Architecture in the expanded field – The Metaverse and beyond
Q1: the architect
In our physical world the notion of the architect is still considered with some prestige, in some countries it’s a protected entity to call oneself an architect, yielding years of study and practice gathering quite an intrinsic field of knowledge ranging from design visions, political, cultural and social observation and understanding of the world to entrepreneurial skills.
In what ways is this traditional understanding of the profession relevant to working in virtual and digital domains as an architect and what new competencies should future generations embrace to become key players – if their ambitions is to cater to a hybridized world?
To be sure, architects competing for design commissions in the metaverse cannot rely on the government backed monopolistic privileges they enjoy with respect to the design of physical buildings. (As an aside, I would like to argue that these barriers to entry should be lifted everywhere, as a matter of principle, in the name of economic freedom and prosperity.) However, the architects’ skills and knowledge, as well as the architects’ prestige and experience gained in the world of urban development are very relevant competitive advantages with respect to metaverse design. I predict that architects will dominate the design of Web 3.0, at least that part of the metaverse market that aims to host connected virtual cultural, educational, commercial, and work environments, conceived in both competition and continuity with physical cities, constituting a connected communication process. This conception of the metaverse as part of a continuous social reality contrasts with the idea of the metaverse as paralell universe, fantasy world or other-worldly multi-player gaming platform. The latter will be dominated by game developers. Game developers are not part of the design disciplines. While this segment currently seems to be the larger part of the metaverse, in the long run it will be a relatively small market in comparison to what the real metaverse I mean will be. I also predict that the term ‘metaverse’, if it persists in denoting the part I am aiming to contribute to as architect, the gaming worlds will no longer be included in the concept, just as Disneyland is not really a part of the city, and the artistic creators of Disneyland are not recognized as architects/designers. This is not a matter of value or worth, but of distinct professional realms and incommensurable criteria of success.
The design of the metaverse I mean, the design of the metaverse I envision to become a part of the designed environment we communicate, learn, work and transact within, i.e. we live within, is, in my view fully and unambiguously located within the task domain of architecture, according to my understanding of architecture’s societal function. No doubt, the technical boundaries or constraints of metaverse architecture are very different from the technical constraints that bound physical architecture. The move from physical to virtual architecture implies the switching of the whole engineering stack. However, the social functionality criteria are very much the same: maximising communication and collaboration. All design is about framing social interactions. This includes virtual interactions. Any design project in this space involves the three parts of the architect’s project I have distinguished in my theory of architecture: the organisational project, the phenomenological project and the semiological project. The design challenges remain the same: maintaining legibility in complex scenes, facilitating information-richness, navigation and the identification of social situations etc. All organisations – firms, cultural institutions, charities, etc. – will host virtual spaces in the metaverse. Most of them will retain their urban premises too. It makes sense that both physical and virtual premises are congenial extensions of each other, and are designed together. I further predict that our physical urban and architectural environments will transform and become interfaces to these virtual spaces. This means users can enter the virtual worlds not only individually from their homes via headsets or laptops but together with others via large panoramic screens and other spatial interfaces. We’ll experience the metaverse from shared physical social spaces, from within our work spaces and public urban spaces. So I predict a mixed reality and a cyber-urban fusion. If this is true, it makes sense to design real and virtual spaces together, as a continuum. This, once more, implies that architects will take this work.
Q2: architecture in “the extended field”
Joseph Beuys coined the terminology “art in the extended field” conceptualizing on the broader understanding of the world trough works of art, but also on the other hand expanding the understanding of authors of the work, democratizing this singular notion with the statement ”Everybody is an artist”, hence has the potential to work creatively.
Do you see a parallel movement with architecture today entering virtual domains, that are inhabitable, commercially feasible -promising new civic experiences ?
To be sure, the metaverse offers a huge chance to young architects. A long track record of delivering complex buildings, or planning permissions in difficult planning regimes etc. is not required to break into this new market. Market entry is in this sense “democratized”, although I would not use this term here without quotation marks. Similarly, user generated content, facilitated by in-world builders, represents a kind of “democratization” of (virtual) city building. However, while I think this is significant, it won’t seriously undermine the demand for professional design services, not least because the total demand for virtual metaverse venues will be so great in the coming period – an avalanche of work – that there is more than enough work for everybody who choses to join this market.
