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Learning to love the web

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Standard formats and clear design make Architec's system for building your own website attractive to novices

AJ readers with long memories may recall that it is more than a decade since I began promoting ideas for networking architectural education (eg AJ 1.2.89, 5.6.91). Excited by the 'convergence of telecommunications and information technologies' I thought that radically new ways of expanding our horizons were about to be unleashed. In those distant days, of course, the Internet was just a medium for exchanging research ideas and gossip, and the World Wide Web was being developed out of public gaze by Tim Berners-Lee.

Ten years on, architectural education is more concerned with quality assurance and modularisation than with developing remotely-tutored global grand tours, but the opportunity to test Architec's new website system for architects - which promised to do everything I had originally hoped for and more - was too good to miss. Despite my early excitement about networking, I have to confess to being a novice surfer for whom the word Java means coffee rather than clever programmes running in the 'background' (wherever that may be) of a website. I still make collages with scalpel and glue, and can no more use AutoCAD than read Sanskrit, so it was with a mixture of anticipation and mild dread that I approached the task of building my very own, fully interactive, website.

I need not have worried. Architec's interface could hardly be more simple or self-explanatory. Like the Mac interface we know and love, and the Windows many of us have to put up with, it is structured around drawers, folders and files.

Drawings, graphics and texts can easily be uploaded from standard formats: the system crunches them into something web-friendly, and the user needs no special knowledge or software.

What Architec can do, on the other hand, is anything but straightforward.

You can not only view, annotate and work on top of drawings, but also sketch over them simultaneously with up to four colleagues anywhere in the world. Each contributor is assigned his or her own colour, and ideas and comments can be exchanged in 'conference mode' via the keyboard.

Once they log on, everyone sees the same information, and the system automatically stores the results and relays them to all involved in the project; superseded information is immediately archived. There's a Bulletin Board and message area for ease of communication, online clocks to help you be nice to people who are staying up late or getting up early to join in, and e-mail links to notify others. By providing a complete time- and date-stamped record of all exchanges via the website, which are later transferred to CD-ROM, the system should all but eliminate errors from working with out-of-date drawings and ensure the accountability of all involved. It operates using standard browsers - though with Java programmes it's advantageous to have the latest version - and is fully Apple Mac compatible.

The system can do far more than I need to test the possibilities of remote tutoring, but security will doubtless be a major concern for practitioners. Architec has a clever system for layering security, enabling the project manager to assign to each user an appropriate range of access; users, in turn, are sublimely unaware of the delights they have been denied.

The system comes with a conspicuously elegant, standard page format, which can be personalised through choice of colour, text and your own images. By the first upgrade in three months' time, five formats are promised.

Architec is aimed at the European market and is happily free of the heavy branding which accompanies most American sites.

Architec looks and feels architect designed and it comes as no surprise to discover that it is, the brainchild of Kevin Boggs, a Canadian based in London.

There is a global network of people to give round-the-clock help - they're aiming for a 15-minute response time. 'Architectural projects have always been dynamic,' say Boggs, 'but at least the economic and technical landscapes were reasonably static in comparison.

Computers began to change traditional methods with the advent of CAD, but it wasn't until the Internet that the landscape really changed.'

With all project documents potentially available at any terminal on Earth, and with controlled access and ability to track their use, the potential savings on time, travel and administration are obvious.

The system is being piloted on several projects, including the high-profile stadium for the World Club Soccer Champions, Corinthians of Brazil, being designed by a team which includes Arquitectonica in New York and KSS in London. Tim Berners-Lee always envisaged the web as a framework for collaboration rather than commerce, and with the advent of an easy-to-use yet richly interactive system like Architec's, a new universe of possibilities is opening up for architects and engineers.

For an idea of the format, you can see a few competition projects and the hot-off-the-keyboard chapter on J rn Utzon's Silkeborg Museum project from my forthcoming monograph, at www.architec.net/richard/ weston - when logging on, choose any name and use the password 'AJ'.

For further information on Architec, see its website on www.architec.net

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