XR Architect, Artist and Creator Samuel Arsenault-Brassard was in The MOR in May 2020 leading an architecture tour of some of the key chambers of the Museum of Other Realities. Samuel (@Sam_AB) is a Montreal based artist and curator recognized for his expertise in the field of VR and AR Art. He is the co-curator for ELLEPHANT gallery's ongoing VR Program and is also the guest curator for the upcoming VR Art exhibition organized by Galerie Art Mûr in Montreal.
Revisiting that tour led us down a design process rabbit-hole, and so here we are submerging ourselves to give you a short trip through some of our favorite design outcomes. We’ve sifted them, of course, but most of them qualify for having proven generative for the evolving art collection that the MOR hosts, and for being successful at nudging and teasing the credos of real world architecture. A big hat-tip to Samuel for helping relocate images from the archives and helping put together the flow of thought, key insights, processes and -for being generally incredible.
Robin Stethem and Colin Northway approached Samuel when they were in an early phase of designing the beta version of the museum. Perhaps this is a lesser known fact that The MOR was then called ‘Th-er’. As the design concept had to be fitting for "an extravagant art style, that is the style of VR art", the broad ambition they kicked off with was for "something as revolutionary as the content the museum would hold". This blog-piece focuses on the collaboration with Samuel and borrows some of what he shared during the tour.
Naturally everything began with drawings. A good number of sketches had to be produced, which were shared back and forth with the discussion lasting nearly four months.
“After four months of exchanging ideas and sharing concepts, there was a clear handoff when I sent the final model. Robin evolved it for roughly a year into an expanded functional space, while borrowing some of the concepts and keeping some of the core spaces, especially the Grand Room where users spawn and the "courtyard" where Kevin Mack's art is located.”
The conceived design was aesthetically majestic yet with leeway and room to swell with the delightful demands of VR art in its sprawls. Claris Cyarron, who works in architecture practice, and Katie Davis Sayles are two other key individuals credited for helping formulate some of the early ideas, and for sharing feedback after the conceptual phase respectively.
“I actually met Robin and Colin for the first time in my ‘CULTVRAL’ gallery in AltSpaceVR. After that, they invited me to ‘Th-er’ and I became a regular.”
Samuel has been working on VR art spaces for a while, with a focus on metaverse architecture and art. A prior experience with AltSpaceVR is further evidence of his time speculating gallery spaces to innovate new modalities for VR architecture. He led a unique art hackathon with the goal of making a platform called CULTVRAL. To test the platform, he made the CULTVRAL Gallery in VR and used it to host his own gallery in VR. Eventually, with a grant from AltSpaceVR there were efforts to develop an app for Samuel as the main user. For Samuel the goal was to be able to host public VR art shows and make the platform available to anyone.
The project ended prematurely and AltSpaceVR shut down, but one could say that this project did the needful in manifesting a collaboration between Samuel and The MOR. Having also tested theories about art spaces using some of his own art in collaboration with other VR art galleries, makes his methodology span the full length and breadth.
“I have my own art practice, where I create architectural spaces that could only exist in VR; spaces that are dreamy, beautiful and impossible to build in real life. Then I fill these rooms with my own VR sculptures. It’s art made in VR for VR, combined with spaces that are tailor made for VR and aesthetic hedonism.”
A combination of structural principles were put in order, borrowing from Samuel and Robin’s design backgrounds, the outcomes can be seen as a coalescing of a pretty specific blend of expertise. Using some of the notes that Samuel shared with us, and the structure of the tour he led, this article covers some aspects of the design process.
The number of considerations that came up, as Samuel notes, often quickly led to thinking about work-arounds that can tackle challenges specific to immersed spaces. To be able to effectively arrive at these junctures also required lateral thinking, detrimental for conceiving an experiential perspective, for immersed viewership.
“I want to talk about the limitations in the settings of the Museum of Other Realities. In real reality, there are limitations like budget, site, context, ownership, client, needs of the project, materials, gravity - to name a few. Just being able to buy anything too, having to pay for a bunch of concrete... to form it, to think about where all the wires will go... and all of that.”
