MAS Context Spring Talks 2018

Envisioning New Spatial Organizations

February 14, 2018 at 6PM

On February 14, 2018, cartoonist Klaus, architect Stewart Hicks, and game developer William Chyr presented their work at the Envisioning New Spatial Organizations event that took place at the Chicago Design Museum. Below is an edited transcription of their presentations.


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Klaus, Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Klaus, Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.


When Iker told me about the title of this event, Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, I thought that it would be great to take this opportunity and speak of those other spaces that are being opened for architects to practice architecture outside the traditional discipline. I said this because I am an architect and, while I practiced for a long time, now I am mostly a cartoonist. I am also a professor of Theory and History of Architecture because, you know, everyone has a dark side. But mostly I like to think of myself as a cartoonist. William Chyr is not an architect but he plays with space in video games, something that my students are getting more and more interested in. I think that video games and virtual reality are great expansion fields for architects in the years to come. In the case of Stewart’s practice, it uses fiction as a way to trigger design. I think that we are spreading our ways of practicing architecture, and this is what I want to talk about.

In my case, I am going to go a little bit autobiographical. I can’t say that I am one of these people who, when asked, tells you, “I always wanted to be an architect. When I was a kid I played with my construction kit and I liked my Legos.” I did like my Legos and I built lots of complicated things with them but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. When it came the time to decide what to study, my parents asked me, “What do you want to do as a professional career?” I said, “I want to be a comic book artist.” And they said, “Sure. But something that actually feeds you?” I said, okay. What can I study then? So I pondered many options. At this time, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I had discovered European comic books, for instance the ones by Moebius. I felt that this was something that really appealed to me. I found my interest in architecture through the comics. I saw these comics and I thought that this was something that I would love to do professionally. Perhaps architecture was something that I could try my hand at if I could get into this type of work. I was also looking at some of the people who were particularly interested in architecture such as François Schuiten and Andreas Martens. He was one of my teenage heroes, who also had a keen eye on architecture and design, with all these amazing inner spaces and all these fantastic imaginary cities. I thought, “Perhaps I can have a try at this other world of architecture and maybe I can fit my other interests within it.

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Andreas. Capricorne (1996-2007).

I forgot about comics for a while and I entered architecture. What I was always interested in designing were things that I could make good drawings of. In general, my projects in school were things that tended to get more and more complicated. They were very tortured. My peers and professors mistook this complicated stuff for interesting designs so I got my way through it. Professionally I also got my way, and I would go on to practice for a few years but, in the end, I still wanted to do comics. I wasn’t over it. I still felt the urge to draw those things that I liked as a kid. So what do you do when you have unresolved issues, juvenile obsessions that haunt you when you are already in your early thirties? You can either go into therapy or you can move into academia. I decided to go with the second. I thought that if I couldn’t fit this obsession into my practice, then perhaps I could study it. I decided to turn this into a PhD research where I could study all the things that I loved: comics, science fiction, and cities. I decided to look at the history of the city of the future as it had been imagined throughout the 20th century, but studying it through its representation in comic books.

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In order to do so, I started researching not only the things I already knew but pretty much anything that had been published. I went through hundreds of thousands of comics (I am not exaggerating, this is what an obsession can do to you). I selected around two hundred case studies and started, studying them in detail: their stylistic traits, their urban configuration, and trying to draw the relationships with the architecture that came before and after, ultimately studying how they had helped build this imaginary future. One would think that, at this point, I would have said, “Ok, now that you got it out of your system, you can finally be in peace with yourself. You can be a normal architect and not a baby man playing with architecture.” Well, I didn’t. I had discovered too much interesting stuff that now I could appreciate it not only as a comic book lover but also as an architect. Things had actually gotten worse.

How did I solve this? Well, at this point I had already come to the United States, where I spent three years at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD) in order to do my PhD research. The GSD is an amazing ecosystem, a great zoo with all types of animals, all very interesting and very wild too. Before that I had already done some cartoons about a young architect struggling to get into the profession—a sort of Dilbert for architects—but at the GSD I discovered a world where you had all these egos running around and spreading their message. There was a point where I thought, “I have to sketch this.” And without knowing it, I became an architectural cartoonist.

