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Lausanne firm pushes back boundaries of virtual architecture

Virtual reality is Alternet Fabric's forte.


The divide between reality and the virtual world is becoming ever more blurred, and one field in which 3-D technology is beginning to make an impact is architecture. One of the leading exponents of virtual architecture is the Lausanne company, Alternet Fabric.

The award-winning company was formed in 1997 by two architects, Christophe Guignard and Patrick Keller, and a telecom engineer, Stéphane Carion.

"Alternet Fabric is a confluence between architecture, art and technology. We try to use these difference approaches to the same object in our projects," says Guignard.

The architects, engineers, graphic designers and computer graphics experts, many of whom were trained at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and Geneva University, work in a range of fields, from architecture to digital art, web design to urban planning.

You would be forgiven for thinking that digital design is merely the creation of images. But in the case of Alternet Fabric, you would be mistaken.

At the heart of its work is a simple philosophy: Information Architecture, where information - images and texts, but also heat, light and sound waves - becomes a material in its own right.

"Our name is linked to the concept of creating a new urban fabric. The Internet can be a new fabric within which we have to weave a new reality. It may appear virtual, but everything exists, even if it's fragments of data," Guignard told swissinfo.

One of the best examples of this philosophy is La Fabrique, a kind of virtual art gallery, which won the Golden Lasso Award for the best artwork at the Web3D Congress in Monterrey last year.

This "experimental space for digital art", created in partnership with the French television channel Canal+, featured, in two separate exhibitions, works produced by professional artists and students at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. A third exhibition, produced by electronic artists, is currently "under construction".

"The central theme was 'recombined reality'. "We wanted to show how our reality is transformed and mutated by new technology, how our perceptions of space and how we interact with each other are altered," Guignard says.

The first gallery has the theme of digital prosthesis, showing how the digital world can be an extension of our physical selves.

The first major project in this field of mixed reality environments was launched last year by the ETH in Zurich. Rather than extend the physical campus, the institute has decided to undertake a digital extension by introducing a new information infrastructure.

"This is the first really big contract in our field of virtual architecture," says Keller. "It will create a new kind of relationship within the student community, and allow links with foreign universities."

"We believe more and more projects of this type will appear in the near future," he adds.

Keller says fellow architects greeted his decision to set up Alternet Fabric with Guignard four years ago with a great deal of scepticism: "Most of our friends told us we were quitting architecture, because we were mainly working in Internet."

"We tried to explain that we were still doing architecture, just with different materials, but they didn't really believe us. The ETH project shows that architecture can work in these new areas," he told swissinfo.

However, the company's success in the digital environment does not mean it is dismissive of the "real" world. Guignard and Keller believe that the two worlds are not in opposition, but an extension of one another.

"We're not saying the new is better than the old. It's an evolution. We want to find ways for the new and the old to interact," Guignard explains.

by Roy Probert


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