UC's Mara Marcu talks 'Optical Illusions of Volume' exhibit at Venice Biennale

“Optical Illusions of Volume,” an installation by University of Cincinnati professors Mara Marcu and Ming Tang and UC alumnus Adam Schuler, is now on display at the “Data & Matter” exhibition in Venice, Italy, hosted at the Palazzo Bembo on Riva del Carbon. The event is part of the European Cultural Centre’s “Time - Space - Existence” exhibition running during the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale.


The exhibit’s physical installation was completed during Marcu’s studio at the UC’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP) with the assistance of graduate and undergraduate students Peter Foster, Anusha Alamgir and Connor Tuthill.


As Marcu explains, “Optical Illusions of Volume” exploits a nonlinear design and fabrication approach to open up opportunities in architecture that are otherwise neglected.

Participating in a parallel exhibit to the 16th International Venice Biennale is an honor. How were you and members of your team selected to participate in the “Data & Matter” Exhibition?

I was invited on behalf of MMXIII, a research collaborative I lead, to participate in the exhibition in January 2018. The invitation came from the three curators: Marcella Del Signore, associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology; Nancy Diniz, assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; and Frank Melendez, assistant professor at City College of New York. Their call prompted a reinterpretation of how computational technologies inform new relationships between information and matter. Given my ongoing research on augmented reality done in collaboration with Ming Tang, associate professor in DAAP’s School of Architecture and Interior Design (SAID), and my approach to teaching as applied research, I invited Adam Schueler, SAID 2017 graduate, and Professor Tang as collaborators.

Explain how your exhibit “Optical Illusions of Volume: Bubbles” examines conflicting attitudes.

The project reconciles conflicting attitudes between traditional CAD/CAM strategies, augmented reality and analog post-processing techniques. Given the ubiquitous proliferation of digital techniques, “Optical Illusions of Volume” proposes an interpretation of these processes as simple tools and prompts an exploration of the many misalignments inherent in the design and manufacturing process. Through computation and augmented reality, a physical artifact is brought to life in Venice at Palazzo Bembo.

In a 1995 essay, “The Vision of Virtual Reality,” Frank Biocca, Taeyong Kim and Mark Levy argued that the “essential copy” and “physical transcendence” were important drivers in the generation of mixed reality. They described the search for the “essential copy” as seeking a “means to fool the senses,” while “physical transcendence” is rooted in an “ancient desire for escape from the confines of the physical world.” This theoretical foundation, with the latest mixed reality technology, has inspired us to speculate on the relation between the separator and the physical space. Free from the “essential copy” mindset, various virtual iterations are experienced in an augmented reality world, where the physical and the digital can coexist. Using the Microsoft HoloLens spectator system and its semi-transparent “optical see-through” screen and Unity, the animation is controlled by the user’s gestures, through C# scripts.

For the exhibition in Venice, we have also incorporated augmented reality through the use of a mobile device. Visitors can visualize, interact, change textures, modify placement in space and walk through a virtual representation of our physical installation exhibited at the University of Cincinnati. While in reality certain decisions are frozen and limited to the selected material, spatial or budgetary constraints, in an augmented reality environment these considerations can be left open-ended, remaining in progress.

How do the materials you and your colleagues selected help tell this story?

The project presented in Venice uses virtual materials. The physical installation has been presented in various instances: as a triangulated artifact using virtual sheet material, reinterpreted with a marching cube algorithm and texture mapped with a variety of patterns, which allude to the initial inspiration drawn from two seemingly different yet intertwined sources: Islamic geometries and soap bubbles.

How did you come up with the design concept for “Optical Illusions of Volume: Bubbles”?

Adam Schueler, the team coordinator of the physical installation, has dedicated a considerable amount of time understanding the basis of any polygonal geometric pattern. He realized that no matter the complexity, it can always be broken down into a series of triangles. Within these triangles lies an inherent logic by which they are organized and give rigidity to the assembly. Naturally, the triangles align themselves in a fashion where they can remain in a state of structural integrity. This same concept is explained at length in the book entitled “The Self-made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature” by Philip Ball. Ball uses the underlying structure of bubbles and honeycombs to describe how geometries found in nature arise from an innate desire for equilibrium. Specifically looking at these hexagonal forms, a similar structure is derived by taking a cue from Islamic ornaments.

Three other incredibly talented graduates of our program — Peter Foster, Anusha Alamgir and Connor Tuthill — have further developed the concept. This initial work was part of the option studio I offered, with the same title, at UC in spring 2017. The sequence exposed upper-level students to initial research I have developed for the AHSS Third Century Foundation Research Grant I have won in collaboration with Professor Tang. Given the physical weight and site constraints of the installation, double-sided matte polypropylene was used. The semi-translucence of the matte polypropylene paired with the see-through capability of the HoloLens allowed for an immersive juxtaposition of the virtual and physical iterations. The effect, also seen in the overall image of the project as exhibited on site, is quite fantastic, yet in all honesty, also accidental.

How will your experiences creating the “Optical Illusions of Volume: Bubbles” manifest in your teaching and classroom work at the University of Cincinnati?

My teaching — given the incredible support and commitment of DAAP and the School of Architecture and Interior Design to promote high-quality work — often brings personal research into the classroom. This project is an instance of this symbiosis. Needless to say, I am privileged to have taught fantastic students, who in turn were essential in my own growth as an educator. Currently, Professor Tang and I are working on incorporating augmented reality into robotic fabrication and simulation. Our students will soon be exposed to this methodology during the upcoming academic year. A collaboration with the School of Art will further dissipate these technologies to a broader DAAP student audience.

What advice do you have for current and future architecture students?

To embrace collaboration and exploit the accidental.

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