In mid-August, six architecture students and a professor from Egypt’s Ain Shams University came to campus for a long-awaited meeting with their digital colleagues at the USC School of Architecture.
For months, the two groups of students had been collaborating on a design project via Second Life, the world’s largest user-created 3-D Internet community.
During the spring semester, at 6 p.m. Cairo time and 8 a.m. Los Angeles time, the two groups would gather in Second Life meeting rooms to critique each other’s designs for a multi-use shopping and entertainment complex, chat with instant messages, post notes and images on their joint studio’s Facebook page, and explore the retail shops in their virtual world.
Their collaboration is called the Kansas to Cairo Project, and it is one of the first examples of a wish that President Barack Obama expressed in a notable speech in June 2009 at Cairo University. At the time, he called for the creation of “a new online network, so a young person in Kansas can communicate instantly with a young person in Cairo.”
Those words instantly caught fire with Los Angeles architect David Denton, who, having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease several years ago and exhausted by attending client meetings in Egypt, seized upon Second Life as his way to stay involved with the design community.
Denton joined forces with longtime friend Amr Attia of Ain Shams University and USC School of Architecture assistant professor Kara Bartelt. The three proposed a grand experiment: one semester of joint collaboration in which students would design a multi-use complex to be located between the pyramids and the Grand Egyptian Museum.
Said Denton: “We asked them to collaborate across a rather significant cultural divide and design a major project, all while learning a major program in Second Life.”
The first meeting was chaotic – 60 Egyptian and American avatars (the digital versions of the students and professors) running and flying around their new virtual kingdom, trying to distinguish classmates from strangers. It was like an episode of Star Trek: pixel by pixel, individual avatars materializing in the desert, disappearing, reappearing, bits of feedback and conversation blaring over the audio channels.
But soon the mob reshaped into smaller groups of two Trojans paired with multiple Egyptians, with the Cairo students performing the site analysis and creating the master plan as the USC students placed specific architecture into the open spaces.
The Kansas to Cairo studio found an immediate champion in the form of William May, director of the U.S. State Department’s Office of Innovative Engagement. A traveler of Second Life himself, May was looking for creative ways to build upon Obama’s speech. With Second Life’s 70 percent international user base, it seemed like a natural venue for public diplomacy.
“The question was, would the kids get to know and understand each other?” asked May. “Would the exchange do many of the same things that a physical exchange would, without the expense and carbon footprint?”
If the experiences of Nourhan El-Zafarany and Tiffany Wei are any indication, May shouldn’t have worried. The two young women, one in Cairo who had never flown in a plane, and the other in Los Angeles who has traveled all over the world, became friends on their first day in Second Life.
The students talked about fashion, books and design. Below them was the world they built in the virtual 3-D desert: fountains, amphitheatres, marketplaces, fantastic villas.
El-Zafarany’s avatar, named “The Blackheart,” is slender, with flowing auburn hair, and does not wear the traditional Muslim hijab she wears in real life.
Wei’s avatar has manifested her blonde ambition, a platinum sheet done up in outrageous braids.
“Stereotypes don’t exist in Second Life,” El-Zafarany said. “There is no too fat, too blonde, too thin.”
For the mid-August trip, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs sponsored Attia and six of his students, including El-Zafarany, to visit Los Angeles and USC. The group toured local shopping sites (comparing them with their studio project) and delivered a final presentation to Qingyun Ma, dean of the School of Architecture.
“The class was all about bridging cultural differences,” said fifth-year USC student Ben Dansby. “We kept hearing about all the differences to be aware of, but the truth of it is, once the Egyptian students actually got here and we met them in person, all I saw was a group of students my age who love architecture.”
Said May, “There is a physical engagement and a virtual engagement, but at the end of the day, the whole thing is real.”