State of Play Virtual Architecture 1.0: Contest Judges Say Enough with the Simulacra Already

Those who attended the "Architecture in Virtual Worlds" panel at State of Play III on October 8 witnessed a panel that primarily consisted of judges expressing dissatisfaction with the entries in the State of Play Virtual Design Competition.   Panelist Ann Beamish from the University of Texas School of Architecture, summed it up best when she said, "I really did want to be surprised."   Professor Beamish’s disappointment was shared to varying degrees by her colleagues, who collectively chalked this sorry state of affairs up to the fact that the use of virtual world technologies for high-level architectural projects is still in its very early stages.  "We’re still in version 1.0" was a phrase repeated often throughout the discussion. 

While some audience respondents were split between agreement and disagreement with the judges' negative views of contest entries, one respondent diplomatically suggested, "It’s possible that the things that were submitted were probably things that people thought you would like."  If that’s the case then boy, were they wrong.

Were the entries really all that bad?  Did they fail so completely to meet the criteria of the contest?   The decision criteria as stated on the design competition page read:   "Judges are looking for the designs, spaces and structures that foster civic engagement, promote civil society and strengthen the public sphere while, at the same time, demonstrating artistic and aesthetic vision."   The root of the panelists' discontent appeared to lie not with any lack of civic or community engagement, as those qualities abounded in many of the entries, but rather in the fact that most were too intent on reproducing exact simulacra of idealized offline spaces rather than demonstrating what the judges would consider truly avant-garde artistic and aesthetic vision. 

Nathan Glazer of Harvard University kicked off the panel discussion with this provocative comment about his experience of Second Life: 

"My first comment is how conservative this entire world is, from what I could see, in its approach to design, architectural design, spaces and so on, which is a little surprising – this world after all is on the frontier of technology and yet you’d probably get the wrong idea of most of the 26 proposals in our competition from the four winners because most of them are quite traditional environments…they are villages, or houses, or piazzas, or places…nothing very special going on there."

Other panelists more or less echoed this sentiment, with Professor Beamish adding:

"Why is it that we end up with the very familiar, the hyper-romanticized simulacrum, or the dreary?...I’ve been really quite disappointed in the way this has been going and I’ve been trying to understanding why is it that we’ve been reproducing the physical world as we know it."

To her credit, Beamish attempted to answer her own question by recognizing that human beings are, after all, physical, spatial creatures.   As she pointed out, we understand the world through physical cues and learn to do so from a very young age.   It seems we still have an affinity for things like villages, houses and piazzas, much to the dismay of some architects.   Cutting edge real-world architecture has apparently moved beyond these hang-ups.   Professor Glazer invoked the trends of "lightness and evanescence" in new architectural projects such as the "Blur" building which disappears in its own purposely generated mist or the ephemeral Towers of Light September 11 memorial at Ground Zero.   How ironic is it that, as Glazer notes, "architecture is reaching towards digital world and the digital world is reaching through architecture."

True to the judges' critiques, many of the entries strove to create a sense of permanence and history, taking the form of virtual museums that preserve resident artwork, stadiums serving as monuments to in-world events, and spaces that function as established community centers with a permanent in-world presence.   But predictably all four winning entries were of the more ephemeral, temporary variety.   Not surprisingly, Professor Glazer’s top pick was the 'Fractures' proposal in which the building disappears completely and where the networks supersede the physical design. 

In the end, with no one entry standing out as an architecture panel's dream entry, super-charged civic engagement won the day.   The grand prize winner, the ACS Relay For Life, may not have been as formally progressive as several other winning entries, but it was certainly more collaborative in the sense that it was conceived and built entirely by community residents who freely contributed their own ideas rather than working to realize the singular vision of one project leader or a group of trained architects.   In the words of the SLRFL Committee, this project was "a unique experiment in community mobilization" that recreated a 24-hour charity walkathon in the virtual environment of Second Life.  (Covered by this author in Terra Nova previously here and here.)  This event also combined notions of place-based physicality with temporality by using simulated soil and water to visually carve out the tagline word of ACS Relays: "Hope."   Simulated earth may not literally erode, but the fact that it was built on Linden-donated land which reverted back to its "natural" state after the event created a sort of simulated erosion that recalls the real-world earth art works of Christo and Robert Smithson

The three runners-up (CINE, "Fracture" and DEVMAP) were more high-concept augmented reality environments that mapped virtual space onto physical space in real time in various creative ways.   The virtual Relay folks might do well to take some cues from the runners-up and consider the augmented reality solutions of other projects for future integration with their own offline Relay events, as this could prevent virtual Relays from remaining completely insular to the Second Life community.   But while the use of virtual spaces to augment real-time offline events is an idea ripe with potential, and we can certainly push the boundaries of the medium more than we are, I also believe that things like permanence, established spaces that don’t disappear over time, and spaces that commemorate community history in tangible ways are important to the long-term development of online communities.  Surely we can strive for some kind of balance.