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The infamous “argument clinic sketches” played by Preston Scott Cohen and Ben Van Berkel at Harvard, December 2008. © Klaus.

I am not going to tell the story of this cartoon, which is the first that I did at the GSD. It was a conversation between Ben van Berkel and Preston Scott Cohen that got a little bit out of hand and, at some point, it had everyone looking at each other asking what was happening here. I drew it and showed it around. People seemed to like it so I kept doing all these sketches. They documented life at the GSD, and the delightful absurdity of some of the things that took place at the GSD. I also took issue with some of those cerebral ways of designing that characterize us architects. For instance, when MOS Architects won MoMA’s PS1 competition in 2009 they had to suffer my take on it throughout several cartoons.

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Design Strategies: Michael Meredith on PS1, March 2009. © Klaus.

At some point I thought that, perhaps, I should go beyond the GSD looking for easy prey, and at that time we had two issues happening simultaneously: Rem Koolhaas was becoming God and Barack Obama wanted to become the president of the USA. Rem Koolhaas is such an interesting character, always generously providing me with material for cartoons. Once I had done the first cartoon, I just went for the easy thing and kept going, because I don’t have that many ideas and, well, it is fun too.

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On Starchitecture, April 2009. © Klaus.

In the end I became a satirist so I made fun of architects and architecture as well. But the thing is, in the end, making fun of architecture allowed me to draw architecture. First, it allowed me to represent buildings, which is something that I love. But it also allowed me to flex my architectural muscles and represent fictional spaces, dream of special configurations and, in the end, design on the page. Playing with these buildings, interpreting them, and twisting them in the realm of the cartoon gave me so much pleasure. In the end, it allowed me to play with architecture in a way that I couldn’t in my day-to-day practice.

Caricature or even copying can be very creative. Once talking to Jimenez Lai, we joked that if you copy something poorly enough it becomes its own thing. By copying, you can end up creating something new. Caricature is even more creative; it is doing this on purpose. You only have to be a little bit of a bad person inside. Caricature can also be a very interesting tool to produce new things. I mean, look at Rem Koolhaas. He did a caricature of Ville Savoye and built it in Paris.

I started using my cartoons as a way to vent my architectural frustrations and design things that were perhaps absurd but which gave me a lot of pleasure, perhaps even more than traditional practice, which is usually burdened by too many constraints. From that point onwards I turned every commission I had into an opportunity to speculate on architecture. Sometimes it would be something very simple, stupid even. Sometimes it could be something that was totally absurd and impractical. Whatever I was commissioned I could use it as a way to vent my design frustrations. As an architect, I need to design. If I can design and draw things immediately, I can get an instantaneous reward, something that I have been embracing all these years. I take any opportunity to rethink things, to do these instantaneous projects that last as long as the drawing takes to be finished.

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© Klaus.

If we had Jimenez Lai here we could discuss how the medium of comics is also very interesting as a tool to produce and to investigate space. On the one hand it is a drawing so it is a two dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space. There is always a conflation of space there. The beauty of drawing is what happens when you make this translation. It starts bringing up new ideas. In the case of comics you also bring another aspect to the equation, which is the concept of time. In comics time is attached to a space. It is a topological system where time depends on the position of the elements on the page. I can look at a story by Jimenez Lai and see him experimenting with new ideas about space as he develops his narratives. Sections become panels, panels become cross sections, and cross sections become plans. In my case I don’t have the patience to go through all this. I don’t have the discipline to do a long-term comic as Jimenez does. I understand the mechanics of narrative and how comics can help play with non-Euclidean configurations of space because of the contiguities of elements in the panels, and I can make my own take on Jimenez’s stuff—and on Jimenez himself—, but not for a long time. This is something that happens in comics, but I would argue that this thinking-outside-the-box can happen in a drawing as well.

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Antonio Galli Bibiena, Design for a stage set with a palace hall leading to another huge arch to a garden, (c1727).

