Prof. Yehuda Kalay, the new dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning, is an expert in the field of CAD (computer aided design). He completed his graduate degree in this field, at the Technion’s Faculty he now heads, when the subject was still in its infancy. “I spent many nights punching cards and processing them at the computer center,” he relates. “During my undergraduate studies, which took place at the historical building in Hadar Hacarmel, there was a messenger who took our cards over to the computer center in Technion City. During my graduate studies I already did that on my own.”
Prof. Kalay completed his PhD studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, U.S. His plans were to return to Israel when he finished but the CAD field in Israel was just beginning and there was no work. He was accepted as an associate professor at SUNY-Buffalo where he set up the university’s first CAD program. This “quantum leap”, straight to associate professor, shortened his academic career track by six-seven years. At the age of 39, he was already a tenured professor, younger than the norm.
In 1992 Prof. Kalay accepted an offer from the University of California, Berkeley, to develop the Department of Architecture’s CAD program. There he was involved in developing design methods and theories. With a broad smile, in his words, he defines his work there as “what architects do when no one is looking at them.” It is a process during which the architect starts with an existing setting and considers how he can change and add, how he can address the client’s needs and simultaneously serve the community, all the while taking into account the environment and culture in which he is constructing the building. “It is important that students know this process,” says Prof. Kalay.
The design process in architecture deals with solving problems that have not been fully defined. This is actually a process of studying the problem, while looking for a solution. “The process begins with a broad search that slowly narrows down until everything is focused on a single solution,” says Prof. Kalay, who has been very involved in researching these processes both cognitively (what is going on in the mind of an architect?) and using technological and visual means that help architects do their work.
“In architecture, one cannot build prototypes that can be tested prior to building the final product, like cars, telephones or computer software: each building is, in reality, its own prototype, and we don’t know for sure how it will look and function until it is built and peopled. In the 20th and 21st centuries computers, design software and three-dimensional modeling have advanced significantly. They enable architects to produce a large number of design solutions and check them visually and analytically before the design is approved for implementation. The new tools help architects carry out their work better and leverage their creativity in developing and analyzing many more solutions.”
Additionally, the complexity of design creates a need for coordinating between tens, even hundreds of professionals, among whom are architects, engineers and builders. “A good building is produced when everyone is on the same page,” stresses Prof. Kalay. “It is a creation with many collaborators, like in an orchestra where each musician is a virtuoso but as a group they must work in coordination. The architect is the conductor of this “orchestra”. When the architect sits in San Francisco, the civil engineer in London and the building is going up in Singapore – the issue of coordination is critical. The technology facilitates this coordination.”
As a result of all this, Prof. Kalay got involved in New Media, which combines the affordances of technology, social science, planning and design. “Thanks to New Media, we can look forward, into the future, and simulate, for instance, how a hospital that has yet to be built will look and how it will function during normal working conditions as well as during emergencies.” Prof. Kalay and his research team in Berkeley are involved in building models of a new, innovative hospital to be constructed in Oakland, California, whose communications network will be based on light rather than radio waves. Their role in the planning team, which includes five universities, is to simulate and test the functioning of this innovative hospital in different operating situations and to recommend changes to improve its performance.
“Thanks to technology we can look not just at the future, but also backwards, into the past,” says Prof. Kalay. “The technology enables us to bring to life and experience historical places and sites.”
In west Oakland there is a neighborhood that was built in the 1940s and 50s and was the Afro-American cultural center of the Western United States. It was called “the Harlem of the West” and had about 30 prominent jazz clubs in which well-known jazz artists, such as B. B. King and Aretha Franklin, performed. The first African-American professional union was established there (the Pullman Sleeping Cars Porters Union).
Over time the neighborhood became rundown and faded, all the clubs closed and it turned into an area of drugs and crime. A colleague of Prof. Kalay, Prof. Paul Grabowicz, who had been a journalist in Oakland for 20 years, wanted to tell the story of the neighborhood but not in the form of text or a movie, but in an interactive way through which the observer could wander through the neighborhood and experience the story. A type of journey through time, in which the visitor could enter a club, listen to some good music and even play an instrument or dance. “I had the technology and Paul had the story, so in this way our cooperation began. In the Center for New Media,” relates Prof. Kalay, “with his students and my students, we built a type of computer game. Children can use it to learn about the neighborhood’s glorious past and the elderly can recall it with nostalgia. We took three years to build it, together with community leaders who at the beginning were very suspicious and afterward very cooperative.” The technology enabled the researchers to actually rebuild the neighborhood and make it come alive. Visitors get a real experience in a virtual world.
Prof. Kalay did something similar for Cairo of the 11th through 16th centuries, together with an Egyptian colleague from Berkeley, which became a short television film for the PBS network. He did another project on Çatalhöyük, a 9000 year old Neolithic site in Turkey, together with an archaeologist from Berkeley, as well as a project on a Cambodian temple from the 7th century. At the moment he is completing a project on Sirkap – the farthest east that Alexander the Great reached (today in Pakistan), in the first century BCE, with a colleague from Claremont McKenna College in California.
Using technology we can build virtual worlds that can be used, without having to bring them into physical existence – just like computer games. The people who populate them through avatars buy things, study, fall in love, marry – all in a virtual world – like a dream that you share with others. In a virtual world everyone is dreaming the same dream, as was so aptly depicted by the movie, The Matrix. An example of a virtual world like this is the Virtual Smithsonian Project in Washington, which Prof. Kalay built with his students in Berkeley. Visitors can come and see exhibits from all 19 Smithsonian museums – e.g., natural history, art and science – something that is very difficult to do in real life. “Following a virtual visit, they can decide which of the museums to visit,” he says.
Nevertheless, according to him, technology is not a magic wand and the architect is not a magician. Exactly the opposite: the architect – like a doctor or engineer – is a professional whose expertise is based on broad and deep knowledge, requiring him to study for a lengthy period (5-6 years) and complete extensive training (at least 3 more years). “The architect’s talents are an important component in determining the quality of a building, which is not a function of the tools the architect chooses to use. Just like an x-ray image allows the doctor to see what is hidden from the naked eye and gain clearer insight into the patient’s condition, so too does the computer enable the architect see the building before it is built and get a clearer idea about its fit with the client’s needs and its surroundings,” he emphasizes.
The Faculty is not a strange entity to its new dean, given that he was a member of the CHE’s Evaluation Committee that assessed the architecture program in four institutions in the country, including the Technion. “The main tasks facing the Faculty in the 21st century are development and assimilation of innovative technologies for design, constructing and use of buildings, cities, landscapes, and products, while being culturally, socially and environmentally responsible” he says, summing up his personal vision.
After 32 years in the U.S., Prof. Kalay has yet to fully land back in Israel. “I see the runaway, but I haven’t yet landed,” he smiles. “Everything is new, I have to get used to new things, I even lack certain words in Hebrew. The Technion has received me very nicely.”
Do you feel at home?
“To a great degree. Many things, to my surprise, have stayed the way they were. My wife and I are happy to have returned.”