Architectural Tropes of the Virtual
Architects love the virtual, why wouldn’t they, no clients to worry about, no physical laws to obey, just a pair of eyes and a seemingly real version of an imagined world. Architects had a prominent role in exploring the possibilities of the virtual and became enamoured by the possibilities of “cyberspace”, coming from William Gibson’s 1989 science fiction ‘Burning Chrome’. When computers became affordable in the 1990s architectural faculties and studios jump at the chance to imagine new spaces inspired by pixellated representation, digitally calculated geometries and strange new textures within 3d modelling software. Significant work of this time emerged through Michael Benedikt’s early exploration of cyberspace theory, followed by Neil Spiller and Peter Anders interest in designing within cyberspace. Architects theorised and practised creating flat 3D experiences through the computer screen, eventually progressing into the burgeoning immerse space of Virtual Reality (VR). The architectural ideas generated through VR predicted future photo-realism, but at the time had to deal with low-resolution imagery that was far from convincing. The legacy of 90s virtual reality was the idea that cyberspace separated the mind from the body, dividing the immaterial from the material.
An architectural pushback occurred in the early 2000s from those disappointing with this disconnection. While architects at first fetishised the lack of reality required in the virtual, by 2004 Antoine Picon realised the virtual had an image problem within architectural culture. Architecture responded in two ways; one was to return to a handcraft tradition, the other attempted to bring the virtual and material together through science, introducing an interest with simulation. Through simulation, architects were able to model virtual space but then calculate an expected performance by predicting physical outcomes. Simulation’s connection of the material with the virtual meant that most architects abandoned cyberspace and subsequently ignored the advancement of VR.
Today VR visualisations have caught up with the promise of photo-realism and hardware, such as the Oculus Quest, connect the virtual and the physical by sensing movement and providing tactile feedback, such as when the hand touches a virtual object. However, at the time of writing no virtual reality technology is aware of the material world beyond sensors on the body. The current VR technology aims for a feeling of immersion and a bodily presence within a visual space, therefore giving the impression of spatial experience predominantly through the mind rather than the body. While most architects are hesitant to go back to the virtual, some are recognising an interesting re-connection between the immaterial and material. One of these with an eye on the virtual is the multidisciplinary design practice Space Popular.
While the virtual had a profound influence on spatial theory, architecture’s problem with the virtual lay with its lack of connection with the physical. Space Popular’s project, the “Venn Room” rejects this notion making a series of claims about virtual technologies and its potential influence on architecture as we experience it physically. Space Popular predict that as more homebound people interact through VR they will gain a shared understanding of each others space, eventually integrating real-world and virtual space.
Space Popular’s work is excellent and very thought-provoking, but they stumble on several tropes that architects have with VR, which contradict their argument. The first is that it compares VR to other “virtual portals” such as telephone, television and the internet. It is not clear if “virtual portal” means the end of the portal is virtual, or if the portal itself is virtual, both which do not apply to these technologies. While they all are understandable as communication media, it is only VR that connects to a virtual, i.e. unreal space. Also, Space Popular claim that these technologies have no history of influencing the form of architecture, but this is not the case. American suburban houses became organised around the television, and David Rose assigns the loss of the front porch as a result of communication media redirecting family communication and social attention inward rather than onto the street (Rose 2014). The distinction between these early communication technologies and VR is that the former connected to physical and analogue occurrences, voices, people, scenes, making a comparison to VR misleading. VR is different, it has no connection to the existing physical condition of the home, apart from sensors detecting hand position and in some systems limits of bodily movement.
While the horizon of technology does predict an eventual mixing reality in VR through mapping existing space and generating it in the virtual, it is currently not a possible experience. With this in mind Space Popular’s idea that we will recreate our existing home in the virtual space through 3d modelling seems very unlikely. Their Venn Room project theorises shared negotiation of physical and virtual space through the confines of the physical house and the arrangement of virtual furniture. Through Venn Room Space Popular predict
“homes will be overlapped with one another creating collages of all kinds of rooms that will lead to unprecedented hybrids of formal and functional categories that will challenge our social codes and rituals, and in-turn our behaviour and our way of making sense of how we live”,
While Space Populars controversial depiction of a clash of spaces and virtual objects provides a visually rich proposition, it is hard to imagine how this would work due to the separation of the visual from the tactile domestic setting.
When the Venn Room connects virtual and physical movement to an understanding of domesticity, Space Popular state “your patterns of movement in virtual environments, if accumulated, will reveal the footprint of your physical home and how you make use of it”, but how is this possible? If VR is unaware of material reality beyond the body, then someone using VR cannot navigate their house unless VR maps and visualises it for them. Unlike Augmented Reality (AR) which overlays the virtual onto the actual, VR blocks it out requiring a space free of furniture, unless you like bruises. The only connection between the virtual and the real comes through digital sensing meaning the single relationship VR has to the home, is the extent of the zone cleared for VR use, which needs no correlation to room size, for instance, if you live in an open-plan loft.
The last trope relates to Space Popular’s assumptions of ownership in the virtual. When they ask the question “who or what will own your virtual home?” they conflate economic and political logic placed on the material and virtual. Why would the capitalist notion of private ownership, that relies on scarcity and desire, apply to a technology that produces an abundance of information through data? Yes, it is possible to create a scarcity of data, but this does not relate to the current big data platform dominated world we live in. VR is immediately editable, therefore why would you need to transfer the ecologically damaging legacy of capitalism onto the virtual? Space Popular are not the only architects who struggle to escape the unconscious structures placed on us by the way we organise the material world. When we achieve VR that can model its surroundings in realtime, and come closer to what Space Popular predict, we will require entirely new ways of understanding and coordinating material and virtual experience.
Benedikt, Michael, Ed. 1993, Cyberspace: First Steps, MIT Press Anders, Peter, 1999, Envisioning Cyberspace; Designing 3D Electronic Spaces, McGraw Hill Rose, David, 2014, Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things, Simon and Schuster Spiller, Neil, 1996, Architects in Cyberspace I - AD, Issue 118, John Wiley & Sons Spiller, Neil, 1998, Architects in cyberspace II - AD, Issue 136, John Wiley & Sons