For instance, let’s go back to theater design and let’s look at the drawing above by Antonio Galli Bibiena titled Design for a stage set with a palace hall leading to another huge arch to a garden (c1727). When you design architecture a theatrical set, you do it in a different way than if this was a space that was supposed to be experienced by people. This is something that has been designed to be looked at from a very specific point of view. In order to achieve the maximum effect, you use all the tricks in your bag to create it such as forced perspectives, lighting tricks, etc. You design it so that the experience from the point of view of the viewer is the best it can be. The same applies for a design done in a flat drawing. [Shows Giambattista Piranesi’s Parte di ampio magnifico Porto all’uso degli antichi Romani, ove si scuopre l’interno della gran Piazza pel Comercio (1749-50)]. In this case this is not a representation of a real building. This is a composition where everything, every architectural element, has been placed into it so as to produce a greater effect. If we tried to reconstruct it perhaps the resultant building would be absurd. But the interesting thing is that by doing it just as a drawing you make decisions, and consequently, find things that you wouldn’t if you were thinking of it as a whole, three-dimensional element. This is what, in a way, I do when I produce my drawings. I experiment with things that most probably could not be reconstructed because they are surely breaking many rules and entering the realm of impossible spaces a la M.C. Escher. But they still allow me to explore certain effects in a way that I couldn’t do in my current—or past—job.

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Brutalia, Arquinoir, 2016. © Klaus.

In my cartoons I can fit all my interests. For example, in the cartoon above depicting “Brutalia,” a fictional and absurd theme park that features all these beautiful concrete buildings that have been torn down in the last few years and that I love so much. In another cartoon I may play with the architectures created in the photomontages by Filip Dujardin. They allow me to explore space in a way that I couldn’t do in a normal practice. They finally allow me to come to terms with my obsessions, the past ones that got me to architecture in the first place and some of the new ones that I have come across through all these years in contact with architectural history.

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Arquinoir, 2017. © Klaus.

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Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Stewart Hicks, Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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Stewart Hicks, Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Stewart Hicks

I am extremely excited to be in the company of these folks and this conversation. It is very rare that I am the most capital A architect-y person out of a panel. Usually I am the outlier. As proof that I am the most architect-y, I am going to show you where my office is, which is in the Monadnock Building. The word that I am using as a category to link the conversations today is “world building.” I will try to center my talk on how world building was thought of in architecture in the past, how we thought about it, and show the inklings of a project that maybe fell out of that interest.

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My first realization moment that I was interested in world building was in an interview where I was talking about the Monadnock Building and why I liked it so much. The current state of this building is completely in debt to one man, Bill Donnell, who owns the building. He is probably the world’s worst developer because he wanted to own lots of buildings but this is the only building he owns. He actually went to architecture school in order to be a good steward of this building. It is amazing because when you step into it, you feel the fact that somebody has curated every single moment that you experience in it: from the materials and the fixtures to the shops. There is probably the world’s last travel agency in this building. It is a nostalgic world gone by, but I think it is more than nostalgia. He even bought the tools that were used to make the molding for the doorways so he could have the tools to make new moldings like the old ones. It goes that deep. You feel that depth of the world building when you come into here. But it is not a theme park and it is not fragile. You can enter this world and you can participate in it. I think that that is part of why we love it so much.

When I think of more obvious examples of world building in an architectural context I think of modernist utopias. They are extreme examples of when architects think so highly of themselves that they think they can imagine an entire reality and design that reality. A clear example is Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre City. Broadacre City presents a future landscape of democracy, of self-sufficiency, and individual liberty. It is a world where every citizen receives an acre of land, a world that includes a host of buildings and institutions, all designed by the master Frank Lloyd Wright.

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Broadacre City, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1932.

I am always skeptical of showing a masterwork and then trying to pair that to something we have done in our own practice. In Culture Sampler we tried to make an analogous model or an analogous world. Rather than trying to design a top down solution where we as Design With Company designed every single aspect of this world, we were interested in constructing a world out of bits that we found from around us. What we did was to make this model that is sampled from all of the averages of the United States.

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Midwestern Culture Sampler. © Design With Company.

