Founded in 1980, Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) has designed 950 projects in 44 countries, creating some of the most breathtaking architecture of the age and winning literally hundreds of awards in the process. Case in point: in 2018, Time magazine named the ZHA-designed Morpheus Hotel in Macau, China, one of the world’s 100 greatest places.
While the company’s eponymous founder is sadly no longer with us, the 400-strong team continues to carry forward her spirit of innovation. In 2014, the studio created the ZHVR Group, with a mandate to adopt the emerging virtual reality technology into its already fully digitized 3D design process.
Immersive VR architectural visualization
Today, the group produces immersive VR experiences for as many of ZHA’s architectural designs as possible, either in place of, or alongside its standard presentation deliverables. One such project was for Danjiang Bridge in Taipei, Taiwan. The experience, unveiled at the Global Design Laboratory exhibition in Taipei, enabled attendees to experience the bridge from unique perspectives and under a variety of lighting scenarios.
Helmut Kinzler, Senior Associate at ZHA and Head of the ZHVR Group, describes the typical reaction of clients and onlookers to the VR visualizations.
“Clients in general respond extremely well and seem to grasp our ideas more quickly and on a more individual level,” he says. “Besides the sensation of the new medium, we clearly see a better, persistent understanding of our propositions. It makes space much easier to understand for clients, which speeds up the decision-making process and helps us identify required design changes early in the design process.”
For the majority of its projects, the team uses Unreal Engine. José Pareja Gómez, Lead Designer/Lead VR Developer at ZHA, explains that visual fidelity and performance are key factors in this choice.
“We’re very happy with the performance and visual results we’re getting using Unreal—even more so now, with the way real-time ray tracing lets us push the boundaries of what we can achieve with immersive visualization.” he says.
One of the biggest challenges at the presentation stage is the complexity of the models. ZHVR Group has developed a number of in-house tools to help optimize the assets. The ability to extend Unreal Engine not only through full C++ source code access, but also via the Blueprint visual scripting language, is highly valued.
“We are quite familiar with visual scripting in other software packages; the fact that we can work within Unreal using a similar approach makes it far more accessible and a lot quicker for us to prototype and develop full applications,” says Gómez.
Experimental VR projects for art and research
Another collaboration with Epic Games—together with HP, NVIDIA, and HTC VIVE—was Project Correl, presented at the Design as Second Nature exhibition at the University Contemporary Art Museum (MUAC) in Mexico City. This experiment in collaborative, multi-presence architectural design invited visitors to collectively build a virtual structure over several months. Progressive iterations of the structure were captured and exhibited in the gallery as scaled 3D-printed models.
Kinzler cites ZHVR Group’s relationship with Epic, and the level of service and support the team receives, as another reason for its continuing use of Unreal Engine.
“Epic has been very supportive of our efforts and has been there when we needed them,” says Kinzler. “They treat us as a strategic partner, rather than just a user of their software.”
ZHVR Group not only creates VR experiences for their architectural designs, but also VR-specific designs. One project that used Unreal Engine was Zaha Hadid Paintings: Virtual Reality Experiences in 2016, in a collaboration with Google Arts and Culture. The series of experiences was created to accompany the exhibition Zaha Hadid: Early Paintings and Drawings.
Another of the group’s VR-specific projects is Spatial Matrix Prototype 01, foundational research into what they term “Virtual Spatiality.” The resulting VR experiences have helped the company evaluate the mapping of architectural frames of reference, spatiality, and aesthetics into VR.
The way ahead for VR visualization: from first concept to final presentation
For architectural designs, the group already uses Unreal Engine during the concept stages for design evaluation, as well as for final presentations. Concepts are typically modeled in Maya, and brought into the engine via FBX. Once the concept is more defined, the work moves into Rhino. At this stage, the team uses Unreal Studio to bring in the assets. Unreal Studio is a free, extended Unreal Engine offering for architectural visualization specialists that includes Datasmith for seamless translation and aggregation of CAD data.
For the future, ZHA is working on adopting VR throughout its entire workflow, starting from immersive content creation—designing in VR—all the way through to final presentation. It’s a prospect that excites Kinzler, especially as the technology evolves.
“Having access to real-time, immersive simulations offers us as space-makers the very first dedicated interface inside the digital domain,” he says. “Seeing the new generations of this technology emerging, bringing out higher fidelity and engineering-focused functionalities, is truly exciting. Being at the forefront of this universal development and being able to add our discipline’s particularities to the emerging domain is critical, and a great satisfaction for us.”
Want to experience the latest generation of real-time technology for yourself? Download the free Unreal Studio beta today.