The Las Americas Digital Research Network (AmeNet), headquartered
at Texas A&M's College of Architecture, facilitates communication
between many of the top design schools in Latin America. The program,
pioneered in 1998 by A&M architecture professor Guillermo Vásquez
de Velasco, allows students, faculty and industry professionals
to collaborate across cultural barriers on a wide variety of academic
"AmeNet is not only the largest digital network of its kind,
it is also one of the very few that operate with an important
component of real-time, face-to-face interaction through video
conferencing," he explained. "For instance, in the case
of virtual design studios, other networks are usually limited
to asynchronous interaction and short, two- or three-week, mostly
conceptual exercises. Our design studios conduct complete 12-week
design projects, going all of the way from site development to
Initiated with five member institutions, AmeNet has grown to
include 31 institutions representing almost all of the countries
in Latin America.
Today, the bulk of AmeNet's activities are centered on the Las
Americas Virtual Design Studio (AmeNet-VDS), which operates as
a conventional architectural studio with the added component of
being digitally connected with participating studios at other
institutions in North, Central and South America.
"The main value is the multicultural dimension," the
program coordinator explained. "It is one of the most efficient
and least expensive ways of bringing a global context to the content
of our studios and courses."
Part of that "global context" is found in the alternative cultural
perspectives students gain from studio critiques of their work.
In addition to receiving feedback from other students in other
countries, studio participants also hear critiques from participating
professors and professional architects.
In its formative years, language barriers hindered network operations,
Vásquez de Velasco said. But due to advances in internet-based
translation applications and to the increased participation of
bilingual students, he said language problems are now limited
mainly to "highly specialized architectural terminology."
The program's success is evidenced in the caliber of work being
produced in the virtual design studio. One such example is a steel
structure designed by Héctor de la Peña, an A&M student
who was studying in Mexico while participating in the virtual
studio. Peña's design won honorable mention in an Association
of Collegiate Schools of Architecture design competition sponsored
by the American Institute of Steel Construction.
"It is work like this that puts in evidence the quality of design
produced by studios operating in a virtual environment," Vásquez
de Velasco said.
Though technology differs between participating institutions,
some like Universidad del Bío-Bío in Chile, can join Texas A&M
on an Internet2-level connection.
"When we video conference with them," Vásquez de Velasco said,
"we can hear them breathing. It is a completely different thing
than using a standard Internet connection. The technology is very
unintrusive and the interface is very transparent."
In the fall of 2003, the Las Americas Virtual Design Studio teamed
up for a virtual design studio with RTKL,
one of the world's premier design firms. In this new version of
AmeNet-VDS, professional designers in several offices of RTKL
acted as virtual reviewers of a multinational collective of students.
"The students worked on a real project currently in development
within the firm while profiting from the experience of professionals
who operate on a global level," Vásquez de Velasco
said. "The project is a new Marriott hotel in Dominican Republic."
In addition to the Virtual Design Studio, other Las Americas
Digital Research Network projects include:
The program coordinator is quick to point out that students are
not the only ones reaping the benefits from AmeNet participation.
- A wide variety of multilateral research ventures that include
grant writing, research development and dissemination;
- Archi-Forum, a refereed on-line academic journal dedicated
to disseminating research and promoting collaborative activities
on issues of architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning,
construction science and education;
- The Virtual Gallery, which will display the work of artists
who are full-time academics at participating architecture schools;
- Academic bartering, an informal system for sharing faculty
expertise on the basis of bartering with lectures, seminars,
"The network helps our faculty develop and sustain an international research agenda and it gives them a very simple way to add an international scope to their course work," he said.
Another benefit of the project is its sustainability. The project has no overhead beyond the standard funding each participating institution allots for curriculum and technology.
"It is a model that can be easily replicated within many disciplines
on the Texas A&M Campus," Vásquez de Velasco said. "It's very affordable."
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