It is broken up by the Jeffersonian grid and it has the average land use patterns, so it has the right amount of agriculture, the right amount of city, and the right amount of suburbs as the representation of the United States. What it starts to approach is something like the Midwest, something that we automatically think of as an average of the United States. In that sense, it is a model of the Midwest but it is also an average of an average model of everywhere USA. But instead of the adjacencies being determined by functional speculations on how a society might work more democratically, we started to arrange those land uses according to a narrative and metaphor. The kind of space that we were trying to explore is the space of narrative. The way that that plays out is that Chicago’s corncobs [Marina City] sit among Cornhenge in a cornfield next to the world’s only Corn Palace. The things that we sampled were not only the land use patterns but also man-made constructions that tried to produce an identity where there was no identity previously. It tries to do that through narrative, by making things like corn and making them big, celebrating everyday pieces.

The environment of Broadacre City is comprised of carefully adjusted land uses and assigned particular zones and areas to fill the land. Institutions and government buildings are dispersed so as to not create a center. When everyone is all spread out, there is need to create new types of institutional buildings that can accommodate this spread out land use so as to not allow for any centers of power. In our world, institutions don’t come from the traditional government agencies. They regulate the aspects of architecture that produce a sense of place. Frank Lloyd Wright relies on yet-to-be-developed technologies that allow for efficient movement to overcome the problem of distance. The fictional world that he is developing provides a context to point to the possibility and need for some of these technologies. It starts to hint at the power of world building for architects because it is transmedia. By thinking of the act of the architect as world building you can go from model to drawing to building and, in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright, thinking of how a building’s role is situated within a much larger context all the way down to something like the scale of a chair or a stool.

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© Design With Company.

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© Design With Company.

As I mentioned earlier, we sampled important moments within the man-made landscape of the Midwest, man-made objects that produce identity and place. We tried to understand how they operated. In the case of the Leaning Tower of Niles, it is about a 50% scaling down of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. What we found was that whenever the Midwest tries to appropriate things from outside to produce identity they scale it down. But then when they take things from within the Midwest and the everyday, they scale it up or they have way too many of them. Another example mentioned earlier was the Corn Palace that has onion domes and murals made out of corn. These are the things that started to populate our new version of USA in that one-mile by one-mile model. This is a close up of one of our institutions, which is dedicated to the way that this land works. It is in a style that comes from the territory. It uses unexpected quantities of scaled everyday parts, such as pitches, punches, porches, and patterns.

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Misguided Tactics for Propriety Calibration, 2015. © Design With Company.

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Midwestern Standards for Propriety Calibration.

World building allows for transmedia explorations. With our project we accompanied the model with a book called Misguided Tactics for Propriety Calibration. In this book we speculated on the existence of another book called Midwestern Standards for Propriety Calibration, which is a book that doesn’t exist. But we are arguing its presence because it is the rule book for how to create identity and place in places like the Midwest where everything seems average and people build structures like the ones that we found to produce a sense of place.

The punch line of our book is that we never actually show you what’s inside of the book. Instead we hint at the evidence for its existence. We construct a narrative for how and why it came to be. The format of the book is a collage fiction which pairs collage images with short bits of text. Something that we are also interested in these transmedia explorations is how there is a loose fit between them. In our case, there is a loose fit between the text and the images they describe. In this sense, there is a tonal counter point. If there is a dry bit of text, there is maybe a funny image that accompanies it or vice versa.

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The story begins: “The eventual publication of the Midwestern standards for propriety calibration has its humble beginnings in the combination of three independent institutions: the Midwestern Casting Agency, The Institute for Reduction and Enlargement, and the Redundancy Assurance Company Co. Each institution is devoted to tallying and standardizing the Midwest through the precise measurement of its geography. They use the latest techniques and they love the grid. The Midwestern Casting Agency drew and redrew the boundaries of the Midwest. No one can decide on the best shape. And the Institute for Reduction and Enlargement measured deviations within the one-mile squares. The Redundancy Assurance Company Co counted and classified the squares trapped within the web of the Jeffersonian grid. The three institutions initially didn’t think to communicate with one another, and thusly the definition of the Midwest was constantly in flux, determining the most appropriate definition of the territory with the topic of conversation at all of the most lavish parties. Emotions were mixed among the natives over the confusion about the constitution of their homeland. And in order to find a solution the three institutions eventually united to create a full scale standard square mile that they called the culture.” This one-mile area squared contains everything it means to be the Midwest. It is the one to one square sampler of the Midwestern geography and its settlement patterns that is the model that I showed you earlier.

