City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Architects may come and architects may go …

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I’d usually post items like this over on the ‘Noted Elsewhere’ section of this blog, but this is too appealing not to reproduce here. Part of series of posts at Dr Andrew Hudson-Smith’s Digitally Distributed Environments blog, concerning visualisations of cities in video games, such as Half-Life’s ‘City 17’. Here, the Half-Life engine has been used to create a walk-through of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater:

In no way will such visualisations ever provide a true experience of physical architecture – whatever that means – but it’s certainly interesting how video game engines seem to be providing the most fluid, rich environments for exploring buildings, short of being there, outpacing much traditional architectural software. Multiply these engines by open-source screen capture software, to the power of YouTube, and you have a pretty rich formula for translating and transporting learning about architecture.

Of course, virtual environments, especially those in games, are as much part of the contemporary architectural experience as ‘the real Fallingwater’, as noted by Geoff Manaugh’s fabulous blast theory on such matters of a few months back. If not more. Sadly, this may be as close as I ever get to the actual Fallingwater. Yet we shouldn’t fool ourselves that this is a replacement for physical experience – it’s an additional architectural space.

The sensual textures of these representations are interesting too. Experienced without smell, taste and touch, this ‘Fallingwater’ in sound and vision only would be well short of the rich physical experience – that dank, damp stone, wood and glass, scented with pine trees and rampant fungus, in this case. Visually, the game engines have an unreality of their own, which is immediately attractive yet quite unlike an actual interplay of light on material. In terms of the movement, it’s a fantastical, non-physical dream, as the final few seconds of the walkthrough above suddenly become an impossible fly-by, in which Fallingwater is revealed to be floating in space, a castle in the air, devoid of its geographical context, existing only as architectural or cultural form.

It would be interesting to consider how these virtual representations are affecting physical architectural form though, by altering the practice and sensibilities of architects, much as the black and white photography of the early modernist masters affected the form of late-modernist architecture. The highly contrasted shadows and light of monochrome photography actually shaped architectural form – and created a slew of pure white buildings – in a fascinating symbiotic process.

It’s a bit glib to look at the work of Hadid, Libeskind, Gehry and others, and infer that a later symbiosis is taking place – between architecture and video games – as I suspect those architects are too old to have inculcated this aesthetic into their work. (Yes, their teams may have done, but the head of the studio still has a fairly defining role.) So, given the harnessed narrative propulsion of YouTube, how will the intrinsic aesthetic of game engines and Flash video encoding affect contemporary architecture?

Digitally Distributed Environments: Frank Lloyd Wright Architectual Visualisation in Half Life


7 responses to “Architects may come and architects may go …”

  1. Kasperg (author of the HL2 Fallingwater map) Avatar

    Even though these video-game visualisations can in no way replace a full physical experience of architecture, it was suggested by one of my teachers to use this tool to recreate buildings which are either absent or were never actually built. If we enter those grounds, using game engines is probably the closest we’ll get to feeling how it could’ve been walking around them.


  2. Rob Avatar

    Oof. That looks sweet. I’m guessing that’s been put together with the new HL2 engine. Makes my attempts look very dated.
    More here:


  3. Dan Hill Avatar

    Thanks Rob and Kasperg. And Kasperg, I wasn’t being dismissive of your efforts by saying that. I think your visualisation is one of the more impressive and useful ways of representing architecture that I’ve seen. Hence my post and the thoughts it stimulated. More please!


  4. Norman Blogster Avatar

    I can’t actually play the movie, but this is an area that fascinates me more than it possibly should as architect-stroke-computer-geek. If we just limit the discussion to only the visual experience, then I’m thinking along the lines of a) lack of peripheral vision (a la Pallasmaa) and b) hegemony of surface over substrate (not to be confused with style over substance).
    a) it seems to me that the lack of peripheral vision is a result of putting machines between the individual and the experience of architecture. Not only is there clearly a window bounding the experience (something head mounted displays aim to address) but also the eye cannot choose what to focus on – depth of field etc. This is, of course, a similar effect that the camera produces – after all in computer games/VR we use the notion of a virtual camera. (The only difference is that when the camera is positioned in front of a mirror, there is no reflection.)
    b) surface over substrate: just like computer games and VR applications, the real world is increasingly becoming appliqued and veneered. Not that this hasn’t always happened, but I’m comparing the concept of a 2D texture applied on a computer model with things like i) laminate floors with photographs of wood on, ii) 40mm thick stone cladding hung over a steel frame, and iii) brick tiles stuck on a concrete wall in a new-build pub, misaligned with the edges or faux-beams. It’s not that the real architecture is simulating the virtual, but perhaps they’re both a symptom of something deeper in the way we understand architecture today – i.e. as a surface?
    More than likely, though, this thinking is just as shallow as the textures it’s trying to highlight.


  5. Henry Swanson Avatar
    Henry Swanson

    What struck me first and foremost about this HL2 mockup was its slightly sinister air.. that of a disembodied ghost wandering around the empty ‘postmodern dead-tech’ apartment of some deceased rich white guy. (Maybe it was Frank himself?) At any moment I half-expected a fast headcrab zombie to jump out and start eating my face off.
    It’s the old “modern (read: capitalist) life-as-simulation / copies-without-originals” thing, I think. And I also dig the way the ghost ‘zooms out’ to discover – to my horror – that the entire world was in fact utterly unreal, and floating in the middle of some vast digital-Matrix nowhere.
    On the Internet we are all ghosts in the machine – cold, soulless, and still desperately in search of Meaning. Alas
    Keep up The Good Work
    But what is that, exactly?


  6. Anubhav Goyal Avatar
    Anubhav Goyal

    Respected Sir,
    Could you please send me the soft copy of ‘falling water walkthrough’ at my email id:
    This would help me in bringing more awareness about FLW works amongst students of architecture here in India.
    Looking Forward for your reply
    Ar. Anubhav Goyal


  7. James Avatar

    I’d love to get a flash walkthrough of this. Would it be possible to generate a flash animation that the user can explore this house? It looks amazing and i’d love to see some more. This to would probably be the closest thing i’d get exploring the real Falling Water.
    If you actually have the file please email it to me at thank you
    Note that this is not my personal adress and is rarely checked to see normal mail
    Also please change the q after the s to a T. This is to prevent spamming. (i don’t know i’ve heard that this method helps)


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