On that note, my pick for the winning entry was The Port by Simon Goldin, Tor Lindstrand, and Jakob Senneby.   Taking the term "grid" quite literally, this project is described as "a spatial WIKI" that is redefined by its community on an ongoing basis.   Slots in the borg-like Port grid are made available to anyone wishing to engage in a cultural research project.  This is an original balance of innovative formalism and civic-minded content with the potential for future development.  The creators of The Port explain: "Our ambition in this project is not so much to produce alternative architectural styles as to promote a re-thinking of architectural concepts. We are trying to work away from architectural representations, towards more site-specific strategies."   It's a visionary project that foregrounds the virtual elements of a dynamic but relatively permanent space with clever puns on words like "port" and "grid."   It allows for real-time projects without being limited to any single event and strives to create community around a variety of innovative projects on an ongoing basis.   At least one judge also preferred The Port.   Martin Zogran from Harvard recognized this project as an example of a design that didn't "wallow in simulacra – there were some attempts to transcend that mimicry of everyday life."

Maybe the majority of aspiring virtual world architects are overcompensating for the ephemeral nature of virtual worlds by filling them with re-creations of familiar real-world places.   Is this something that should be viewed negatively, whether you’re an architecture critic or a denizen of virtual worlds?   Could the judges' reactions simply be explained away as yet another case of expert vs. amateur tastes?   After all, this issue of conservatism versus cutting-edge comes up over and over again in debates surrounding public art and architecture with the public generally gravitating toward less avant-garde designs in favor of those that make them feel comfortable and emotionally connected to the space.  While the judges' points may be well taken, ultimately it's the users of virtual worlds that will live in them, and it's the users who will create and map future trends in the ongoing construction of our metaverses.   


Comments on State of Play Virtual Architecture 1.0: Contest Judges Say Enough with the Simulacra Already:

nate combs says:


Maybe the majority of aspiring virtual world architects are overcompensating for the ephemeral nature of virtual worlds by filling them with re-creations of familiar real-world places. Is this something that should be viewed negatively, whether you’re an architecture critic or a denizen of virtual worlds?

Yes. Even if one doesn't have an aesthetic argument with recreations, there is a technical cost associated with object-rich dynamic content. Note scenery refresh costs.

The idea that one might expend N (where N is a large number) objects creating a high-fidelity representation of a ordinary pub and then expect denizens to wait M (another large number) seconds every time they visit to refresh the scene is cultural hubris.

Concepts, artifacts need to be framed within the medium, the place.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 8:34:26 AM | link

Mike says:

Call me old-fashioned, but I find that real-world architecture metaphors enhance immersion.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 9:25:19 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

Twenty or so years ago (think "Neuromancer" and "True Names") people were enamored of the idea that this cool new thing called "cyberspace" didn't really need to be spatial at all -- it was a continuum of ideas, not 3D measurement. In both fiction and fact, floating colored boxes, endless neon lines on a bottomless black backdrop, and disembodied heads were all tried as methods and metaphors for interaction.

And yet eventually what really stuck with people was what they knew: 3D spaces that more or less felt and behaved like 3D spaces. We are spatial creatures, and we take our civic cues from the organization of physical space (did the judges here not know or agree with Alexander's work in functionally subdividing spaces?).

So, while it'd be great to get beyond the idealized mausoleum version of 3D environments, or the plane-floating-in-space version, it's hardly surprising people were reaching back to their roots to define something purposeful but new.

Who knows though, maybe this is just a phase: maybe in a few years we'll return to the black and neon of old cyberspace and find a place that's more exciting, comprehensible, and practical then when we last visited. Or maybe we'll always remain creatures operating in 3D with gravity and a horizon line. But in any event decrying this seems a bit odd, given the stated purpose of the contest.

