more than meets the eye

get the word on what it means to be an immersive architect + experiential designer

Meet Hunter Leggitt (or follow @hunterleggittstudio), a designer, producer and connector building experiences through architecture and design at his Denver-based company Hunter Leggitt Studio. Hunter is an authority on immersive architecture and experiential design. Both relatively new concepts in his industries, defined differently in other sectors, and to top it off, are sometimes combined or used interchangeably. Confusing, we know.

To simplify things, we had a creative dialogue with Hunter and picked his brain about these emerging concepts.   

As a preface, let’s start this conversation by sharing Hunter’s definition of the two concepts that this article revolves around:

Immersive Architecture – to me – is the design and creation of physical space that goes one step beyond form and function. This additional step is story-telling, where the user and the architecture are connected in an experiential dance that engages the senses and renders greater meaning and purpose to the space. This can be done very literally, like the new Star Wars environments and sets at Disneyland. Or this can be done subtly and purposefully like the beautifully poignant sculpting of natural light in Tadao Ando’s architecture. The physical spaces can be permanent, semi-permanent or entirely temporary and ephemeral.

Experiential Design – to me – is the design and production of user experience or entertainment that often combines physical space and structure, visual arts (design, art, video, photography, cinema), performing arts (music, theater, dance), technology, branding and marketing. These experiences can also be permanent, semi-permanent or entirely temporary and ephemeral.

// design dialogue //

What’s your first personal experience with immersive architecture? What about experiential design?

Immersive Architecture — designing and building the WABI HOUSE in San Diego under my mentor Sebastian Mariscal. This project was the first time I was exposed to designing and producing a piece of architecture where every creative idea and detail relates back to a story-driven and poetic intention. The house and spaces within are stunning.

Experiential Design — my first collaboration on the large-scale, artistic DO LAB STAGE production at Coachella. This team experience was pivotal for me and my interests.

How do you add a sensory experience/elements to a home? What about a building?

Consumer marketing is inundating us with additive technology, gadgets and home automation that can essentially be installed anywhere. Alexa – make me a pot of decaf while playing Chopin’s Opus 9 No.2 at 6 AM next Tuesday. Siri – turn on my new projector, 36-point surround sound and vibrating floor, so I feel like I’m actually in the football game. These are cool and exciting upgrades. But they’re also superficial. To me, the opportunity for sensory experience and elements in any architectural design begins upfront at the basic principle level — physical space, light, sound, touch, color, nature, order, story, poetry. Stripped naked of all of the shiny gadgets and bells + whistles, how can thoughtful design offer a connection between us and the architecture on a deeper, more natural and often spiritual level? And thus engage and elevate the senses, emotions and experiences prior to clicking purchase on Amazon.  This is where I start the creative dialogue and exploration.

Do immersive architecture and experiential design go hand in hand?

Yes, these can and often do. For me, immersive architecture relates more to physical space and structure, while experiential design often involves physical space but is more focused on immediate and often ephemeral sensory experiences. Each can work together, influence and enhance each other. My immersive architecture involvement is generally in real estate, while my experiential design involvement is more in the entertainment and performing arts space. But again, these do overlap.

What’s a prime illustration of immersive architecture/experiential design that’s easy for people to grasp?

Our ACACIA HOUSE project is a great example of immersive architecture. Every space, detail and intention in this custom house is tailored to the couple that lives in it.  

For instance, the client loves a gradual introduction into their day each morning, which involves coffee, some connection to nature, and a form of meditation or exercise before cooking breakfast and reading the news. In response, I designed a master bedroom suite with a coffee bar, a peaceful walk-out contemplative roof garden and direct access to the lap pool and outdoor shower. The kitchen then has a specific place designed to store and read the WSJ as well as an integrated koi pond/water garden atrium where they ritualistically observe the opening and closing of the water lilies and feed the koi every morning while getting ready for the day. These are only two examples within this project. 

A great example of experiential design is our INFECTED MUSHROOM stage collaboration. At the time, this projection-mapped stage production was cutting edge and one of the first to holistically explore the technology. It combines a physical, interactive touring stage set, with a reactive, cinematic and lighting show. The musicians and audience are immersed in a visually stimulating and artistically provoking stage performance.

I’ve read a lot of articles that discuss immersive design and technology. Immersion and virtual reality seem to be synonymous. Is tech/virtual design part of your studio’s process?

Yes and no. The industries that you’re referring to and the technologies surrounding them are relatively new and evolving very quickly. As a result, coined terminology is becoming a bit confusing as different industries develop and more experiences become ‘immersive.’ These tech/gaming/VR/AR industries were the first to the punch to use and market “immersive” anything with their product. So, most of what you see online now searching for these terms are in the gaming and virtual or augmented reality space. That is changing. I work primarily in physically-based experiences, thus what I’ve decided to refer to as ‘immersive architecture.’ My work often combines and bridges architecture, performance, music, technology, story-driven media, visual arts, branding and sometimes VR. I actually just started using VR in my creative design process, which has been extremely productive.

What’s your favorite tool to work with during your creative process?

It’s a combination of several tools: sketch pad always, which is now mainly my Apple pencil and iPad Pro. Then quickly jumping back and forth in 3D ideation and development with a mixture of SketchUp, ArchiCAD and Photoshop. A tool that’s always present throughout my creative process is Excel/Google Sheets. Oddly as that might sound, these processes can get pretty complex, so I use spreadsheets to track, assess and manage everything creative.

On that note, what does your creative process look like?

We do a lot. Our creative process is generally napkin sketch to production and completion. This involves the highest degrees of communication and team engagement, various periods of creative isolation, then collaborative development, and ultimately a highly-crafted and managed execution and delivery process.

What’s the wildest concept you’ve seen come to life?

Every custom house that we do is wild and extremely involved from day one. So when they’re completed, there’s always a great sense of accomplishment and legacy by all involved – client, designer, builder, subs, fabricators, etc..   

Although, and I think more related to your question, I’d have to say our SS BISKT stage installation at Coachella. Relatively simple as it was, I’ve never had more fun than designing and building a custom wooden pirate ship up in a tree, floating above a revolving audience of 90,000 party people. The 30 or so engineers and guests who got the privilege of hanging out up in it, running the stage’s sound and lighting, or just dancing and ‘fishing’ off the boat’s sides, got the VIP experience of their lifetime. That was epic!

Can you retell your favorite story behind one of your projects?

It’s too long to share in this interview fully, but the story behind my 510 CABIN project. For this custom design-build cabin, I decided to fulfill a long-time desire to build a house from ground-up by myself while involving an educational component of teaching students. So I took a year-long sabbatical from business and moved to the mountains with a select team of 7 student apprentices, and we built this project ourselves — more on this in the ARCHDAILY article.

What can someone learn more to digest the ins and outs of immersive architecture? (blogs, podcasts, articles)

Honestly, there are so many resources for quick references and tunnels into the creative marketplace. Instagram, Dezeen, Pinterest, Modern in Denver, etc… 

For resources, I tend to tune in and keep track of what my community is doing and new creative directions that we’re all taking or entertaining. No one operates in a bubble any longer, and I think the more creative dialogue and collective conversation we have, the better positioned we all are to make new advances in these industries.   And if you feel like you’re on the sidelines of these conversations or don’t know where to start, identify someone who is and figure out how to engage with them. Sometimes a coffee conversation can be life-changing.

Who is your immersive designer muse? Or someone you love to follow?

I’m really loving what Olafur Eliasson (Berlin) and teamLAB (Japan) are doing separately right now. Super inspiring.