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Los Angeles Architect Uses Second Life to Develop Multi-Million Dollar, Mixed Used Shopping Mall Project in Egypt

Cleopatra Water Courts and SL design by DB Benton Cleopatra Water Courts Project construction site in Cairo; DB Bailey in SL conceptual build he showed to client to win the commission

What you're looking at above left is the construction site of the Cleopatra Water Courts project in Cairo, Egpyt, a shopping mall complex that'll likely cost tens of millions dollars to complete. What you're at looking above right is the architect's conceptual model that got his design for it approved -- not a real world model, not a watercolor painting, not even an AutoCAD file. Rather, it's a build created in Second Life, which Los Angeles-based architect David Denton (known in SL as DB Bailey), showed his client, an Egyptian tycoon who funded the project. On that score, this is almost certainly the most expensive, ambitious real world project using Second Life as a platform.

Denton, who was previously a managing partner of legendary architect Frank Gehry, told me about the project at last August's Second Life Community Convention, but only recently did his collaborators in Egypt send along the photo above -- tangible proof that the build he showed me last year in Second Life is well on its way to being constructed. (It's expected to be complete in three years.) What's more, when it came time to convert the SL design into a usable AutoCAD file for the building contractors, David worked in Second Life from LA with two architects in Egypt, who also happened to be Muslim women -- a collaboration that might not be as feasible otherwise. And that's not even considering his Parkinson's disease.

Mixed Reality DB Denton and Hamlet Au
With David at SLCC 09; with him as DB Bailey in Second Life

David presented the Water Courts design plan to the client in the tycoon's villa on the Nile, logging into Second Life as his avatar and walking through the build, while the client watched from over his shoulder. (Consider that image: along the same river where architects once showed Pharaohs plans on papyrus, a plan presented in an electric world under glass.)

"I showed him no drawings, no plans, no elevations, just walked him through here and explained it to him," David tells me. "In this [Second Life-based] technique, everything is revealed... the client sees the entire thing." With a non-immersive model, the architect has to explain what's resolved in the plan and what's not. (As the client's wife, also a successful magnate, put it to him: "You've shown me more than any other architect has.") The presentation was enough to win him the commission.

To convert his Second Life design into AutoCAD, he worked in Second Life with two Egyptian colleagues on the other side of the world, who created avatars for the occasion. They laid out the plan over an 8x8 meter grid. "They would just highlight the prim and the dimensions would be there and they'd just make the final working drawings" in AutoCAD. (The Egyptian architects are women, and David noticed how one, who was shy and wore a headscarf in real life, dressed and acted far more openly in SL.)

Mall Plan

With this commission, David believes Second Life has proved itself as a design and reference tool for architects. The next test is using it for promotion and leasing -- he and the client hope to show off the Second Life design in order to get companies interested in reserving space in the uncompleted mall.

Reflections Cleopatra Water Courts Project

David Denton thinks the potential for architects with Second Life eclipses even well-known 3D graphics development software, like 3D Studio Max. "If you're using it as a design tool, you're constantly changing it," he argues, "therefore you don't take the time to line everything up. When you get finished with it you get a lot of overlapping lines, so you can't take it back to AutoCAD." With Second Life, by contrast, "The ability to be able to design things in real time was beyond anything I could dream of."

Despite all this, and David's stellar professional reputation, most of his colleagues remains skeptical. "I'm just astounded by the hostility I run into in the virtual world, people seem just threatened by it, especially architects."

For him, however, Second Life is not just a casual experiment, but a necessity driven by his diagnosis of early stage Parkinson's disease. "I knew I was going to be facing some disabilities in the future," he told me. For now the symptoms aren't extreme (though they're made worse by office stress and phone calls), so he prefers to work at home, in Second Life. "[Parkinson's] will catch up with me," he concedes, "so you'll find me here eventually."

Photos of the Cairo site courtesy David Denton.

Visit his design in Second Life for yourself: Direct SLurl teleport at this link.


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Chrome Underwood

Kudos to a brave and talented soul, who has not only proven that virtual worlds can be a viable medium for architecture, but that cross-cultural, global collaboration can occur on a grand scale and have a significant impact on the world around us... and this is just the beginning.

As for the hostility and skepticism from his fellow architects, all I can say is that someone has to lead the way, and the first ones in seem to get all the arrows. A true pioneer, it seems to me.

Scarp Godenot

I love this whole event and the story behind it. It is interesting that the ability to experience the design from the inside is what made the difference with the client. This is also what makes SL or Virtual World art different than anything that has existed previously. "Experience from within the piece".

Excellent story, thanks.

Ann Otoole

Isn't that the mall in this video by Draxtor Despres?

Bob Ketner

What a great success in proving the abilities in a professional context. We have a similar approach in exhibit design and also recently created a space to look at a full interior ( instead of using an architecture model.

We're just starting with some new partnerships and finally feel we're able to prove some of these same points. I'm looking for serious Second Life users who want to build great exhibit examples we'll be showing to the museum industry. Contact: rketner[at]

Hamlet Au

"Isn't that the mall in this video by Draxtor Despres?"

Yes, after talking with him about the project at SLCC, my GF Schlink Lardner put David in touch with the State Department, which coordinated that presentation Draxtor shot.

Extropia DaSilva

Wow, Hamlet, you have such a lovely job, being paid to meet such talented people in RL and SL. I get rewarded too by reading your blog. It's always a great reminder that, yes, SL is far from perfect but it still has great potential derived from the collaborative efforts of so much diverse talent.

Much kudos to you, my friend:)

Extropia DaSilva- trapped in virtual worlds until decent telepresence robots or holograms or something like that is available and affordable.

Ann Otoole

Thanks for confirming that Hamlet. That was an interesting but much too short time period in which the government appeared to be interested in virtual worlds. Seems like all of that has vaporized as the administration retracted into useless partisanship. Was a nice false start though. Maybe in 3 years we can elect a non DNC/GOP younger, smarter, more tech hip, and more honest slate to DC and get things rolling again.

Maria Korolov

If public access isn't an issue -- here, the client watched over the architect's shoulder -- than a better fit than Second Life would be realXtend or the OpenSim version, modrex.

realXtend and modrex allow imports of actual architecture drawings, since they offer full mesh support. That means that the architect only has to build once, not twice.

However, since they support mesh objects, these builds can't be accessed by standard browsers.

On the plus side, hosting costs are a tenth of what they are in Second Life.

See article here:

After Second Life and mainline OpenSim start supporting mesh imports (expected sometime this year), then we might see a sharp increase in architects using the platform since a lot more people are familiar with Second Life/OpenSim than with realXtend.

-- Maria Korolov
Editor, Hypergrid Business

Ann Otoole

@maria - The last LL Office Hour I attended pretty much indicated mesh may not be happening in 2010 as it is apparently not an official project. I was left confused about it since they have some people under NDA to test mesh and give feedback and there is is a set of 4 Meshopotamia regions in aditi that are private access. So what gives?

LL really needs to learn that transparency <> opaque sekret projekts.

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