It would be interesting and informative to see examples from the dissatisfied judges of the kind of thing they would have preferred to have seen in the contest.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 10:18:17 AM | link

Satchmo Prototype says:

If they wanted VR's more abstract builds they should have phrased the call for entries better. Not everyone is an academic that can read between the lines. There is great stuff out there, and if the judges can't acknowledge that, then they need to explore the grid of Second Life. The fault was in the wording, not in the creativity of the community.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 12:21:19 PM | link

Bart Stewart says:

Betsy, thank you for the excellent report. I appreciate being given the chance to hear how this competition went.

With respect to the competition's results and the judges' comments... hmm.

On the one hand, kudos to the judges for participating in an event like this. It's good to encourage exploration of the new capabilities virtual worlds offer.

On the other hand, where is it written that a work of art/architecture is merely derivative (and therefore of less value) unless it forges some new idiom? If the old still works, why reject it?

This isn't a conservative lament against "progress" in favor of stodgy neoclassical design. I support exploration, whether of the physical world or the abstract world of ideas. Exploring the unexplored space is in the best tradition of Western civilization. (Heh.) In this respect, I think the judges were right to wonder where the original ideas were.

But then they seemed to go beyond this surprise; they appeared to assume that only the avant-garde was acceptable... and that, I don't agree with.

If virtual world inhabitants want what's aesthetically comfortable to them, even if it's in a traditional style, why are they wrong? If the colonizers of the new worlds prefer structures whose forms are a symbolic link to the old world, why is their choice invalid?

More specifically, why are architects wrong to give it to them? Was the sin of most of the virtual-world architects that they designed the kinds of structures people actually wanted? If the judges' comments sprang out of a belief that the masses must be forced to use the hyper-new because it's good for them, then I'd have to be pretty annoyed with those judges. This "we know what's best for you" attitude, so prevalent in the art world, has always struck me as condescending and arrogant elitism at best, and dangerous to liberty (when those who hold such views gain power) at worst. If that's how the judges of this competition think, then the competition needs to find wiser judges.

That's an "if," of course. If their disappointment was simply in not having fresh new concepts to consider, I can appreciate that.

But maybe it's just that virtual worlds are still so new. The choice to simulate known buildings in new online spaces reminds me of young programmers when they try to learn a new language. They often try to reuse the methods and concepts of the old language in the new, leading to programs that work but are stylistically abominable. (I saw more than one C program whose keywords were #ifdef'ed into Pascal. *shudder*)

The architects of structures in virtual worlds may simply still be at the stage of reusing familiar methods and concepts in the new virtual spaces. As they come to better understand these worlds, as they explore the unique architectural grammars of these places, they'll develop new idioms that are more appropriate to the world and the people who choose to live there.

It's just a matter of time and patience. Meantime, it wouldn't hurt to accept that people generally know what they like, what they like is simple and traditional, and that it's OK to give it to them.

--Bart

Posted Oct 13, 2005 12:56:42 PM | link

Andrew Burton says:

Bwa ha ha!

I don't have anything constructive to add. I'm just amused because people from Harvard are now saying the same thing I've been saying about Second Life.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 4:22:11 PM | link

Persphone Milk says:

I agree with Satchmo entirely. If the judges were looking for designs that did not resemble "traditional environments…they are villages, or houses, or piazzas, or places…nothing very special going on there" then perhaps they should not have said the following in thier contest rules:

"Maybe this public architecture resembles the public spaces of old like town squares, markets, transportation hubs or town halls. Maybe not. This competition invites designers and architects to submit examples of the best public, democratic or civic architecture in a virtual world."


Posted Oct 13, 2005 5:04:05 PM | link

Maxx Monde says:

Crossposting my Oct 13th entry:

To preface all this, I'm glad that a SL submitted build won, I truly am. However the reasons put forth by the panel caused me to question the method by which they arrived at their conclusions. I watched the video in its entirety, and was suprised by the lack of context regarding each submission. First, lets clear a few things up about the panelists, and my opinion of them.

Anne Beamish - She had the most coherent and concise presentation, I enjoyed her elaboration on public spaces.

Nathan Glazer - He was the most disappointing panelist, in my opinion. Not only did he not bother getting the name right of the virtual world he was critiquing, his insistence on 'conservative' architecture just showed how little effort he put forth in understanding the environment of the builds being judged.

Carl Goodman - I don't believe he was present at the panel, but I'm mentioning him since he was listed on the program posted on the State of Play 3 website.

Yehuda Calay - I liked this guy, one of his first sentences was "I threw out the guidelines when considering the submissions". I can respect that - he seemed to want to give these entries a chance, compared to the overwhelming pessimism of the other judges. He also disagreed with the top choice, which was interesting. He however 'missed the boat' as well for reasons I'll describe in summary below.

