members post and retrieve information based on their interests. The general structure of the virtual site is that of a marketplace in which ideas and expertise are exchanged. Authorship of content is decentralized: everyone contributes. Market mechanisms automatically determine which information will persist. The role of the Swisshouse is that of a knowledge broker, facilitating the discussion and the free-flow of ideas.

Architecture of the Site

Physical/Virtual Connection

The underlying structural elements of the virtual Swisshouse correspond to the physical elements and are interconnected: Arena, Knowledge Café, Information Wall, Nomadic Workspaces, etc. Information is pushed to the appropriate sections based on predefined user profiles.

State Of The Project

The project is almost completed. We opened the physical building on October 10, 2000, and are now finishing the virtual infrastructure and establishing the linkages between the two worlds, in collaboration with the Center for Design Informatics at Harvard Design School. The project will be fully operational in the first quarter of 2001.


To demonstrate the utilization of the Swisshouse, we present some scenarios.

Scenario 1: Visit
A brain surgeon from Geneva visits the Swisshouse

Nicolas, a visiting scientist, is a brain surgeon who just moved from Geneva to Boston to participate in the development of an innovative medical instrument. This is his second visit to the Swisshouse.

He enters the lobby. As he signs in on a laptop in the vestibule, his name appears on the digital information wall. The inhabitants of the physical space as well as the on-line community know immediately of Nicolas' visit. His name and icon appear on the physical and virtual guest-book wall at the entrance. Nicolas smiles as he sees his icon appear, as it shows him three years younger than he is today.

In the large loft space, the receptionist sees him, walks across the room to greet him, shakes his hand and takes his goose-down jacket. From the temperature of the jacket, she feels the cold of the Boston winter. She brushes a few snowflakes off the jacket and offers catalogues and brochures available on the vertical prospectus furniture.


Pinwheels developed by Prof. Hiroshi Ishii
(Tangible Media Group, MIT Media Lab)

(Photo by Webb Chappell)

Five pinwheels attached to the ceiling turn slowly. One of them is more active. From his previous visits to the virtual Swisshouse, Nicolas knows that the pinwheels visualize the number of hits and the stickiness of visits on the virtual Swisshouse site. He wonders what issue or news is driving the far-left pinwheel to make it move so fast. The shadows of the pinwheels modulate the ceiling and remind him of the intense networking capacity of the place.

Nicolas is here to gather information on brain research and communicate with the Swiss and American specialists in his field, brain surgery. From the workstations located on the Broadway side, he has fast access to the Internet. In half an hour, he discovers five Swiss scientists based in Boston and working in a related field. He sends e-mails to all of them.

When he gets up from his chair to get coffee from the kitchenette, he walks by the large digital information wall where he sees the name of Richard, one of the scientists whom he just emailed. The posting solicits contributions to a brainstorming session on "New Trends in Brain Surgery." It was posted about half an hour ago. Richard is still on-line. Nicolas pages him and connects with him directly. They chat on-line for a few seconds, then decide to talk privately over the phone. Nicolas opens the door and goes behind the digital projection room. He enters the soft lounge wall to make the call.


Nomadic Workspaces

Soft Lounge

Sitting on a soft sofa, in half-daylight, Nicolas feels very private while still being part of the whole Swisshouse. He sees two visitors entering the space. From the guest book log, Nicolas recognizes their names. They are local artists belonging to the Swisshouse community. As he watches them, he sees that they are monitoring the changing display of information on the digital wall screen.

Before leaving the Swisshouse, Nicolas joins the two young artists in the Knowledge Café. While drinking strong dark coffee, Nicolas chats with the two music composers, as well as with a cello builder who has joined them on-line from Zurich. Nicolas leaves the house two hours later with the sense of belonging to a strong and warm community.

Scenario 2: Lecture
A professor gives a remote lecture to Switzerland

Today, 10:00 a.m. in Boston, 4:00 p.m. in Switzerland, a large lecture is taking place in the Swisshouse. Professor Smith is presenting and discussing his research at the MIT Media Lab with the Swiss community in Boston and, more importantly, with two major Swiss universities, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and the IMD in Lausanne. MIT and the two Swiss universities are collaborating on the building of a global, geographically dispersed media lab.

