Research network bridges international barriers

AmeNet links A&M architecture studios
with top Latin American design schools

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 projects.

"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 detailing."

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:

  • 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; and

  • Academic bartering, an informal system for sharing faculty expertise on the basis of bartering with lectures, seminars, workshops, etc.

The program coordinator is quick to point out that students are not the only ones reaping the benefits from AmeNet participation.

"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."

- The End -

^ Back to top

design image Click image to enlarge.