Helen Stuckey - I don't think she was present either, but was listed on the program.

Edward Valauskas - He wasn't present, but was on the program.

Jonathan Zittrain - He was the only panelist to use virtual worlds to actually sit in on the panel discussion. I'll give him credit for that alone.

Martin Zogran - My god, this guy can ramble about public space until he's blue in the face. Yes, he's articulate, but my advice would've been to cut down on the presentation by a few tens of pages. I started to lose conciousness after a while.

My issue with the whole judging process is the inconsistency. Entries that were considered weren't necessarily MMO games unto themselves. Actually one was a modified Quake3 level, which is a first person shooter, not a collaborative environment per se.

The panelists all presented their thoughts on public space, which of course dovetails nicely with their speciality, but as they continued to talk about the submissions, the disconnect between method of judging and its outcome became more apparent.

When judging, I was expecting each submission to be considered within the context of the world that it was created in. I would not, as an example, expect someone working on a submission from "There" to use the same methods as an architect from "Active Worlds". This may seem unimportant to some, a builiding is a building, right? But it really is important.

All the panelists decried the 'conventional' architecture and bemoaned the fact there weren't more ambitious entries. They all went on to describe abstract representations of space, ignoring physics, or even the representation of avatars. This psuedo-Gibsonesque representation of the metaverse is compelling, but unrealistic when you consider the limitations of the worlds the submissions came from.

Instead of looking for wireframe tesseracts teeming with vibrant phantom geometry and complex displays of 'interactive' data, the judges should've pulled their collective heads out from the future-forward lightcone for a minute. Most worlds have physics simulation. This implies collisions, and other 'real' aspects that reflect reality. Considerations such as mode of transport, enabled or disabled point-to-point navigation, the lack of 'portal' definition of spaces - all of these factors should have been weighed in the judging process.

Instead, all I got to hear was a bunch of highly professional people, educated and polished - moan and cluck their tongues at the 'conventionalism' of all the entries.

As one panelist said - this is version 1.0 of architecture in virtual worlds. Why they felt it necessary to compare to some idealist metaverse which doesn't even exist yet, is beyond me.

I'm disappointed, again, not because of not being awarded a prize, but by the method the judges used to gloss over all the effort and design influences each world had on the architects working within these environments.

Perhaps next year we'll get a more grounded panel.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 7:04:37 PM | link

NineShift says:

Great post, Terra Nova master.

In 30 years the average virtual architect will make more than the average 'real world' architect.

And the lawyer who tries his case in cyberspace before entering the courtoom will win more cases. And planes designed totally in cyberspace are cheaper than those built with prototypes (see BBC story on this).

Move cursors forward virtual architects!

Posted Oct 13, 2005 8:28:42 PM | link

lewy says:

Here I go again, beating my favorite dead horse over and over. Look at the history of movies. The very first movies were shot from the perspective of someone sitting in the audience of a play. It took a while for the makers of movies to come up with a new way of looking at things, to realize "Aha! We can zoom in on the face of someone who's talking so that his face takes up the entire frame." There was never any technological barrier to the close-up shot--the barrier was that someone had to think up the idea of a close-up shot.

Most people don't realize that even when they're watching the crappiest Hollywood actioner they're watching something which is actually remarkably sophisticated. Consider the scenario where Hero X is racing to save Damsel in Distress Y. The film might jump back and forth from footage of X to Y. As the director decides to ramp up the tension he might decide to shorten the amount of time spent on X before flipping to Y and vice versa. Intially the camera might spend 6 seconds on X before switching to Y, and then 5, and then 4, then 3, until finally...

It doesn't sound all that impressive because it's something we're used to, something which is so basic that we take it for granted. Yet consider the earliest pioneers of film. It took them decades to devise and work out the techniques which people today have unconsciously absorbed. Across society as a whole people are literate in film technique, even if they don't consciously realize it--imagine shooting a movie as a play in a box and showing it to people today to gauge their reactions.

Computers are to 2000 as movie cameras were to 1910. It's going to take a while to figure out the close-up.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 8:30:08 PM | link

Aimee Weber says:

"Perhaps next year we'll get a more grounded panel."