This alternative reality is also the one that I want to use as a means to consider the Harold Washington Public Library that you might be familiar with. Most people hate it. I won’t take a poll to see who hates it in this room but it will probably be a high percentage. That is likely due to its garish and fortified exterior as well as its circuitous entry sequence. There are as many versions of hating this building as there are people who look at it. The building was the result of a 1987 competition where developers were paired with architects to come up with schemes for the site and the one that is across the L, which you can see here an is an empty park. There were five total entries that the jury was meant to debate. Each entry was put on display for the public to be able to comment on as well.

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The architect and eventual winner, Thomas Beeby, had a thesis for the building. His argument was that Chicago wasn’t very good at making civic architecture. What Chicago knows how to do is to make commercial architecture. So he was trying to find a new language for civic architecture that tried to pull lessons from commercial buildings, office buildings, specifically the Monadnock Building which is the one we talked about earlier. The flared base, the arched openings… things like that. He would marry that with the planning strategy of a shopping mall. His argument was that he was going to try to import some of Chicago’s important architectural inventions into creating a civic architecture.

In an episode of Nova dedicated to the competition and shown on PBS, Stanley Tigerman was quoted as saying, “By selecting that scheme it sends Chicago backwards away from its future precisely the way the Chicago Tribune competition and the Columbian exposition did. Because it is a building that is a study in dissimilation that feigns to be something of a time that is not ours that uses as a role model the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris and by Henri Labrouste. That is the problem with the kind of thinking that uses a context to establish authority and uses verification of an earlier time to get over the insecurities of the natives of a city trying to seek authenticity.”

Clearly, Tigerman didn’t like this design very much. He thought it was purely looking backwards and that it was a means to placate Chicagoans with a building that looked familiar and already had a sense of authority to it rather than using architectural design to establish new ways of creating a civic architecture. So, when looking at this building, we asked ourselves, is that true? Is that all there is, a feigning of time gone by? This is Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève that Stanley Tigerman was talking about on the left. And a fragment of the elevation of the library on the right.

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What we wanted to do was find a way of liking this building. Find a way that maybe we could find its redeeming qualities. Maybe that is possible by actually situating it within this world that we had constructed earlier. One critic of the library said that its design elements are brazen imitations of features of Chicago landmarks which themselves sport details derived from old world European buildings. Nothing is subtle about the library’s references. The illusions look comically oversized as if to beef up these largely European motifs as one with cars or sandwiches from Midwestern Americans. It’s boiling down of history’s simulacra, it’s endless pastiche.

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We will argue that a better reference is maybe not the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève in Paris but instead maybe the world’s only Corn Palace, which was designed in 1922 by the Chicago architects Rapp and Rapp, who are known for their theater designs, notably the Chicago Theater. This idea of putting the land and everyday objects on display like a piece of theater I think serves as a model for the building that we are looking at below. We went through the archives for the competition and we found 1,000 different public statements where people were talking about this building. That is what we were interested in getting: boiling down to how we delaminate all of the narratives that are present both within the architecture itself as well as the ones that are laid upon it by the ones who are judging it. Some people loved it, some people hated it, and some people have some pretty insightful comments to make about the building. We combed through all of them and we tried to create reactions to as many as we could. We ended up creating twenty-four reactions, twenty-four different design alternatives that either took seriously some of the comments that were made or they took seriously some of the critiques that people made of the building. For instance, the escalators are horrible, making you take three different escalators just to get to the books. So we speculated about what if we made the whole library out of escalators. If you took something that was negative and turned it into a positive.

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Or what if we took the best part of the library, which is those big green owls on the corner, and made the entire library just out of owls? Or how could we use it as a civic scale and start to say Navy Pier just redid their Ferris Wheel, maybe we could borrow that? Or any other speculations on current city situations and ways of understanding that building. We also treated it to the Stanley Tigerman treatment of The Titanic by sinking it. By wrapping it in signage maybe we could sell the façade so that people could make money. Maybe we can just build it out of Prentice Hospital, which was torn down, and it could be reused in some way. We created these fictional alternative futures for the library in isolation but then we thought about potentials for how they might start to stitch together. In the library itself these all coexist so what we tried to do is parse them out, treat them in isolation and then combine them into novel combinations that would tell other types of stories by using the stories that already exist.

