Eric Liftin lives in two worlds -- the physical and the virtual -- but he's doing his best to prove that those two worlds are the same, or at least that they're compatible, overlapping, and complementary. And as much as possible, Liftin occupies both of them at the same time, rather than flipping back and forth between them. In fact, if you go to the Web site of the firm he founded, Mesh Architectures, and he's sitting at his computer, you'll see a Web-cam picture of the top of his head and the office behind him.
Liftin founded Mesh in 1997 to explore connections between architecture and Web design. He had done both and decided that he didn't have to choose between the two disciplines. In fact, as he saw it, they had much in common. He seeks to convey in the sites he designs "a real sense of occupying the site, based on how you manipulate it and on the navigation.
"A lot of Web sites are about graphic design and identity, but I'm much more interested in real spatial experience," he says. "I'm convinced that we're really teaching ourselves how to live in this virtual world -- not as you imagine from the movies, where we're little avatars walking around and going into a virtual coffee shop -- but more in a sense of being able to project our consciousness onto the screen and imagine that we're somewhere else, even when what's on the screen is fairly crude in its depiction."
Liftin teaches a course in New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program that asks students to imagine an online extension to an existing physical space that would both change the space and be changed by it. He uses the example of a "digital front porch." In a small town or a suburb, he says, people can participate in public life by sitting on their front porch, where passersby can walk up and ask them how they are. Liftin's analogue in the city would be a part of an apartment that would have some simple digital tools: a camera and a computer. "When you're in that spot, you're available," Liftin says. "You can be watching TV, reading, whatever, but people know you're there. By designating a spot, you've changed that space.
"A lot of those Jane Jacobs issues that apply to public space apply online," Liftin says. "Online, it becomes an issue of having someone come online to get a piece of information and trying to get them to go out of their way to have some other kind of experience that gets in the way of them getting their information. It's like living in a city: Why would you want to have to walk through public space when you can just get in your car, where people won't bother you and you can listen to music?"
In his practice, Liftin has only gotten one real opportunity to combine Web space with physical space: the Oscar Bond Salon and its Web site, which he designed with Jordan Parnass Digital Architecture [RECORD, March 2002]. Most of his commissions are either Web sites or architecture, though he's always looking for more opportunities to explore their overlap.
This is not to say that Liftin cares only about theory. He has an impressive portfolio of built work, which is by design. "Even with all of my research interests, I would never want to be in a position where I'm just teaching and doing more conceptual design," he says. "The idea of working with clients is a really important aspect of discovering new ideas about how people live and what they want in their houses.
"I feel like the process of working with a client is very important," he says. "I'm not interested in sitting by myself and just coming up with ideas. You see that a lot, because that's what happens in school, where you're sitting by yourself and listening to yourself think. You always need new input and some kind of resistance to just doing the same thing over and over again."
So Liftin isn't just sitting around with his head in the clouds. Need more proof? Just check his Web cam; you'll see exactly where his head is.