So for the MOR, those constraints were discounted but then replaced by other obscure constraints. And the thing with constraints is that they form the basis for some of the design itself, as the solutions grow their roots around the constraints.
The workflow had to be experimentally drawn out. It began with collecting inspiration images that turned into sketches. Trying to obtain specific lighting effects using reference images made a lot of the effort focus on spatial relationships like expansion and contraction. Below are some visual examples of the effect Samuel wanted light openings to produce when a wall touched the floor. “We wanted it to almost suggest an entire other world below the floor, or a sky opening in the ground”, Samuel explained. What would otherwise be a check for a strong, structural base for a wall in this design was perceived as a frail opening, leading viewers to seemingly experience even 'instability' as a form of freedom.
“In the first phase, I was exploring corridors, linear networks of rooms expanding and contracting, altering between darkness and light. I was thinking a lot about the section of the corridor and how it could naturally harvest the indirect light from the sun and light the art inside in an interesting way.”
“It's important to establish that the strategy was really to give The MOR a toolbox to create a gallery of infinite possibilities, a toolset they can use almost parametrically. So it was deliberate from the beginning to go into this categorization for design sessions. And then at the end, I made some more concrete spaces that were all connected. That way there is a solid core appropriate for guest arrival and a knowledge base as to how to expand that core to infinity.”
Then there came a phase when the rooms and doorways became the focus. In a way, the museum was unfolding itself as the systems being conceived and starting to make sense as an expanse. At one point, the talks shifted to conceptualizing a hall. At this point, Samuel looked into what is and makes a grand hall, or what is it that what we perceive to be a hall (as visitors when standing in one). He floated some ideas using references of halls with the MOR team to articulate this.
“So I started asking myself what a grand hall is traditionally. What is it that makes a space feel grandiose? What are the effects of grandiose spaces? I even played a bit with the scale of the Parthenon in VR, but never got anywhere with it. But the research helped place the ‘grand hall’ closer to a central religion space or spiritual space instead of like a big corridor.”
As the MOR was determined to realize a multiplayer social VR showcase, the matter around acoustics had to borrow insights from real-world comforts.
When you're five meters away versus, when you're one meter away from somebody, you're going to hear them at different levels. When groups of visitors move together in the museum, this effect is actually quite life-like and helpful for keeping pace and locating others present in the museum. Over and above that, it is also possible to find little isolated nooks if you’re looking for a bit of privacy from the chatter.
“So if I go behind this wall over here, then you couldn't see me and you wouldn't be able to hear me at the same volume either. One could realistically take aside a very private conversation to a different space in the museum, which was influenced by creating these nooks.”
When thinking about visual scope, things like the size of the lightmaps and the number of triangles are pretty much at the core of any VR architectural concept. One very interesting limitation of VR architecture (important to work around) when it comes to shapes leads architects to use a technique called Occlusion Culling.
“Occlusion Culling means that your computer can only handle one million triangles. If a piece that has one million triangles is behind that wall, I don't have to calculate it. Which means that I can have one million triangle art pieces hidden all over the place, hidden from each other. And that way people are able to enjoy them, rather than having a museum with just one piece with a lot of triangles. So this kind of obscure problem-solution in VR and in computer graphics really drives a lot of design decisions.”
This happens to have a kind of secret influence on the way that shapes are made and spaces are arranged. If you sometimes find that it's a little labyrinthian, that could in fact be because the design is trying to hide something from view, or from immediate discovery so as to motivate you to move. Thinking about such hiding and revealing, from different angles, creates a lot of curiosity and maybe even a lot of confusion and mystery. One thing for certain though, is that such concepts are not as true for functional architectural spaces.