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Late Entry to the Chicago Public Library Competition, Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2015. © Design With Company.

That became all glued together in one model that is at the exact same scale as the original competition models from the original 1987 competition. You can start to read all of those narratives coming together. How we saw value in the project is by looking to existing narratives. We also constructed our own stories about potential futures for this building and wrote them on the wall for people to read if they wanted to. But we also had them as a model for people to read their own stories into it.

This is how we tried to take the lessons of our utopia. It is not a utopia but our world building exercises that we tried to use as a means to understand the world in a different way.

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Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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William Chyr, Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.

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William Chyr, Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.

William Chyr

Before I start I should mention I don’t have any architecture training. I usually give talks to game developers. That means two things: one is that I’m probably going to say a lot of stuff you already know; and two, I’m going to be butchering all the architecture terms.

I have been working on my video game Manifold Garden for over five years now. I am going to spend some time explaining what the game is about and talk about how I approach level design. The game is a first person puzzle game. That’s different from a lot of other games out there but I think it’s very similar to how you design theme parks. Players are traversing through this space, they come back to certain areas but it is very much about using the architecture to guide players, to have a certain experience.

It uses impossible geometry and unusual physics. I will talk about the two key features for this in the game: Traversal, which is the ability to change gravity, and the geometry or 3D world wrapping. Regarding traversal, some of you might have seen the movie Inception and you might remember the scene where they fold Paris in half and start walking up the wall.

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When I saw this I was thinking that if Leo were to drop his wallet, would it fall on this floor in the blue arrow or would it fall in the direction of the green arrow, his former gravity? Or if he were to give his wallet to someone standing on this other surface, and this person were to drop the wallet, would it fall in the direction of the blue arrow or green arrow? My illustration skills are not quite on par with Klaus. I think the movie draws a lot of inspiration from the Relativity print by M. C. Escher. Originally Manifold Garden was supposed to be just a recreation of this Escher print and in fact the original name for the game was Relativity.

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To translate the image in the print into a game, to give it a mechanic, we have six directions and each surface has a color associated with it, with objects of that color falling in that direction. For example, when you are in the blue gravity, you can interact with blue objects and blue boxes and they fall in that direction. When you change to the yellow gravity, then all the other objects freeze and only yellow objects are active, and so on and so forth. Something you can do is place a red object, have it be frozen because you are in blue, and now you can put a blue object on top of that. When you switch to green, now the blue and red objects are frozen and you can place the green box on them. There are no curves or slants in the game, so everything is 90 degrees. This is just an example of how gravity change works in the game.

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Now I am going to talk about the geometry in the game, which is the 3D world wrapping. In a lot of games, if I were to fall off, then the screen would fade to black and reset you. In Manifold Garden, the world repeats itself so you just keep falling forever. You have air control, so you can move while you are falling to land yourself again. I just want to clarify what I mean by impossible geometry. You often see people refer to weird geometry as “non-Euclidean geometry.” I want to take a second to explain that. It’s not as unusual as one might think. Technically, the surface of a sphere is non- Euclidean, because two straight lines on the surface aren’t parallel forever. If you were to draw a large enough triangle on the surface of the Earth, the angles would add up to be more than 180. In video games we often see 2D wrapping, which is a 2-torus. For example, when the spaceship goes off to the right side of the screen it will come back on the left side. That is actually the surface of this torus. That’s what you’d see on the screen. You are connecting each side with the opposite one.

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In 3D world wrapping, we are doing a similar thing, but with a 3D cube. Instead of connecting sides, now we are connecting faces. We connect the faces with three arrows to each other, and then we connect the faces with two arrows to each other. You can’t visualize it because this is in 4D. The way I like to think of it is, in 2D world wrapping you are a 2D character on the 2D surface of a 3D donut. And in 3D world wrapping, you are a 3D character on the 3D surface of a 4D donut. One example in the game is when we drop the cube it’ll actually come down from above. I can see it beneath me and above me at the same time. We also have water in the game and you can use it to grow trees. This is a really old version so it looks terrible but when you have water that goes off the edge, it comes back from above. We don’t have waterfalls in the game, we have water loops.