Apropos democracy: the great advantage of the metaverse over cities is – at least at this stage – the absence of democratic political control. Here, in stark contrast to real estate development in the physical world, we find a realm for the unfettered exercise of entrepreneurial freedom and politically unencumbered design freedom. Here the market can still function as discovery procedure, to use an influential concept from F.A. Hayek.
There is another intriguing aspect that pertains to the coming metaverse as currently envisaged by most metaverse start-ups, an aspect that implies democratization in the sense of collective, quasi-political decision making, namely the project to organize metaverses not as corporations but as blockchain based Decentralized Automonous Organisations, short DAOs. While the self-promotional hype of metaverses claiming to institute “community ownership” is indeed just hype or hyperbole, and the difference to corporations is exaggerated, the opportunity for inventing and experimenting with governance systems is indeed a very interesting opportunity, compared with corporate structures regulated by governmental rules of incorporation and settled into standard forms. The new computationally supported governance technologies and a lively accompanying discourse about innovative forms of governance and their potential benefits or risks, are flourishing in the crypto ecosystem. I believe that metaverse projects can and should join this discourse and experimentation. This space of organizational freedom is a great advantage crypto-oriented metaverse start-ups have over huge but politically closely scrutinized and hemmed in competitors like Meta.
Q3: political boundaries and constraints
Architecture lives within a flux of deploying spatial potentials within an ecosystem defined by politics (among other domains) Some libertarian, others corrupt and some pretentious as pseudo democracies – but all to a certain extend striving for free capitalism. This defines as a result also architectural potentials based on that certain ecosystem. How is your understanding of the political ecosystem within the Metaverse and its other digital derivates and how does this understanding open up new potentials for designers and architects? Where should power structures for these currently non regulated, or decentralized territories develop to in terms of their structural capacities in your opinion?
P.S.: Unfortunately, architecture in the physical world is only insufficiently governed by free market capitalism. The urban development process is very much politically controlled, indeed often paralyzed, and hardly a market process at all. I am not hostile to all forms of collective decision making. Most corporations involve multiple owners and therefore collective decision making via voting, within the framework of designed constitutions, the corporation’s ‘articles of association’. The difference with physical nations and cities is that we are mostly born into one of them without any choice. The theory of the ‘social contract’ is just a theoretical fiction, not a real contract voluntarily entered. Metaverses can offer a true social contract, and there is sufficient competition and choice to make this concept a meaningful reality. Also, while in the regulated part of the economy the corporate constitution is legally pre-framed, in the as yet unregulated ream of DAOs, by contrast, the freedom to design constitutions and social contracts is wide open, only limited by the imagination of the metaverse founders. One thing is already clear: DAOs follow more the example of corporations than the example of national democracies. Universal suffrage, on the basis of one vote per participant, is never considered. Rather, the democracies of metaverses are democracies of the invested, where voting power is proportional to the token shareholding, although deviations from this are being discussed. In the metaverse land owners are playing an important political role, potentially distinct from token holders. This makes sense in particular with respect to urban planning/urban design policies. This implies democracy of the well-informed, specifically invested/interested parties, rather than the currently prevalent democracy of the rationally ignorant, indiffeent and abstinent voter. Voter indifference, ignorance and abstinence is especially pronounced when it comes to local municipal elections where urban policy is supposed to be democratically controlled. This has little to do with any genuine ideal or idea of democracy but systematically disenfranchises those who are the real stakeholders with relevant information and incentives to make decisions in the interest of the city’s end users. A landowners’ democracy, with votes weighted by the scale of the investment/land holding is the best way to structure collective decision-making processes for the benefit for all end users, both in the metaverse and in the physical city or city district. To grasp this one must understand that in a n open, competitive market producer and consumer interests align because producers only win by serving consumer (end user) interests better than their competitors. The inherent logic of this process also implies that innovation accelerates. What the overarching platform governance must secure is open market entry. Then landowners can be left to collectively self-regulate the management (internalization) of negative and positive externalities, shared investments/upgrades etc. without fear of anti-competitive cartelization/monopoly. The platform will also participate in land value increases (planning and agglomeration gains) via transaction fees or land taxes. I predict that this rationality of a framed landowner democracy will assert itself and will come through in the free and highly competitive metaverse market. This experience might then open the way to apply this practice also to physical municipal decision making with respect to all aspects of urban planning.