Samuel has studied architecture for nine years, both the technical side and artistic & design side of it. After two years of working in architectural lighting design, he also studied for four years at Carleton University, where he had the opportunity to study the works of Louis Kahn in depth. Kahn is known to have focussed a lot on ‘indirect solar lighting’, which served as a huge inspiration for Samuel. Through VR he was able to push Kahn’s exploration beyond the limits of physicality and create light plays that were previously impossible. Creating a kind of “solar machine” which shapes the light entering the space strategically, to look good no matter the time of the day and create specific dramatic effects.
“Even if we had a $5 million budget for a concrete building, I wouldn't be able to do 1% of what we did here. The design tools involved just really allow one to play with the lighting a lot, plus there’s the absolute guarantee that it's never going to rain here!”
The core concept behind the entrance space or the Grand Hall is basically two flames meeting each other. With ideas around playing with gravity, one goal was to challenge that everything is not bound by gravity. Sometimes this play was emphasized with gravity or antigravity (floating) being positioned side by side, so they clashed. In some of the early renders, Samuel used a ray of light to demarcate where the walls were crashing into the ground. The light at the bottom of the wall gives a kind of lightness and freedom to the heaviness of a traditional wall.
“The creases and holes in the façade of the building provided many different lighting effects inside the building based on the direction of the sun. It was hard, but fun, for the MOR design team to finally decide what the final direction of the sun would be.”
The main concept for the space - it's a little bit obtuse when you look at it - was this kind of giant explosion of a flame. So while it is essentially a static structure, the curves kind of hint at dynamic movement.
“In VR architecture, there is no need to protect from rain, so some radical light opening can be carved into the skin of the building. While there is a functional demarcation of the external wall, it starts to disintegrate as it rises and flakes away in the wind.”
“It could be said that it’s an evolution of a church that was trying to free itself of gravity. Churches have high ceilings that go higher and higher, seeming lighter and lighter.”
At the moment of arrival, the visitor is made to feel that they have been propelled or thrown into a completely new world at the very first glance. As they move deeper and float forward though, they’d experience more evidence of this explosion, in trails - reasserting that first thought of a blaze.
As knowing much about what kind of art might make its way into the MOR next was and is never a guarantee, the design process has at no point had the luxury of knowing its dance partner. The focus, therefore, was to take as much insight into how people move, how they get lost and set in order freedoms that make losing one’s way worthwhile, as well as allowing visitors to have intimate moments with the museum itself. How light is let in plays a solid good part in creating a free feeling within closed spaces. And so every little corner casting a shadow was measured and chiseled to give autonomy to free movement.
“We tend to see a lot of renders of helicopters. But we don't often fly in helicopters in real life, right?”
Which is Samuel’s way of saying that like helicopters are an offhand upgrade for experiencing flying in virtual reality, even locomotion in VR doesn’t borrow from real-life movement. So one doesn’t walk, but instead, teleports in VR. In the MOR, one can float, teleport in some cases use magical wands that allow us to pseudo walk. The experience of teleportation is unique - whether that's the feeling of lightness for the body or the experience of going through a gate. In VR spatial displacement is experienced in a completely novel way.
One of the avant-garde VR artists that the MOR got a chance to work with three years ago was Liz Edwards, who was one of the first to master Tilt Brush. While working on staging one of her art pieces, the MOR teams asked her how she wanted to showcase her work.
The MOR tries its level-best to make technical efforts to incorporate what the artist might want, and like that innovate the space to ensure the experience isn’t compromised. The spinning portal, which will forever manage to catch your eye from any distance, came out of that collaboration.
A lot of architectural innovation is possible with teleporters, teleporter shapes, and teleported mechanisms. We're used to the fact that doorways are rectangles - and that's it, that’s all, but when it comes to teleportation you can definitely go much further. It's liberating really, to think about how one can opt for these seemingly ridiculous design choices, thinking about things like - ‘Is it going to be LED? How am I going to access this for maintenance? Um, what's the lumen. I don't want any dark spots.’ is not required.
“So you'll notice that at first you get these leaks of lights on the stairs, with these kinds of gradients. So it's nearly a bit like, uh, maybe a futurist art piece? And this is something that lighting designers and architects will try to do, but the way that it has been done here would have been extremely costly and maybe impossible to do in real life.”