I'm not holding my breath Maxx :D But next year we will certainly have better informed contestants. The name of the game will be "Ignore the published criteria." I may duct tape a flashlight to my forehead and call myself the warrior of the future. They will LOVE that.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 8:31:59 PM | link

Hiro Pendragon says:

I don't see how *any* of these builds could have been judged without experiencing them first hand. I thought there were some great entries that got overlooked like The Port and Neualtenburg - places that have proven to be successes at exactly what the contest wanted - public spaces with real people. (Though Relay for Life was a great win!)

Like Maxx, I'm not trying to sound plucky because the build I was involved with didn't win, but ... I thought it was funny how the SLCC in-world "non-winning" build was on the video screen at SoP3 during multiple panels. Perhaps what NYLS wanted to see differed from what the architects wanted to see?

Posted Oct 13, 2005 8:46:55 PM | link

Lordfly Digeridoo says:

I'm going to re-add my voice to the chorus of disapproval at the judges. Not only did they not judge the entries based upon the published guidelines, the winners picked barely weasel through the very definition of "public space". Somehow I don't think a Quake3-designed art installation counts as civic architecture.

I would continue ranting, but a) it would serve no point, b) be construed as baseless whining, and c) is already enumerated in my blog.

http://www.lordfly.com/SL

In short, next year try picking judges who grasp what they're trying to judge. :)

Posted Oct 13, 2005 8:50:48 PM | link

blaze says:

I think the judges were dead on, personally.

And if they had worded the submissions description they could have easily found themselves inundated with limitless amounts of avant garde experiments in virtual architecture.

SL is filled to the brim with it.

Posted Oct 13, 2005 9:36:10 PM | link

Tess says:

It is beneficial for most artists to learn the fundamentals of their art, before they attempt to branch out on their own. This is why we learn things like music theory, or color theory, or narrative theory, or whatever. The fundamentals give us a firmer trunk from whence to branch. They allow us to make informed innovations, rather than wild shots in the dark.

In that sense, I believe that it is beneficial that our architects of virtual spaces are beginning with the mundane fundamentals. This is a GOOD thing. In time, they will become great, but right now, they're just learning to fly. Give them some time. They've only just started!

Posted Oct 13, 2005 11:02:37 PM | link

Jim Self says:

Wow... lots of people I don't know here.

I'd agree with Bart's comments above (right, way back at the top) with one addition.

I see the purpose of VWs, aside from entertainment, as empowering people beyond what is possible in the physical world. Broadening exposure to and communication with a more diverse group of people and ideas. How does the old and familiar not coincide with that function? What if the VW was an *exact* replica of the physical world? It would still empower you to travel to new places, meet new people, learn new ideas.

Something having a familiar appearance has nothing at all to do with empowering people beyond their physical limits. Judging by that standard would be like judging an object's mass by its color; it's completely unrelated.

I think that some idealists are caught up with the idea of using virtual space to allow humanity to evolve beyond our present selves, to become something wholly different. They don't stop to think that that form will also have its limits. The limits of what we can imagine, comprehend, and integrate. The limits of what our hardware can do. And, ultimately, the limits of our physical bodies as well. When you really start to contemplate the existence of the soul, or persona, or whatever you believe, and how little we understand it, railing on VW designers for not transposing our inner selves into a wholly new reality is silly.

Posted Oct 14, 2005 12:47:03 AM | link

Elle Pollack says:

The goal of the average Second Life architect you meet (and the criteria other residents genraly judge the, by) isn't going to be anything like a postmodernist's "question the cultural forces that threaten innovation" or "making the now familiar and comforting idea of 'physical' architecture in a world that is actualy metaphysical, obsolete". Instead, their mantra runs more along the lines of "How do I build something awesome looking yet functional with the tools I've got?" Not how to create new, futuristic channels of communication and interaction, but "how many seats/chairs do I need to put in here and how should I make the doors, ceilings, etc, so people can fly in and move around without bumping into everything?" They may care about stuff like the molopolization of media by a handfull of corporations (a subject that the CINE team goes on for at least a few pages in their project report, I notice as I roll my eyes) but such things are not maters of concequence in the design of their places (hosted, if you wish to indulge the irony, on the corporate servers of those benevolent barrons at Linden Lab).

Want to know the quickest way to create a public gathering place in Second Life? Throw down a "cuddle rug", a rather ubiquitous object, variations on which are sold by many vendors in-world, consisiting of a rug and several pillows scripted with various lounging poses. Lacking that, I've found that a campfire on the ground has nearly the same effect, just add marshmallows and/or skewered hot dogs, maybe some mugs of particle-steaming drinks and a seagull or two...or a radio over which Philip Linden is broadcasting a town hall...to roast, and you've got an instant party.