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Manifold Garden. © William Chyr.

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Manifold Garden. © William Chyr.

A really cool book about this is The Shape of Space by Jeffrey Weeks. He has a website,, where you can check out a bunch of his e-games showcasing unusual geometry.

Gravity changing and 3D world wrapping are the basis of Manifold Garden, so I want to talk about how these ideas affect how I approach level design and how they change the player’s relationship to space. Initially, the game didn’t implement a lot of these mechanics and they came into place over time. Back in July 2013, there was no world wrapping, there was just the gravity changing. When I built a space, it had to be contained inside a massive room. There were several problems with this. First of all, it was really hard to orient yourself because everywhere looked the same. And when you fell off you landed on the floor at the bottom, which meant that you had to trek all the way back to find where you were at the beginning.

Without world wrapping players also got nervous about exploring too far, because they thought that if they went in the wrong direction, then later they would need to walk all the way back. Every step away meant two steps that they needed to take later. With world wrapping you actually solve that problem because you are never really lost. You are just in the same place. It also allowed me to have the visual impact of these cubes extending out to infinity. They are all the same instance so you can go to any of them and that is fine. In general, it is also a much more interesting level.

I saw an image of the stepwells in India and this was another space that became possible and also more interesting with world wrapping because we could just extend it out to infinity. In this case it’s slightly different because, instead of having each instance of the world be directly above, beneath, or next to each other, we are actually staggering it so that there is a slight offset. When you move down to the next iteration, you are actually moving down and forward.

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Manifold Garden. © William Chyr.

One of the problems that the world wrapping and the gravity changing have is that it really screws up gating in the game. Often times in a game you will have a door you can’t get through so you have to look for a key and then come back and open up the door. There might be a wall to block your path, but when you have gravity changing, you can just change gravity and walk on the wall or fall to land on the other side. Things that we traditionally use in games to set the pace or block progression, they no longer work. In this example, the player wants to get to the star and in a traditional game we can just put a wall there to block the player. But with world wrapping the player can jump to the right and then come back on the opposite of the wall or they can go down and land from above.

That is something I had a really difficult time with until I played Skyrim. This is a fantasy RPG [Role-Playing Game] where you run around. There are dwarfs and elves and you save the world. The way Skyrim is designed is you can go anywhere in the world when you start. When you are outside they don’t stop you from going anywhere. You can see a mountain in the distance and go there from the beginning. The way they set the pacing is you have complete freedom when you are outside, but when you go inside dungeons it is very linear. You go into a dungeon and often times, they just make you go in a circle. Usually, there will be a locked door to your right as soon as you enter, and then you will walk around the dungeon and come out through that very door, then back out through the original entrance. Sometimes, in the very last room, there will be a boss, and after you defeat the boss, there is a very conveniently located door right next to it. We have actually taken that same pacing structure and applied it to Manifold Garden. So when you are outside you can actually go anywhere, we don’t stop you. We just embrace the world wrapping and instead of trying to gate you, we just let you go anywhere you want. When you have to go into a specific area to solve a puzzle, then it follows a very linear structure.

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Another problem that we have with this game is that height is meaningless. In games what you’ll often have is something like a tower the players can use to orient themselves. A mission might be to get to the base of the tower. You can run around and not really pay too much attention to your surroundings, but you can always keep the tower in sight. Something like this in a traditional game doesn’t quite make sense in Manifold Garden because you can change gravity. The ways that you would normally use to orient yourself, they don’t apply here.

One thing that I found with Manifold Garden is that designing in a radial fashion has been much better than in a linear way. Often times, what we’ll try to do is put rooms all around a certain area so you don’t have to go in one cardinal direction. Instead, traveling in any direction will work.

I am going to talk about some techniques that have worked well when it comes to designing levels. I break them down into two categories: macro techniques and micro techniques.

