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.
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.
by night: a wired loft
The programming, design,
and articulation of the Swisshouse reflect its unique nature as a physical/virtual
construct. The underlying design principles were the following:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
The Physical Swisshouse
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 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
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
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).
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
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.
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)
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
of the agenda
informal groupings; subgroups discuss subtopics in depth
in the Knowledge Café
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and Muriel Waldvogel
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