There's something to be said for the familiar, the primitive, the ubiquity of fireplaces, cuddle rugs, fountians and waterfalls in a world where we can neither splash in the water, feel the person next to you on a cushy pillow or taste the marshmallow you're roasting on the animated flames, and yet have these simulated objects posess the same draw as their real-life counterparts. The power of imagination does a lot to transmit the resident of a virtual world into it and ignore for a while their desk and computer chair.

Outside these examples of spontanious public spaces, there are many fantastic builds that would serve as wonderfull public spaces but remain empty. This isn't a failure of the architectureal design, however, but the fact that Second Life is a large world with people spread somewhat thinly out among it, and it takes more than just an attractive build to draw people; usualy something has to actualy be happening there and on a regular basis (Tringo, anyone?). Therefore, the best public places in Second Life are those which best facilitate that "stuff happening". It fails as a public space otherwise, no mater how cool it looks...much like in the real world. While looking for inspiration regarding "public space" for the contests (unfortuately the build I wanted to enter couldn't be installed befor the deadline), I found this article linked from the front page of the "Project for Public Spaces" - http://www.pps.org/info/newsletter/july2004/july_2004_feature

Not surprisingly, the things they talk about in their builders guide are very functional and practial things: the placement of chairs, stairs, water features, comfort, moving around, etc., the things that mater in a physical world.

All that said, a few comments on the non-SL winning entries: DEVMAP was the only one of those I think I liked, it's a cool concept from both an art and an interactivity standpoint and while Quake 3 isn't a virtual world in itself, they did take the technology and build a persistant virtual world with it. I read that CINE used "full-body gestures" - the actual movement of the body controlls the avatar - and I'll give them a point for that, but I have a hard time getting past their post-modernist mumbo-jumbo to appreciate it much. Fractured sounds cool in concept but the only picture provided on the website only looks like a jumbled bunch of lines and colors that only serve to make me go "huh?". I would chalange either of them to come into SL and build something that works within the limits of the technology there.

Posted Oct 14, 2005 1:26:58 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

One of the things that surprised me from the plenary presentation by the judges was how they liked the entries better if they showed people in them (or, rather, they disliked them more if they didn't show people in them). I remember thinking that the designers may have had to wait ages to get a clear shot of a live structure without anyone in it to clutter the view, and they were being chastised for it.

Overall, I suppose to an architect yes, it would seem odd that a virtual house would have a sloped roof if there's no virtual weather, or a door at street level if people can fly. I can also see how they'd be grumpy about looking for innovation and seeing a lot of what are basically 3D paintings of imagined real-world structures.

However, virtual space is not like real space, and the users of both have different criteria by which they judge it a success. People want to feel they're in the world, and that means the architecture has to be faithful to genre. Exciting new architecture is possible, but if it intrudes then it must do so for a reason. I expect it will be a long while before the architecture award goes to a building in a contextualised (ie. game-like) world, rather than a less themeful one such as SL.

Also, because each virtual world is physically different, architecture that is successful in one may not be successful in another. Does the virtual world need staircases? Does it require structures to self-support under gravity? Are there materials that you can see through from one side but not the other? How about materials that change what they look like depending on who'se looking at them? What's possible in one virtual world may not be possible in another - unlike the real world, they don't all use the same physics.

I got the feeling that some of the judges on the panel might have been aware that there was something unusual and potentially exciting going on in virtual worlds, but that others regarded them as glorified CAD systems and judged them on that basis.

Sadly, as with most other members of the audience, I found that rambling talks read from rambling notes were not the best means of conveying passionate opinions about a newly-developing field.

Next year, just send them something computer-generated.

Richard

Posted Oct 14, 2005 3:47:37 AM | link

lewy says:

Richard Bartle wrote:

"I can also see how they'd be grumpy about looking for innovation and seeing a lot of what are basically 3D paintings of imagined real-world structures."

"I got the feeling that some of the judges on the panel might have been aware that there was something unusual and potentially exciting going on in virtual worlds, but that others regarded them as glorified CAD systems and judged them on that basis."

On the contrary, it's the participants who submitted projects which were essentially real world buildings and structures that were treating the competition as a glorified CAD project.

I sympathize with the judges on this one. Surely submitting a 3d painting of a structure that could just as easily be built in the real world reduces the whole concept of a contest for virtual architecture to absurdity. What's the point if the "virtual" part isn't exploited?