Q4: ZHA – Metaverse
Zaha Hadid architects have designed an entire city, a masterplan proposal, named “Liberland-Metaverse” with the city hall as an expression of political governing power at its core center. That is an interesting take on defining a center of an emerging urbanism. Should there not be a typological challenge, marking that center , getting away from conventional power structure such as a major or religious institutions. What do you think?
The city hall was an attempt to bring Liberland’s political governance, including Liberland Metaverse governance as a subsidiary aspect of Liberland, conspicuously into the metaverse itself. In principle I think the idea makes a lot of sense: to bring aspects of the metaverse governance process into the metaverse itself as immersive, interactive, real-time process, rather than using web 2.0 mechanisms like discord channels. Apropos governance in religious organizations: there is a whole spectrum, all the way from the highly centralized and hierarchical Catholic church to self-organizing protestant sects with lay preachers, or “cults” with charismatic leaders. A similar diversity might be expected in terms of metaverses and network societies.
Let me use this opportunity to update you and note that what has been up to now ‘Liberland Metaverse’ will now fork into two separate and independent ventures. The name Liberland Metaverse will stay with Vít Jedlička and his Liberland Ltd. On the side of ZHA and ArchAgenda the project will continue under the (provisional) name Cyberland. The concept on our side remains in essence the same, perhaps with a more explicit acknowledgement that now our metaverse (intended virtual creative industry cluster) aims to capture the design disciplines/professions, and related institutions rather than the crypto ecosystem (although the designers/firms/galleries we approach are web 3.0 pioneers in their field). This shift in orientation (target market) better reflects the reality of our professional and cultural networks, and indeed the character of the set of potential initial clients we are already communicating with.
Q5: new global context
Similar to the mentioned ecosystem shaping architectural language and expression, historically there is often a contextual relationship between architecture and some form of context. This relationships -down the line of architectural history has helped canonical project to emerge. In the most conventional sense this can be the built physical environment or (contextual dentistry – as J. Kippnis used to call it) but also technological developments that help redefine the way architects work and the work itself.
How will this context be defined in virtual worlds, will it strive more towards a uniformity or on what levels can you imagine to have differentiation?
There will be many metaverses but the economic factors that promote big world cities will also drive concentration in large metaverse platforms, namely: agglomeration economies with service efficiencies (economies of scale) and the ability to service long tails (economies of scope), as well as co-location synergies in terms of collaborative networks of production. The metaverse we are imagining, and building will be a virtual city with many districts and many buildings and urban spaces in each district. Therefore all structures and spaces will have immediate, as well as wider spatial and morphological contexts, not unlike buildings and spaces within the city. Further, there are many non-spatial networks into which the virtual venues and spaces might be plugged into. In the metaverse these network proximities are possibly navigated like hyperlinks, via teleporting portals.
Q6: architectural reading
One of the claims and benefits within the Metaverse and other digital worlds is its immediacy. Everything at your hands all at the same time. Similar and probably for the same reason the Metaverse is referred to as the spatialized new internet. What will these mean in the coming future for “reading” and experiencing buildings designed for the Metaverse? How could designing be challenged if we take into consideration that the average time spent on a conventional website is 14 seconds? How do your think architecture could be more engaging in a virtual world?
While the metaverse might be described as the spatialized or immersive internet, it is not just substituting for websites – this is only a part of it and 2D web pages will continue to exist alongside the respective organizations’ 3D metaverse sites. The metaverse is privileging and empowering real time interaction, collective events, and offers the possibility of crowd experiences. One key area of substitution is the whole realm of conferencing, including online video conferencing. A large part of the time we now spend on Zoom or Teams will be spent in the metaverse, for the same purpose, but with enhanced opportunities for informal side communications, break out meetings, after conference socializing etc. Btw. both Microsoft Teams and Zoom are actively working on metaverse-like enhancements of their products.