The space by those stairs was designed with the thought that it could be where the museum could have presentations, by artists. And if you think about someone making it to this specific location, even if they’re just wandering about, they can notice that there’s a presentation and decide to join the audience. And in the case that they don't wish to, this is also when other rooms make themselves apparent. So it’s meant to feel like a decision making three-way, from where you start seeing art in the distance. And the sky continues to be a good reference point as one moves, as a sort of movement marker in case you get lost.
“It's also a decision tree vertically, were you can decide to stay on the level and keep going straight, or go downwards into a mysterious darkness, where the sun progressively fades away. The stairs and agora space act as a circulation node, a meeting place and a landmark. As these steps are super long and roomy, they act as platforms where users can comfortably move around and it works well when they wish to teleport up or down. With smaller steps, it would have made it harder to accurately place teleporters. The other reason for the large platforms is to create different visual angles for the audience. There's also half steps so that it creates more viewing angles in case there's a huge presentation, while still making the main stairs roomy to move around. There's also a radical move in the room. The walls/roof/column collapses in the middle of the room, as if by accident. It's like a root sprouting from the found and growing upwards. There's both the idea of something fairly solid, but also quite light and free.”
Samuel used mostly Oculus Medium, for probably 90% of the design, and then for the floor and the stairs he used Revit. Oculus Medium is a VR sculpting tool - which confirms that the walls were really sculpted which in turn makes the museum a sculpture essentially. Naturally, a lot of drawings were brought in and exchanged to draw out what the museum aspired as a sculpture before being transformed into a more rationalized piece.
“For 3/4 of the project, it was drawings, renderings, sketching, talking, writing. The first phase is where I made: rooms, corridors, portals, general concepts. In the last month or two, I had to make a final space with a Grand Hall and three other connected rooms. This is when all the pieces came together. The last part is also the only part I started using Medium, it was the most daring risk and the MOR allowed me to make it. It could've been a complete waste of time, but it turned out to be the best risk. I basically asked them if I could go in a more experimental direction, where I was going to take a long time modelling something I could not properly preview. I remember showing them the first 3D sketch and it was atrocious, but it had the core aspect of the idea.”
“In the original juncture there were 25 million triangles, and of course you can decimate that to whatever number you want, but it's always going to be a little like, okay, this is not very mathematical. Whereas Robin with his design and his aesthetics made all the walls with one thickness. And, uh, he has a very particular weight that he likes. I don't remember exactly what it is, but he has a very particular mathematical line that he likes to be part of the design. And so he did part of the conversion as well, which is what you see here.”
Samuel added how interesting it is that the soul and the spirit of the original concept is still completely recognizable after having gone through several optimizations for adapting to the needs of the museum. The personality of the space is reflective of the processes and realities of a functional multiplayer experience for VR art. An unconventional aspect that is a good example of what might sound like a compromise above (but isn’t) is how in the MOR, the walls can become floors and floors can become ceilings - making its own kinds of rules about experiencing art by reassessing that aspect of optimization.
Kent Bye and Andrea Ion Cojocaru did a talk- an architectural analysis of Half-Life Alyx. Samuel references from the episode a little tidbit about how in the history of architecture a theoretician says something about how - ‘Not only does gravity have to carry the building, but it has to look like it can carry the building’.
“Here, though we had fun messing with these rules - as there's no gravity! And I am being a little bit contrarian - but what's more powerful than just being contrarian is to also take roots in gravity. And so we have this anti-gravity and additionally, things that are smashing into the ground. So, as much as there are floating pieces, there're many pieces that are very fully anchored. I feel like this interplay of opposites, middles, and transitions is more powerful than just the denying of the rules of original reality.”
Before the MOR was released to the public, the rooms were polygonal, and put together in a honeybee pattern, with every room form-fitting into the other.
The process began with figuring out rooms and then went on to designing some corridors. And once the rooms and corridors were in place, we could easily have these kinds of systematic spaces and connect them together. This is actually another instance of Occlusion Culling by separating big rooms with tight corridors so you don't see all the art at the same time.