Originally when I was just starting out making the game I wanted to recreate spaces seen in Escher’s prints, but these spaces actually do not work very well in the game. This is like when Klaus was talking about things that work well in an image but not so well in real life. I think this is an example of that. The earlier levels were just super messy because I was trying to recreate the effect seen in those images. When you came out to this level there were two rooms that you had to get to, but they were randomly placed in the space.

I noticed that there was a problem when people who were really good at puzzles and people who weren’t so great at puzzles spent the same amount of time outside. The beginning of the game is all indoors, and there is a sequence of five puzzles, one after another. After this sequence, the player gets out to this open space, and they have to find where to go next. I would see people who are really good at puzzles solve the initial sequence in five minutes. But then they would come out and they would spend twenty minutes out here figuring out where to go next. I would also see some people who really struggle with those initial five puzzles, taking half an hour. They would come out here and they would also take twenty minutes. What that says is that it is completely random whether you find the room or not. What you really need is some kind of logic in the way the space is organized. Instead of having this mess of structure, what I found that works much better is when you have a very iconic way. When I see the space, I immediately understand how it is laid out. That makes it much easier for me as a player to navigate. The level itself has a logic to it that the players can use to figure out where they need to go next. Because you can change gravity, the other problem you have is that you are also looking at this space from a number of different angles. By having that logic to it, it means that it is not so dependent on whether players are in the right position to see something, but that they can still piece it together.

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Manifold Garden. © William Chyr.

Let’s talk about moment-to-moment techniques that we use, like stairs. One thing that is interesting with stairs in games is that when people see them they will always go up. They will just take them. Players use those architectural elements differently than they would in real life.

The original opening of the level has two stories. You would start off upstairs, then you go downstairs and there was a door that you had to take. One thing I kept noticing was players would go downstairs. Then they would turn around and they would take the same stairs up again. I would be like, “What are you doing? You just went down those stairs.” In video games essentially what you are doing is looking at a 2D image on the screen and then piecing together a 3D space in your head. I think that is very different than when you are physically in a space. A lot of people would have forgotten that they went down the stairs. These were the exact same stairs they took down, but you didn’t actually walk down those stairs. So I ended up changing the opening level but I got the lesson of people seeing stairs and wanting to walk up them. In this earlier version of the level I have this central tower and I really wanted people to jump onto these different islands. I wanted people to change gravity and fall onto these various islands. So I put this little block here as a way for people to use to change gravity. The way you have to change gravity in the world is you have to walk up to a surface. If that block wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be anything for the players to use to change gravity but nobody used those. I got really frustrated until I replaced them with stairs. They didn’t go anywhere but people would walk up to them, they would change gravity, and then they would be looking down and they are like, oh okay. And then just fall down.

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Manifold Garden. © William Chyr.

It was really important that the architecture had to communicate what it was for. Even as something as simple as stairs which is just like, walk up here. Another is using patterns. Hallways was something that I had a lot of problems with in the game early on. You can see this is an early version of the hallway. Players would often get lost because you can not only turn left or right, but you can also go up or down. A lot of times players would lose or would forget which way they were supposed to go in the hallway as all looked the same. At some point I started adding windows in the game. You would turn around and there would be these two windows, they were the same size opposite of each other in the hallway.

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Manifold Garden. © William Chyr.

I had a friend play this and he was like, “I really think you should offset the windows.” This actually solved a ton of problems because what this does is that when you look down the hallway the end of it is immediately much brighter than the rest of the screen. So players are incentivized to move forward. It also creates a sense of direction. So if you look down a hallway in the correct way you will see a window at the end. If you are looking at it the wrong way then you will see a wall. In a hallway there are no arrows but you can just look at the windows and use those to orient yourself regardless of whether it’s going up, left, or right. We use this everywhere. The interesting thing with windows in games is it functions very similarly to a wall in that it is an obstacle, a barrier to prevent the player from getting to some place. But the player can see the other side of it so we often use that to tease players. At the beginning it starts off all indoors but we are teasing the player with cool stuff that they can get to eventually outside.

There is a lot more but that is five years of stuff compressed into twenty minutes. Thank you.

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Envisioning New Spatial Organizations, Chicago Design Museum, 2018. © Iker Gil.

Thanks to the Chicago Design Museum for hosting the event.