Posted Oct 14, 2005 4:33:10 AM | link

architect says:

Well, I think a part of the problem with the judges, was just a general lack of experience in a virtual world.

I think there are at least three stages to a virtual architect:

1. You replicate real world virtual structures, eg: use it as a glorified CAD platform

2. You throw all that out, thinking "what am I doing, this is a new venue .. I should be using new concepts and ideas", and engage in 'avant garde virtual architecture' So, you make up your own virtual language and basically go around speaking basically what amounts to architectural gibberish.

3. You finally realise nobody understands the language you are speaking. So you throw ALL that out, and relearn why virtual architects are using the same vocabularly from real life, and why they are trying to say new things in a common language which is accessible and relevant.

At the third stage, productive evolution begins to occur (rather than pointless revolution for the sake of revolution) and your work becomes recognizable, compelling, and important.

It seems to me the panel was simply too busy patting themselves on the back for making it to stage two, that they didn't realise that a lot of us are working on a much deeper, and a much trickier ply.

Posted Oct 14, 2005 5:36:12 AM | link

Marco rolandi says:

I believe current virtual architects mimic the real world simply because there's not much to do in the "virtual world" apart from mimic real world actions. As soon as we'll get real "virtual actions" (combining and comparing medias and infos, surfing the net in a new way, relating to other people online in new ways) we'll get new spaces. Till then, it's no use. Let's not forget architecture is (mostly) defined by function.

Posted Oct 14, 2005 7:22:26 AM | link

Maxx Monde says:

lewy said:

"On the contrary, it's the participants who submitted projects which were essentially real world buildings and structures that were treating the competition as a glorified CAD project.

I sympathize with the judges on this one. Surely submitting a 3d painting of a structure that could just as easily be built in the real world reduces the whole concept of a contest for virtual architecture to absurdity. What's the point if the "virtual" part isn't exploited?"

There are stages in development, even the panelists admitted this. The real problem, however, is that the environments that are being built in aren't anywhere near the level of progress that the panelists expected for ground-breaking and possibly overemphasized stylistic elements.

We're a long way from the infinite horizon dotted with blazing glyphs of light, pulsing with millions of virtualized representations of live data feeds.

Did you miss that part? Everyone is saying it, over and over. We're not there yet, but once we are - exciting things will happen.

Or perhaps the panelists have a time machine I'm not aware of, which in itself would be very cool.

Posted Oct 14, 2005 8:39:36 AM | link

greglas says:

I'm generally sympathetic with the criticisms of the judges, as I get easily bored of VWs as CAD engines. Beamish noted being surprised by the need for the familiar and the reassuring in virtual spaces -- and in a few comments, she appeared to admit that there must be something going on here that was eluding the judges.

Perhaps it is just (as Richard said a couple years ago and someone said above) a question of seeing the architecture here as a vocabulary of conversation -- not as anything akin to architecture IRL. The judges evaluated the architecture as most architects are taught to: as an aesthetic use of a socially functioning space. Hence the incredulity that the architectures didn't account for the possibility of flying avatars.

But what they missed is that the flying avatar is a rush for users simply because of the simulacra effect of embodiment. People enjoy flying because they get to fly over rooftops, not doors. In other words, Betsy's title "Enough of the Simulacra Already" is dead on for summarizing the criticism here -- and I think the response from the VW communities might be "But the whole *point* of VWs is the simulacra".

I really wondered what William Mitchell would have made of the whole thing? I'm sure he would have been interested-- anyone know him?

Posted Oct 14, 2005 9:12:48 AM | link

Jim Purbrick says:

I remember being a bit dissapointed that a lot of Second Life seemed to be just a huge shopping mall full of bling, but the environment is a reflection of the fantasies of the residents. Some want to be furry, some want eroticism a lot of people just want the things they can't have in real life, like a house on a hill, by the sea with a sloping roof. Once people get more used to virtual worlds and the freedoms they allow maybe people's fantasies will become more exotic and the worlds will change with them.

Posted Oct 14, 2005 9:43:23 AM | link

Dead_Mertz says:

Sorry to be the low-brow here, but where was ONS-Ascendancy (UT2004) or Iron Yard (Q3A)??? How about a ol' Rocket Arena map as well? I'm all for exploring architectural possibilites and innovations in a virtual space, but if you want everyday virtual public spaces, game maps should be considered. While most look down their noses at the work being done in the mapping community, mappers have a fair amount of considerations when creating a space. And while most of these are focused around game mechanics, there are architectural issues to providing a space people play in.

