What's the big idea?
Neil Spiller has been at the Bartlett for some time now. Affable, talks quietly, a bit burly, slightly wild hair, jeans - he is not exactly the C P Snow model of a professor at one of the country's leading universities.
Yet that is what he now is: professor of architecture and digital theory at University College London. It is a title he chose carefully. It reflects the relationship between architectural design and the theory of digital space. Academics have to work really hard these days, and so he is also course director and vice-dean of academic affairs at the Bartlett and has taken over the oneyear Masters programme that, before his recent retirement, had been the special preserve of Peter Cook - with whom six years ago Spiller wrote The Power of Contemporary Architecture and, two years later, The Paradox of Contemporary Architecture.
You should not be fooled by Spiller's disarming exterior. He has a solid academic backbone, a quality of which even the best architecture school is frequently in need: lots of scholarly reading and writing. In addition to the books with Cook, he has a substantial list of publications, a number of them special issues of AD to do with cyber matters. His recent solo texts include Maverick Deviations and Lost Architecture and (as its editor) Cyber Reader.
Next year Thames & Hudson is bringing out his book on 20th-century visionary architecture. His really big work so far is the 1998 Digital Dreams - Architecture and the New Alchemic Technologies. His current research interest is surrealism and what he calls 'its spatial protocols and their use in designing virtually augmented environments'.
He has also just set up AVATAR at the Bartlett, which will stage its first exhibition in late November. An avatar is the physical incarnation of a Hindu god and, more recently, has been used to describe an image representing a user in a multi-user virtual reality.
But here it happens to be a striking acronym for Advanced Virtual Technological Architectural Research Lab.
You don't ask which came first, the acronym or the words. In the best Spillerian tradition, AVATAR is more a virtual umbrella for ideas and proposals than a formal organisation. He says that there has been an absence of strategic problem-solving because the tendency of university research is to be driven by whoever provides the money. 'There is a lot of personal research into the making and analysis of space at the Bartlett, ' says Spiller, 'with people like Nic Clear, who is interested generally in the animation of space, Marcos Cruz and his biotechnology, and Stephen Gage and his interest in innovative technology and interactive architecture, just to name a few. These are the kinds of people who can come together under AVATAR and symbiotically infect each other.'
Under the umbrella Spiller's ambition is that AVATAR should be international and multidisciplinary and he has already made contact with such people as the Australian parametric-design buff Mark Bury. This international dimension is something that Spiller brings from his existing networks. He had the opportunity to hone the US section of the network during a year's stint in 2002 as McHale research fellow at the University of Buffalo in New York State.
So AVATAR is a free-ranging umbrella that might accumulate research groups for the purpose of supporting grant applications - it might accumulate a number of PhD students and stage exhibitions but, Spiller says, 'it will be proactive rather than reacting to people who come along with a few quid in their pockets for their special projects'.
Spiller avers hastily that he will not send such people packing; it is just that AVATAR's function is to be speculative. He would happily take the dosh for speculating. 'It is the speculation that keeps architecture as the central activity of society, ' he says. 'But it's not being done very much. So you get a lot of arcane and weird ideas not being researched. The traditional way of looking at space has been handed down to us but there is something different - what I call an ontological change in the notion of space. Our job is to choreograph these changes.' It is arguable that Spiller exists in an intersection between the disciplines of architectural design and the wilder shores of cyberspace. You get the feeling that he might not like that to be a public position because he has existed in the academic snakepit for much of his career. You look at the titles of his books, the current one about visionary architecture or a recent AD that was about 'reflexive' architecture, and you see words like 'maverick', 'deviation' and 'lost architecture' in the titles. So you end up, you think, with somebody who probably doesn't mind the idea of working on the intellectual edge of his institution's given subject, simply because what is on the other side is incredibly fascinating and which, were the chasm bridged, might well enrich the architecture of the new century.
In this context, the research into surrealism is not surprising. 'It's a current project that I've been working on for the past five or six years since Digital Dreams, ' he says. 'I wanted to do an architectural project that lasted the length of an enigmatic tome - the book as the building, maybe.'