When Smith enters the Swisshouse, the consul and the 40 people physically present greet him as he walks though the space. It is his first visit to the site and he is intrigued by the non-hierarchical structure of the space. There is not one lecture hall but several distinct areas connected visually to make one large lecture hall. The consul brings him to a special seat in the arena from where he will orchestrate his talk.

In the far right of the Arena, a podium awaits him. He can lecture standing or sitting. Smith sits down and connects his laptop to the table juxtaposed to the podium. Twenty-two listeners are comfortably seated in the red velvet seats of the sunken arena. The large screen of the back wall is lit. The first images appear on the screen. On the right and on the left of the Arena, the glass walls allow for a rear projection of the distant audience. The ETH and the IMD members are present, ready to listen and to interact.

The lecture begins, broadcasted simultaneously throughout the Swisshouse and on the screen of the distant participants. All the screens of the Swisshouse have tuned in. They are synchronized to receive the real time videostreaming. The three different areas, the Knowledge Café, the Information Hall and the Arena, all display the same information in a format adapted to the screen display.

Non-hierarchical Distribution of Lecturing Input/Output Devices


Loudspeakers located in each of the three areas transmit the voice of the lecturer as well as the questions from the distant audience to the audience located in the Arena. Around the workstations of the Information Hall, 40 people congregate and follow the lecture on the information wall. They see the lecturer on the screen, and from time to time in the corner of their eyes, they catch a glimpse of the lecturer in the flesh, as he gesticulates in the Arena. The large number of distant listeners linked via the web to the site appear on the digital information wall. Small icons indicate their presence by depicting their faces and their names on the wall.

In the Knowledge Café, 18 people are assembled around the table and watch the lecture on the digital screen located against the entrance lobby. In the distance, they see the lecturer speak, get up, smile and start to answer questions. While the group in one of the areas listens with profound attention, another is already caught in an intense discussion about the topic.

Smith's lecture is ending. The sound of clapping, generated from each area and from each wall of the Swisshouse, fills the space. The official show is over, yet the dialogue continues. While the space slowly empties, many physical visitors stay and continue discussion with the distant audience.

In the Arena, the video link is still alive, and experts from the two Swiss universities interact passionately with Smith via the full size screen. In the Information Hall, the local participants answer text-based questions that appear on the screen, or pass them along to the right recipient. A "frequently-asked-questions" list is generated on the fly.

In the Knowledge Café, an action-group has formed to act upon the recommendations that issued from the lecture. The group is half-physical, half-virtual. They communicate via camera and typing. Each physical and virtual participant can change and join another conversation in another part of the space at any time.

Scenario 3: Exhibit
A piece of contemporary art is exhibited in the Swisshouse.

The exhibit of the artful new Zermatt Hotel "Into-The-Hotel" is happening simultaneously in the different areas of the Swisshouse. Each area focuses on different pieces of the exhibit.

In the center of the loft space, six physical models are exhibited. The lighting system, recessed in the loft ceiling, is designed to accentuate the geometric play of volumes of the project. The spots are attached to an invisible thin grid. They cast a theatrical and dramatic light on the event happening below. The lighting system can be modulated as required for particular events and desired moods.

The displays in the Nomadic Workspaces offer 3D simulations, demos and VR walkthroughs of the project. Examples of demos include a video sequence of entering the hotel, a detail of the wooden balcony, the design of the landscaping plan, the logic behind the structural design, and a slide show of the construction phase.

Each visitor chooses a number of demos he or she wants to see from the numerous (60) demos available. The images or texts chosen are viewed on the screen of the computers and can also be projected on the digital information wall. New visitors get a quick glimpse into which aspects of the project have been focused on as soon as they enter. The names and e-mail addresses of the previous digital or physical visitors are connected to the demos they are looking at. This can motivate visitors to contact each other based on common interests in specific topics. John, for example, is most interested in how they forged a tunnel into the rock of Zermatt. By clicking on the demos “pre-phase: construction of the tunnel” he can check who is viewing and has viewed this demo before and enter in contact with one of the visitors interested in this subject.