“There were a lot of sketches! Very much like for real world architecture, the process started with just sketching it all out. And then I would often do a lot of the concepts that were geometrical. So I started a lot of it with mathematical lines that get extruded, as smart parametric objects. It was then easy to tweak the shapes.”
At some point Samuel decided that they should simply brave going an extra stretch, beyond software limitations. While Revit allowed beautiful straight line based mathematics, Oculus Medium was powerful in enabling the crazy sculpture stuff that characterizes the museum. Trying to do the same using a 3D application software would be significantly more difficult. When you're in VR, you're right in there feeling it - which from a workflow standpoint makes having to imagine something such as the light, not-so-necessary.
Samuel was a part of beta-testing groups for The Wild XR (an AEC company) when they started out. They had a BFF program where he was invited to share feedback on how its design could be improved. During that time Samuel would meet Robin in VR, and together they’d look at 20 room designs in a go, discussing the experience of the concepts while being immersed in them. Seeing live sketches, even being able to sketch over them, or in the air and things like that made the collaborative process much richer than the traditional architectural methods of today - like the back and forth of PDFs, renders or videos. Instead they embodied the space together and communicated in magical ways.
In the VR space, following the kind of process that the MOR followed would be considered iterative. The MOR as a client, given Robin's directorial vision, was able to perceive exactly what the feeling of the space would be like. The kind of generative feedback from the back and forth was significantly different, said Samuel, from what he works around for other projects and with other clients.
When it came to the types of corridors, Samuel didn't want to go the easy route of making a long continuous which simply opens up or leads to a final destination. The style of the MOR, as visitors know, makes use of walls to create movement in the direction of the art, with leading lines to make a viewer encounter the art in a variety of ways.
The map was designed as a way-finder of course, but there is a lot more to note about the user experience and features, that extend from the map as a foundation stone.
“It's an extremely clever, useful, and innovative feature. And certainly a key part of the museum. If you've played with the map before, you will find that it seems to get more powerful as time passes.”
Over and above its app-like functions to let you choose an artist and/or teleport directly to an artwork though, it also serves as a social hub. Its round table-like structure has a fireplace-like ability to allow a nice huddle even for strangers. Everybody gathers near the map before they prepare their hike. In several instances when the MOR has hosted a show, most people have found themselves next to the map to just get talking. It has proven to be a very successful onboarding tool which also becomes a pocket-map in a way -- as if you get lost, you can teleport into the sky (by pointing right above your head) and you'll be brought right back to the map in the foyer, where you began.
This manner of using familiarity to help you find your way back is quite central to ascertaining independent navigation for each individual. In more fantastical terms, it sort of combines the Marauder’s Map and the function of a Portkey (if you know, you know) by giving you a sense of your location and that of other moving parts (or visitors) in the museum.
The renders were created using Octane in 3DS Max. Samuel also used Enscape 3D to do a lot to quick explorations of the space in 3D. Enscape3D also allowed him to send the experience to Robin, so that he could also explore on his screen or in VR and change the solar light orientation. He also used The Wild to show designs in VR and remotely meet with Robin and Colin in the spaces that were being designed.
“A lot of the early work was in Revit because it followed a logical geometry, but at the end I started using Medium to create that main Grand Hall in VR as a sculpture. I had to come up with a custom workflow to integrate Revit and Medium, it was quite painful!”
In that last phase, Samuel merged the Medium and Revit model and sent it over to the MOR team. “Then I did not really hear anything for like a year, and one day it was live and it was fantastic! The pace was quite different and evolved, it had gracefully matured while keeping its original soul and identity”. While the MOR team made loads of changes on Sam’s finished concepts, it was all pretty much based on these discussions, sketches, and other museums that he shared. The MOR was able to learn a lot from just the way in which Samuel worked. While there are decisions taken collaboratively with a number of different architects, the heart and soul of the museum are owed to Samuel Arsenault-Brassard.