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In fact, architecture — whether for a home, an office building, or a modern museum — is increasingly becoming integrated with sophisticated sensing technologies to create “intelligent” and interactive environments. For example, home-control systems are available that combine home security, lighting, and heating units. From anywhere in the world, they can be controlled through an Internet browser.

Someday, “intelligent” walls may automatically heat and cool your home through the very material they are made from, eliminating the need to ask “Where’s the thermostat?” Your house may one day “know” when you’re home. The old-fashioned lock and key may be replaced by a standard mechanism that identifies your fingerprint for entry.

“The truth is that the practice of architecture is multifaceted. There are so many professional paths from which to choose,” says Dean of Architecture Alan Balfour. “And, through the command of technology, our students have more opportunity than ever before to probe the field and the peripheral disciplines that directly influence how architecture is conceived, designed, and built. Those disciplines include materials science, computer science, electronic arts, and even biotechnology. Most important, our students are studying under innovative faculty who teach and explore the critical questions of culture, societal values, and the making of new environments.”

Building Up

Since he arrived at Rensselaer in 1996, Balfour has expanded the graduate program and is currently leading a progressive research agenda. Students now have a choice to pursue graduate degrees in disciplines that take advantage of Rensselaer’s technological strengths, such as lighting, communication acoustics, informatics and architecture, and workplace design.

Balfour has established and expanded extensive international programs ranging from Rome to China, an educational culture that encourages work between disciplines, and a studio environment that supports the most ambitious applications of information technology-based design. The school is finalizing approval for a Ph.D. in architectural sciences, which will allow advanced work in all areas of graduate study.

Balfour’s pledge to excellence in education and research is mirrored in his own career as an internationally recognized architectural scholar, award-winning author, and an innovative educator. Among his many awards and recognitions is the Topaz Laureate, which he received in 2000. Given jointly by the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, it is the highest recognition given in North America for excellence in architecture.

To teach students how to build for a technological future, Rensselaer is incorporating emerging technologies such as Hollywood virtual-reality programs and games, special effects and animation software, and other new digital design mechanisms. These are all used for visualizing environments — ideal for architectural inquiry and increasingly becoming the tools of the trade.

“These new computational and visual technologies have created the opportunity to significantly change both architectural practice and teaching,” Balfour says.

Designed to Order

Increasingly powerful computers and three-dimensional design software are pumping out curvy and other complex shapes that are excruciatingly difficult, if not impossible, to develop through hand-drawn sketches. This technology is creating a whole new way of thinking about design and, as a result, altering how homes and other structures are designed, built, and delivered.

Bill Massie, associate professor of architecture, is a pioneer in the use of these digital technologies to design and build affordable, quality pre-fab housing. He is bringing high-end, custom-house design within the reach of more people. Using his unique computer-driven process, Massie not only controls the building’s design on the computer, but also fabricates the buildings from the screen. Students can see the process unfold firsthand at his 17,000-square-foot facility a few miles from campus. The pieces, made from inexpensive but durable materials such as cut steel and concrete, then are delivered onsite to be connected like a giant puzzle.

“Architects usually design abstract drawings and give them to a contractor, who then must reinterpret them,” Massie says. “My process provides a way of moving directly from the design stage to construction, saving time and money, and allowing architects to be the true masters of their work.”

“People don't have to pay a huge premium to live in a beautiful and somewhat experimental space,” Massie adds. “And, we know from the auto and aerospace industry that the ability to develop complex shapes is not just for aesthetic purposes. In making an automobile side panel, for instance, you can use less material to form a shape that is stronger on impact. I'm applying similar fabrication processes to architecture.”

Massie’s innovations have earned him wide recognition. He won the 2002 P.S.1 Museum of Modern Art’s Young Architects Program Competition, the most prestigious in North America for young architects. He was named one of 50 “best and the brightest” by Esquire, and BusinessWeek has compared him to renowned architect Frank Gehry.

Building Better Links

Balfour sees four distinct forces shaping the future of architectural practice: globalization, interdisciplinary teamwork, innovation, and the rapid impact of new technologies.

“The architect is obliged to think with increasing urgency on a global scale in terms of urbanism, landscape, as well as economy, politics, and culture,” Balfour says.

The School of Architecture has launched an ambitious project to harness these forces in order to establish practical applications of research and to incorporate the profession’s latest technological tools.

The Virtual Academy is a Web-based international network that will link students and faculty in all disciplines at Rensselaer with universities and other researchers across the world through live video, music, graphics, and text.

“The objective is virtual global exchange, with face-to-face interaction, and the ability to exchange, download, and file any type of data through the Web,” Balfour says of the Virtual Academy, which is still under development.

The Academy’s first pilot project was launched this spring. “Peerings” was a multimedia student performance headed by Rensselaer’s Brian Lonsway, assistant professor of architecture, and research professor of music Pauline Oliveros in the arts department. Using the ultra-high-speed Internet2 (I2) to carry the action simultaneously in real time, 10 student dancers, singers, and electronic musicians from Rensselaer and Mills College in Oakland, Calif., rehearsed and performed together in the same virtual space while they were physically 3,000 miles apart.

Lonsway’s graduate students “built” the virtual stage, called the Synthetic Space Environment, which incorporated a computer-generated design of moving abstract shapes and colors. The merging of the set design with the live performers is the same technique that makes it appear that the local weather forecaster is standing in front of an animated map when really in front of a blank blue screen.

“The purpose of this project was to learn what it means to have synthetic space, how you design it, how you inhabit it, what you do with it,” Lonsway says. “The performance was also a display of how far broadband has come in transmitting sound, video, time, and distance to deliver information.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: Fall 2003
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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