This essay was submitted by Lester Clark. ‘Designer Dingson’ in Second Life. August 2007.
I’m trying to explain ‘it’ – I’ve yet to classify ‘it’ in my head – to someone who knows nothing of this world. I suppose I’m finding it hard to classify because it’s still so fluid, it’s changing by the minute and you can see it evolving into something more mature, more powerful.
The ‘it’ to which I refer, is the emergence of virtual architecture, structures of all shapes and sizes, formed and shaped by the intriguing characters that inhabit a variety of virtual worlds. My mind drifts, I see a catwalk parade of outlandish clothing and accessories, of stick thin models that exist in what seems like a parallel universe, and it seems similar somehow… the garments that no one will ever really wear, the work that went into these items being worn for that brief moment on the catwalks of Paris and Rome. What I find similar, is that what you see on those catwalks – when you look and think – is more than just an outfit; it’s a display of creativity and that’s what it’s supposed to be, the hat that no one will really wear is amazing purely and simply because it’s the product of a creative mind, it’s outlandish, it defies convention, it exists as a momentary sculpture and it inspires clothing manufacturers and designers worldwide to create something similar that contains just a little of the spark they’ve just seen but this time its about something that can be sold and used by real people, leading real lives.
The virtual architects that inhabit these worlds are visionaries, they are the emerging prophets of a new age. The structures and spaces they create, the hours of work they put into them, the new ways they find to express what they have in their minds – it’s intruiging, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. And I’m not talking about the people that create a box with a roof, I’m talking about the one’s who truly understand the medium in which they create; actually it’s more than an understanding, it’s a compulsion, a drive to create something different, something exciting, something that doesn’t conform to any laws of physics, some virtual place that both exists and doesn’t exist, all at the same time.
The architects and designers that create these virtual structures give us the chance to experience pure creativity again, an art being lost to some of the real life architects today. There was a time when architects were seen as visionaries, where their input was paramount to creating something amazing, something special. Today, sadly, many architects have simply become part of the process, their involvement and input is controlled by many other factors, budget constraints and the need for profit mean that many of the structures that start out as exciting designs, are value engineered by assorted parties to become dull. The finest architects – both real and virtual, those with the passion that you can literally feel when you meet them, are amazing people, they value life and how we live it, they strive to create nice places to live and work, they should be admired and encouraged because they exist solely to impact positively on our lives.
I think sometimes that we have lost the ability to rejoice in architecture, to value it as a fundamental sensory addition to our real everyday world. There was a time where even the gates to a building were works of art, where the columns, door handles, chairs, light switches and ceilings were objects of awe. I worry that today’s reality means that most of us grow up constantly travelling through the all too familiar faceless urban landscapes where ‘there is no there, there’ and that this has dulled our senses somehow and muted our desire for greatness. As someone connected to architecture, I wonder sometimes about what our generation will leave for our children, will the children of the future still hark back to the structures created by Le Corbusier, Mr Wright or Mies or the Bauhaus? Will we have contributed enough, apart from the iconic, to add to this timeless collection? And is it not conceivable that maybe some of our legacies on an architectural level, will ultimately exist as structures in a virtual world? History has given us so many architectural gems, and yes, of course a few are still being created, but we live in a modern world now, in a world of MMC and planners, and codes for sustainable houses, of thermal loss calculations and developers boxes. I accept that these rules, these conditions, these practices all have their place – but within these boundaries, within the limits of what is deemed architecturally acceptable in this ‘tick box’ world, it’s inevitable that the architect’s compulsion to bring into being something special, will find another route.
That compulsion is being played out, in part, with these virtual structures, in the virtual worlds that will be become part of all of our lives over the next few years. Ask yourself whether in 5 years time we will be scrolling up and down 2D web pages when you go online for information? I guarantee that you will find yourself in a virtual world sooner or later – whether you like it or not, the technology that drives these worlds will inevitably weave itself into the very fabric of our lives.
The responsibility for how these virtual worlds are rendered, rests squarely on the shoulders of the designers and architects that populate them, and in a very real sense are helping to ‘create’ them. In one sense, virtual architecture and its disciples must push at the boundaries of what is possible in order to create structures that amaze and inspire. Like the Paris catwalk creators, the challenge here for the virtual architect is to continually learn how to find innovative ways to render space. Where there exists such a new world with only imagination and technology as your limiting factors, then you have a duty to create what is, in this real world, quite impossible. You have a duty to learn how to use the medium of the virtual world to shape your designs and deny all rules and conventions that are attached to structures and buildings in the real world. You are sculptors, tasked with bringing into being radical and visionary works of virtual art.
In another sense, virtual architecture must remain aware of the fact that residential communities are being formed and the halls of virtual corporate business are being laid. In these scenarios, one must remain true to the function of the space/place being created, if it’s a retail environment then avatars must be able to shop with ease, wayfinding must be intuitive, product selection and trial should be easy and available instantly. The architectural response to these questions is critically important – as a corporate you will only ever truly distinguish yourself in the virtual world by a reliance and insistence upon outstanding creative design, both in exterior form as well as interior design. Corporate institutions need to function effectively in the virtual world but they need to enter these worlds with an acceptance of a new world order, they need to strive to maximize the client experience on a visual and creative level at all times.
For residential structures it becomes much more an issue of personal taste, if we are to provide a welcome to all those who visit these worlds, we cannot demand of them that they live in a particular style of residence. I see no scenario where creating a traditional family home would be the best answer to the question, and the true architects of this virtual world don’t typically engage in this type of building, nonetheless it may well be suitable for the person who creates it. In my opinion it doesn’t have a lasting place in the future and practice of virtual architecture, but it does surely have a place in the virtual world as someone’s home, should they choose it to be so.
The youth of today’s mature economies are growing up in a world where digital communication and high speed internet access are their ‘norms’, not being able to get online for today’s youth would be unthinkable, they expect it, but more importantly to note, they accept it as part of their life. We are a generation that has been given the opportunity to create, and spend time in, fast emerging new worlds. We all have a choice as to what we use these worlds for and how we see these worlds develop. The scope for architectural inspiration, for cross cultural communication, for educators, for information sharing and globally collaborative events is immense, its an opportunity that we, collectively, should not squander.
When we move to populate another planet – which I have no doubt that we will – we will have the very same opportunity again, maybe what we learn about ourselves with the formation of these virtual worlds will inform our decisions about how to tackle building a new real world from scratch. Who knows, if we could learn, in this world, to accept and appreciate the differences between ourselves and our neighbours, in the same way as we are learning to in the virtual ones, we may even find that this real world becomes a nicer place to live in.
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