Roll up, roll up for the building tour

11 February, 2021

In lockdown, with almost all buildings shut, architects – like everyone else – are struggling to find ways of promoting their work and even recreate the reality of seeing buildings in the flesh.

In the last week, I’ve visited three buildings without moving from my desk.

The first tour I took was of the Zayed Centre for Research into Rare Diseases in Children, designed by Stanton Williams, which I’ve walked past many times during its construction and was curious to see inside.

AIA UK which organised the tour describes it as both ‘virtual’ and ‘immersive’. It was originally broadcast as a live event last month and is now free to watch via YouTube.

Aside from the fact you needed to be online, there was nothing remotely interactive about this tour and sadly it came nowhere near to describing a 3-D space. The overwhelming feeling was like being trapped at the front of a lecture hall – with the only benefit of being online is that I could escape.

Next was an online building tour of Leeds Playhouse Theatre, recently remodelled and transformed by Page Park Architects. The tour, organised by RIBA Leeds Society of Architects took place just before Leeds went into lockdown last December and over 200 people joined the free tour.

Apart from some tiny technical glitches, this was great. The tour combined a digital Matteport model that allows visitors to walk around the building guided by the architects with slides and video footage of the building in use.

It would have been better if the model had used actual footage but there is also video of the theatre in action. The tour was broadcast live over the internet which gave the feeling of being there with other people and is now available to watch via YouTube.

I felt I really understood the project and it made me want to visit the theatre when rules allow.

Finally I went on a ‘360-degree interactive walking tour’ of the Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street Housing by Mikhail Riches.

Created by photographer Rod Edwards, the tour includes uses 360-degree imagery, drawings, interviews video and clickable points that pull up information about the housing.

I liked the fact you are in control and it’s a clever idea but I felt a bit lost. The point about tours is having someone to tell you what to look at rather than having to work it out yourself. It reminded me of interactive childrens’ books and serves as a bit of a cautionary tale about technology – just because you can do something technologically doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Having said that, virtual building tours are a fairly inexpensive way for architects to promote and share their work while buildings are shut and for that reason, will almost certainly continue long after the present plague passes. But to attract audiences beyond the profession, tours need to be interactive – not simply a slide show with a disembodied head in the top right corner.

Top tips for a  successful virtual tour

1 Make the tour live over the Internet and small enough so people can ask questions

2. Think of charging. At the moment most building tours are free but generally people are willing to pay if the tour feels exclusive and the quality is high enough

3. Make sure the person presenting has personality and humour as well as expertise

4. Ideally, use actual footage not just a digital recreation

5. Do not describe the tour as ‘immersive’ unless you are providing people with VR headsets

6. If the tour isn’t live, make sure it’s intuitive to control with minimal frustration

7. Finally, however good the tour no one will find it without marketing -use social media and your own networks to promote it