Layout of the Exhibition Devices

The exhibit continues in the Knowledge Café. There, visitors can relax, have coffee and a croissant, and look at the author’s recent publications, pictures, and books. Samples of real materials are available to be touched and felt. These artifacts are arranged on bookshelves and can be manipulated as needed.

The exhibition ends with a moment in the Arena. The Arena is connected via videoconferencing to the main authors of the project, the owner team, the designer team, and the construction team. There is also a live link to the real site via live webcams. It is a unique opportunity to experience, in real time, the site, and ask precise questions by direct link or by sending e-mails to the participants.

John wants to know how the idea of carving into the rock was initiated. Why not build on top of the hill, he asks. For the designers and engineers in Europe, it is now 12:00 a.m. Most probably, John will receive the answer to his question on his laptop tomorrow in his Cambridge studio.

Scenario 4: Brainstorm
A think tank of technology transfer.

A group of professionals concerned with the future of technology transfer meet in the Swisshouse to initiate a new project on this and related issues. The members are: a lawyer, a consul, an assistant, two professors, two journalists, four scientists, two economists, and an external participant.

The meeting is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. The individual members arrive, one by one. The group gathers in the Knowledge Café. Coffee is brewed and served to the members. The session can begin.

One of the scientists has prepared an agenda for the session. He suggests using the Arena for outlining the current state of thinking and discussing the agenda. The group agrees and moves to the Arena. The scientist presents his ideas. The screen displays a PowerPoint presentation that he runs from his laptop. To highlight a few points, he calls in an external specialist via video-conferencing. He also uses the mobile active easel, located on the stage of the Arena. The assistant jots ideas down as they come up.

After initial debates and minor modifications, everyone agrees on the agenda for the day, and all are eager to start to produce work.

The group breaks out into three subgroups of three to four people. They meet separately to discuss the topic in more depth. The composition of the groups was pre-defined by the moderator, and there is discussion among the participants about group dynamics. In particular, the two journalists would like to be in a different group. They switch groups and the problem is resolved.

Presentation of the agenda

Breakout sessions: informal groupings; subgroups discuss subtopics in depth

Intense brainstorming in the Knowledge Café

Final decisions

The informal meetings take place in the various break-out areas of the Swisshouse. In the Swisshouse, all areas can be used for informal gatherings and production, including the Arena (up to 25 people), the workstations (4-6), the Knowledge Café (4-10), the library (2-4), the kitchen (2-4), soft lounge (4-6), and the small (4) and large (7) conference space. Today, the Arena, the Knowledge Café, and the large conference space are used.

Each subgroup develops arguments and collects evidence using the Internet and tapping into the Swisshouse knowledge base. After 45 minutes, the group reconvenes to discuss the ideas in the Knowledge Café.

The active easel has been moved from the Arena to the Knowledge Café and is now the main support for discussion. Notes written on the easel are directly translated to the computer where they are edited and reorganized.

As the last rays of the evening sun hit the southern windows of the Swisshouse, the discussion is resumed in the Arena where the notes are revisited, final decisions made and the homework distributed. The notes are automatically posted into the idea marketplace of the Swisshouse.

This linking of virtual and real space gives a whole new vision of how learning will grow and change as we enter the twenty-first century.

Jeffrey Huang is Assistant Professor of Architecture at Harvard University, Graduate School of Design, in the area of digital media and information technology. His research focuses on new typologies for working, learning and shopping that combine physical architecture, web interfaces and audio-visual technologies.

Muriel Waldvogel is a practicing architect in Concord, Massachusetts. She creates spaces that bridge physical and virtual environment, with a focus on using the five senses to transmit information.

Together they co-operate on the conceptualization, prototyping, design and implementation of convergent physical/virtual architectures for innovative clients. The Swisshouse is a product of this collaboration. You can reach Jeffrey Huang at, and Muriel Waldvogel at



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