Blog about architectural and design psychology

Architecture by trial and error

Building prototypes for architectural and urban projects is relatively uncommon. New technologies might soon change the usual procedure.

The creation of prototypes has become a standard in software development. Options include everything from simple paper prototypes to comprehensive click-dummies. Building prototypes is much quicker than programming the respective functionalities in a way that they meet all quality criteria and are ready to use. This way, the functionalities can be tested and adjusted before investing time and money in coding them.

Experiencing architecture prior to construction

Development costs of software can be relatively high. However, they are topped by the expenses for projects in architecture and urban planning in most cases. There are only few other fields in which projects can become that costly both in terms of time and money. Not only do planning, building permission and construction of a bridge or an office building consume loads of time. The results usually persist for decades if not centuries and influence people’s daily life.

Surprisingly though, creating prototypes for architectural or urban planning projects is relatively uncommon. Needless to say, projects usually involve countless sketches, models and renderings. For experts, they build a basis to get an idea of how a building might feel like and how it might be used. Yet, all the sketches and models still remain abstract and don’t provide an opportunity to experience the actual sense of space.

How a building or an urban space feels does not only depend on how the dimensions of the building or the streets look from a human perspective. Aspects such as lighting, visitor traffic or air circulation play an important role, too. These factors can be planned and calculated in advance, indeed. Yet to imagine the impression they would create in reality based on maps and renderings takes a great deal of imagination.

This does not only pose a challenge for experts, but especially for building contractors, politicians and affected citizens. Beautiful architectural renderings often create a wrong impression of a proposed building. This makes it hard to involve citizens in the planning process of an urban project.

Construction of an installation for the Vivid Sydney festival.

Construction of an installation for the Vivid Sydney festival.

Urban Prototyping

The idea of building prototypes for urban projects is not completely new. Since quite some years, projects referred to as urban prototyping aim to improve communal life in cities. These projects often take place in context of street festivals and arts exhibitions. Examples include the Urban Prototyping Festival, the Market Street Prototyping Festival or Vivid Sydney.

Installations at festivals like these often explore how modern technologies might be used to enrich the possibilities of citizens to interact with their cities. The result may be a light projection, an interactive media installation or even a community project. Such urban prototypes extend our understanding of the city as a habitat. They show new ideas of how communal life of citizens may work in future and give answers to current societal challenges.

Yet, their contribution to specific building projects tends to be quite limited. The technologies and ideas included in these urban prototypes are rather something to be added to the city as we know it. This leaves the question unanswered how the founding elements of towns such as public buildings, streets, bridges or parks should be designed in order to contribute to general livability. A number of new methods and technologies now bring us a lot closer to really do user-centered urban and architectural design.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality glasses such as Occulus Rift allow us to dive into a virtual world and interact with it. In doing so, they are a great tool to test architectural designs before actually building them. One example would be to let people navigate through a virtual building and observe how quickly the can find an emergency exit. Another possibility would be to analyze the incidence of light in a specific room during several daytimes and seasons.

Up to now, movement in virtual realities has usually worked similarly to PC games using keyboards or joysticks. The Berlin start-up Illusion Walk now works on a solution that allows to walk through virtual reality by foot and even to interact with virtual objects. To achieve this, users move in a special room equipped with sensors that can track their position and map it into the virtual world. This allows to experience virtual reality more realistically.

With the Augmented Reality Sandbox, playing with sand is a lot of fun for adults, too.

With the Augmented Reality Sandbox, playing with sand is a lot of fun for adults, too.

Tangible Interfaces

Usually, people used to interact with computers using devices such as keyboard, mouse or touchscreen. For example, digital data is presented on a screen and can be selected and manipulated with a mouse-pointer. Since about two decades, people strive to develop tangible interfaces as an alternative to this mode of interaction. With tangible interfaces, digital data is supposed to merge with the physical objects used to interact with it. This way, users can almost touch the data itself and manipulate it as they are used to with purely physical objects.

The technology is especially interesting for architectural and landscape planning. Since the early days, researches have suggested to use tangible interfaces in this field. A recent project is called Augmented Reality Sandbox. Here, users can bank up sand to form landscapes. A 3D camera above the sandbox tracks both the shape of the sand and hand movements. A projector illuminates higher parts in red and valleys in green. If a users hold their hand above the sand, it starts raining blue water drops. They run down the hills and accumulate in lower areas.

Even if this project is still at its beginning, it already shows the possibilities of tangible interaction for architecture and landscape planning. Ideas can be iterated and effects be tested quickly. This allows to speed up the planning process so that planners can play with a higher number of different ideas.

3D printing

3D printing has been a trend for several years. The technology enables people to shape individual, complex components in short amount of time and without any expensive machines or long transport routes. Objects are printed from viscous materials layer by layer and dried afterwards. The process reminds of the production method of cookies and chocolates. Today, many architectural models are already 3D-printed as the method allows to build very precise and filigree structures that would be hard to achieve with conventional methods.

Entire buildings can be produced with 3D printers, too. Apis Cor is a company that claims to offer the first mobile 3D printer for building construction. The shell construction of a single-family house could be completed within a few days. So far, the main idea has been to use the technology to create affordable housing. Yet as the construction time is so short, it might also be used to quickly realize parts of larger building projects in form of a full-sized prototypes. For example, different designs of office spaces or hotel rooms could be tested and compared that are planned to be replicated several dozen times on the levels of a skyscraper.

Short construction times and little costs are also central to the WikiHouse project. Participants investigate modular construction methods, where buildings are planned digitally in advance, but structural components are produced and combined directly on the construction site. Everyone interested can collaborate on the open-source project and suggest ideas.


In Berlin, urban prototyping has already reached political reality. The city government investigates how three streets can be improved for pedestrians and cyclists. In the process, the government also keeps an eye on the interests of shop owners. Therefore, routing will only be changed transiently so that effects can be analyzed and build the basis for further development.

One of these streets is the Bergmannstraße in the district of Kreuzberg. Starting from summer 2017, motorized traffic is supposed to be decreased. For this sake, the government will remove the majority of parking areas and narrow the lanes on the street. Instead of parking, the city will install so-called parklets, which were implemented by the Pavement to Park initiative in San Francisco in 2010 for the first time. Elements of 12 meters length will mainly provide seating for pedestrians and parking space for bikes. Conveniently, the elements can easily be replaced and removed. During the project phase of one and a half years, the design of the street will be adjusted and improved step by step.


Today, there are quite a number of technologies and innovations that allow to test and evaluate large-scale urban projects before actually building them from steel and concrete. They make a modern understanding of architecture possible that is guided by the needs and perceptions of its users. Read more about principles for modern design in this article.