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Architecture students explore real-time engines, a tool that is revolutionizing the way architects work

Architecture students explore real-time engines | IE A&D

Work in progress frame showing some of the students’ (Isabel Nicole Limpo, Hala Hasan Othman Abu Samra and Yacine Lakhmiri) digital exhibition

Ángel Flores | IE A&D

Professor Ángel Flores

“The use of these tools allows architects to focus on the core of their work, reducing technological obstacles and allowing them to produce more and better in less time, or to transmit ideas more efficiently”, explains Ángel Flores, who teaches the Alternative Practices course within the Bachelor in Architectural Studies.

We spoke with Professor Flores to learn more about the use of Unreal Engine, and how he is exploring this technology with his students as part of an exercise to design an exhibition at the Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion. Professor Flores studied Architecture at the Universidad Politécnica de Valencia in Spain, as well as spending one year at Hokkaido University in Japan, where he had the chance to work with Shigeru Ban. After graduating, he specialized in using real-time engines for architecture and media entertainment, including its use in virtual reality experiences, interactive apps and visualization. Currently, Angel works for the game company Tanglewood Games in the UK.

What does the “Alternative Practices” course you teach consist of?

In Alternative Practices, students learn how to use some of the tools that are revolutionizing the way architects work. They are divided into two groups, with half of them learning how to use BIM, and the other half exploring the use of real-time engines.

What technology do you use, how does it work and what is the positive impact on the work of architects and designers of the course?

We used Unreal Engine, a video game engine or real-time engine— called like this because it produces immediate results—which are sets of tools to design and develop video games: the 3D geometry and lighting that defines their environments; animating characters; the sounds and music associated with different levels; and of course interaction with the player on the other side of the screen. This technology can be applied in Architecture to complement the way architects already work, allowing them to do more with less.

Its main uses are as a support for design, removing technological barriers that slow down the architect in the ideation phase, as well as a visualization tool, allowing us to put your ideas in front of clients or colleagues in a much faster and more attractive way compared to more traditional techniques.

Since some pioneers in the profession started using them more than 10 years ago, they have evolved rapidly and it is common to see them being used in the fields of architecture and engineering.

The companies behind these tools now have specialized divisions focused on developing specific tools that make it easier for architects to use them. This, together with the technological advances that have made their graphics more and more realistic, has led to a boom in their use.

Do you see this technology as an essential tool for architects today and in the future?

Architecture is a very competitive field.

The use of these tools allows architects to focus on the core of their work, reducing technological obstacles and allowing them to produce more and better in less time, or to transmit ideas more efficiently. They do not seek to replace the tools we already have at our disposal, but instead, they complement them.

For example, in the conceptual phase, architects can work on a sketch and, before fully developing the idea, check the volumetry of their proposal in virtual reality, and experiment with the space they are conceiving. At this level, this process takes no more than 15 minutes for those who know how to use the tool, allowing them to check or discard ideas and concepts, as one would do with a working model before it is too late. There are also some extra handy benefits such as being able to move the sun’s position in real-time and check the impact of the project on the environment, to name one example.

In more advanced phases, there are also clear benefits, being tremendously easy to produce a visualization or animation from the models that the architect already has in other programs such as Revit or AutoCAD, but obtaining results in a matter of hours instead of days or weeks, as with more conventional programs.

What did this year’s exercise consist of?

Based on Mies Van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion, students had three weeks to design an exhibition in that space, produce an animation that told the story of the proposal, and use that video to present the proposal to the rest of the class.

With this approach, students had to use Unreal Engine for both its design and communication facets in a very similar timeframe to what a project of similar scope would in a professional context.

Architecture students explore real-time engines | IE A&D

Snapshot of the final animations that the students produced to present their proposals

In addition to learning how to make this work on a technical level, students had to learn basic questions about how music and composition play a fundamental role on a narrative level. As an example, one group of students decided to cover the pavilion with black paint and add a series of lights to the edges of the building, playing with the spatial perception of the pavilion, negating its heavy nature. Another group decided to create a sensory experience following a path that surprises the visitor at every turn, hiding what is coming next. Others opted for proposals focused on the exhibition of pieces, using the pavilion as a context. These three directions are radically different and forced our students to use complementarily different audiovisual resources, with camera and soundtrack work to appropriate these concepts.

What has most surprised/appealed to you about the students’ projects and how they’ve applied this technology to their needs?

Considering that the students were starting from scratch and were being given an exercise with deadlines very similar to those they would have to face in a professional context, they have far exceeded my expectations.They are motivated, very participative, and highly disciplined; on many occasions, I had to cover content planned for future sessions, because they were going faster than expected and were eager to know more. It is a tool with a very steep learning curve, but one that is tremendously rewarding. I think they had a great time, and I certainly had a great time with them.

What is your experience of using technologies like Unreal Engine in the industry?

I have had the chance to develop my career in this sector in London, a perfect city for the implementation of this technology, both because of the number of large-scale projects in recent years, as well as its approach to urban planning, based on a social agreement between the community, developers and city councils that requires each project to be presented to the public and approved by consensus. Thanks to “real-time” I have been able to help architects develop their ideas more quickly and with more attention to detail, as well as shortening developers’ deadlines and improve the reception of their projects, while making them more economically viable. As a result, the general public has a better understanding of proposals, so they can support or reject them on the basis of being fully informed, which they see as transparency on the part of the developer. This kind of technology is still not that widely used in Spain, but is becoming more and more common. Fortunately, the school has been working on this for some time, preparing its students for a future as exciting as it is inevitable.