I also want to pick you up on your claim that the metaverse delivers immediacy in the sense that everything is at your fingertips all at the same time, just a click away. This claim trivializes the non-trivial difficulty of making a large manifold of offerings effectively accessible. This implies bringing many items into view, effectively, without overburdening perceptual tractability. This further implies an intuitive and navigable spatial ordering. I do indeed believe that a strategically designed spatialized, immersive internet – scientifically informed by spatial cognition research, Gestalt psychology, semiology etc. – can much enhance the browsing navigation of the panoply of spatial displays and interaction offerings that we would like to have at our fingertips or discover through quick browsing excursions. This will be superior to the current web navigation that works via key word searches that presuppose a preconceived intention. After arriving at a website, navigation is facilitated by scroll down menus and links. The metaverse will function more akin to urban browsing, giving more chances to serendipitous discoveries and chance encounters that are, however, never wholly random but based on the self-organizing co-location synergy clusters that will spontaneously emerge via the market process operating within the metaverse.
Q7: design potentials
In my previous article on NFA Lab we distinguish between “digital twins” and “surreality”. The former being the digital replica of a building that relies on concepts and constraints experienced and deployed from our physical world, such as gravity and a door to enter a building for example. While “surreality” suggest a more experimental understanding and a questioning of reality and architecture embedded within from the ground up. Similar to the floating elements as suggested in “Liberland” or seen in Andreas Reisinger’s impossible virtual furniture. In this spectrum between “digital twins” and “surreality” where would you define a current sweet spot for architecture to be successful within the Metaverse. How would we differentiate here between formal sensibility, language and the experiential quality of the spaces itself?
The metaverse exploits the analogy of the city, utilizing our hard won, non-trivial ability of navigating urban and architectural spaces, as well as our ability to recognize places and social situations. This requires a high degree of realism in terms of plausible design and photo-realistic rendering because the semantic clues are attached to atmospheric values that might not survive abstraction. While therefore a close adherence to the analogy with urban architecture is important to begin with, we can expect a gradual emancipation and evolution of metaverse native forms of semiological articulation, navigation and interaction, exploiting the inherently different freedoms and constraints of the medium. However, cyberspace will fuse with urban space implying a radical transformation of built architecture and urban life. Urban and architectural spaces become interfaces and windows into the virtual world. Mixed reality – mixing physical and virtual co-presence – will become pervasive. Therefore, the expected cyber-urban fusion will always ensure, for many institutions, a certain tie back to the physically instantiated urban and architectural semiology.
Q8: design profession
Not only established offices, but also emerging new design talents spot their potential for work within digital domains and virtual worlds such as the Metaverse. What competencies does a future generation of architects need to have in order to make an impact in this adventure? How shall academic concepts of teaching be expanded in order to sustain relevant in these emerging fields? Last but not least how do you envision the architect of the next century?
I am focusing my AADRL (Architectural Association Design Research Lab) studio on the huge opportunity that the metaverse and virtual spaces imply for architecture and architects. Last year I focused on the idea of what I call the cyber-urban incubator with the assumption that physical spaces become interfaces into related virtual spaces and thus ought to be designed together. This year I am exploring a fully virtual metaverse urbanism, including issues of governance, and including architectural design elaborations and implemented interaction scenarios. As I emphasized above, the design of virtual spaces, buildings and metaverse cities is instantly recognizable as fitting well with my definition of architecture’s societal function – the spatio-morphological framing of social interaction processes – and into architecture’s core set of relevant competencies. I am not the only architectural teacher who recognizes this. Metaverse design will become a standard design studio brief in all schools of architecture. The incorporation of metaverse design as an unquestioned part of the discipline’s task domain also clarifies and furthers the distillation of architecture’s specific competency in distinction to building engineering competency. Architectural design competency moves smoothly between the physical and virtual realms, addressing nearly identical social functionality concerns, while building engineering comes to a full stop as this boundary where a wholly different engineering stack takes over.
I welcome this distillation. More generally, I feel many discoveries – and there will be plenty of discoveries given the unleashed dynamism of creativity in a context where innovations are genuinely permissionless – will feed back into the architectural design of the physical built environment. I also know that this is the moment of parmetricism’s long overdue break through. As native digital style Parametricism is congenial with the ambitions of the metaverse and will become the preferred style here. This will feed back into architecture at large and accelerate the dissemination of parametricism. The advantages of a high density, complex, variegated, legible spatio-morphological order and the requirement for continuous adaptation to changing contexts and interaction scenarios, persist in the metaverse and can only be delivered by parametricism.
Dear Patrik! Many thanks!