Utopian city is just clicks away

The Prague Post

Virtual platform allows users to rethink design

How will cities be designed in the future? And what about the communities within those cities? How will constantly changing technology affect the way we live, work and socialize? These questions and more are being explored through Underground City XII, a multidisciplinary platform that allows an online collaborative network of architects, computer programmers, philosophers and others interested in the future of design and living to construct a “”utopian”” virtual community for which the backdrop is a very real network of abandoned coal mines in Croatia.

Sound strange? The virtual space is inspired by the aesthetics of Europe’s industrial heritage, and users contribute to the design of the 3-D environment online. The Web-based platform allows for a space where a vast cross-section of people can contribute their models of utopia.

The abandoned Labin mines are a challenging space to take on. There are 18 layers of tunnels, both above and below the ground, with multiple entry points, as well as ecological considerations. The computer program allows you to move in and experience the space, and real-life photos from inside the mine let you experience it more naturally. Pascal Silondi, coordinator of the project, also likes that social realities in a mine are different. There’s no sun or light, and your connection with others becomes much deeper when you have to rely on someone else to stay safe.

“It provides a feeling of immersion – part of the space is realistic, but part is utopia,” he said. “A new space experience changes according to your interaction with the environments. It’s a virtual experiment but based on real life.”

Underground City XII is a pan-European project with participating members including Libat, a French arts nonprofit, of which Silondi is the founder, Labin Art Express arts association (Croatia), Nomad Theater (Austria) and, locally, Prague College.

“We are using all the potential of the technology to create the short-term project, a utopian space, not totally focused on ‘reality,’ and create a discussion between people who could create new environments,” Silondi said. “We want to think about new models and share our knowledge and the vision of our future.”

The program is highly advanced, moving you through the mines with a motion sickness-inducing speed. The space can easily change and reflect the users, who are able to compose with sound, text and other concepts using the technology. There is lots of potential for interconnection: to catch, interpret and resend information about how an environment can learn about itself and react. The project began back in June 2009, and not all of the knowledge-sharing is done virtually.

Project organizers arrange workshops or “labs” to open the floor to more discussion, and this past July, one such workshop was held at Prague College, in which a studio was set up to develop audiovisual identities for the project. Like everything with the project, it was very multidisciplinary, with artists, designers, architects, IT experts and students designing, creating and implementing 2-D, 3-D and 4-D models.

Silondi leads the interactive media department at Prague College and was very happy to find such an excited and willing partner in the school.

The lab is still set up at Prague College Studios, where two interactive displays demonstrate how deep Silondi wants the user’s experience to be. In one, users “walk” through the mines, using a lantern to control navigation. Silondi says this is because in a mine, without light, you are lost. “Let’s think about navigation within virtual environments. What’s the perception, and what do we feel?”

A second display attempts to recreate the feeling of being lost in a mine. Here, you use a large touch screen to readjust and relocate objects. Silondi says it is a metaphor for what they want to do with the project, which they hope will be out of the beta phase and ready for the user community by May 2011.

“If we could use new technology to enhance the quality of communication and research, for me that is the interrelation between human beings – visions and utopias.”