Every competiton has its growing pains - I believe this one has a lot of promise and look forward to a widened/wisened competition next year.

Posted Oct 14, 2005 10:26:07 AM | link

greglas says:

Game maps might actually be *more* interesting examples of VW architecture, because they're designed to be spatially utilized. One really gets to know spaces well in FPS, because so much depends on the spaces.

In PC Gamer Sept 2005, p 90-91, for instance, they had pictures of Battlefield 2 maps, with arrows pointing out sneaky ways to exploit the architecture -- where to go, where not to go. Really interesting stuff -- though very much constrained to simulation of real space.

Posted Oct 14, 2005 10:56:25 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

lewy>On the contrary, it's the participants who submitted projects which were essentially real world buildings and structures that were treating the competition as a glorified CAD project.

Oh, I agree that many of the participants were just as unable to innovate as some of the judges seemed unable to recognise those that did innovate.

It's still early days.

Richard

Posted Oct 15, 2005 7:38:49 AM | link

Lordfly Digeridoo says:

I guess the question remains, then: What is the final point of VW architecture? At what point will designers and architects go "ah, the Metaverse is here"?

If we follow it to its logical conclusion, we get the complete absence of architecture; after all, in this brave new world, you dont' have a need for walls, stairs, chairs, floors, or ceilings. Instead, we all get a black screen, where points of information and social contacts float about in an intelligent pattern. You don't need avatars because your friends are represented by floating text boxes (or if we want to get extremely futuristic, psuedo-3d video projections), right next to the floating stock quotes and the floating google page.

When the Metaverse arrives there is the day I leave, because while that might sound like heaven to virtual architecture students, the rest of us will have moved on to something more grounded in reality.

LF

Posted Oct 15, 2005 9:15:23 AM | link

Hiro Pendragon says:

Richard Bartle>Next year, just send them something computer-generated.

Hahaha! I am envisioning a new genre of Turing test: "Is the architect of this structure a human or a computer program?"

Posted Oct 15, 2005 2:00:08 PM | link

Elle Pollack says:

However, LF, as long as our Metaverse relies on 3D avatars that look more or less like people, I don't see that happening anytime soon. I'll explain why I think so but I'd be curious to hear whether anyone has had similar experiences.

Case in point: me. When I'm in SL, for example, If I'm having a long conversation with people, I'll start to get uncomfortable if we're just standing around for a long time and look for a place to sit. I even have the "floating-yoga" animation tied into a gesture so I can be "seated" even in an area where there's no chairs (or the avalible seating is full). In real life, of course (unless I were to get some of qDot Bunnyhug's cool gadgets, see recent New World Notes for the link), I'm planted firmly in my chair. But my avatar's behavior in that respect matches my RL tendacies. This doesn't happen in a text enviroment (MUCK, IRC, etc.), adding graphics to the mix changes the perception greatly.

We project much of our real life selves onto our virtual representations...I think to some degree in both graphical and textual representations, but in different ways. It may not happen for everyone...some people, for example, could never "get" the appeal of simulating physical, romantic acts within the virtual world or being "turned on" by a bunch of pixels. For those that do, it happens in a rather similar way to that in which a young child might identify with dolls or action figures, which is why I tend to refer to the whole idea in my head as "the dollhouse effect".

Posted Oct 15, 2005 3:44:51 PM | link

Elizabeth Dalton says:

When I read this in my blog reader, I had to come to check out the comments. Several people pointed out my immediate reaction, in one form or another: we're limited by what our VWs can do. Jim Purbrick wrote, "Once people get more used to virtual worlds and the freedoms they allow maybe people's fantasies will become more exotic and the worlds will change with them." Guess what -- there's an active bunch of Second Lifers who've been agitating for more different kinds of world environments for quite a while now, from better undersea development tools to space "sims" to alien worlds. It's not a lack of interest on the part of the user community that results in the large number of lakeside houses on hills with sloping roofs. It's the fact that we have to use tricks to get anything different. (And if you want to float in space, surrounded by points of light, try the meditation chamber in the InnerLife project in Tavarua.)

Elle Pollack wrote: "I even have the "floating-yoga" animation tied into a gesture so I can be "seated" even in an area where there's no chairs (or the avalible seating is full)." You too? (My shortcut is /float.) It is funny-- our bodies are resting in chairs already, but we feel uncomfortable after a while, watching our avatars stand. I'm wondering now... if we made a yawning animation, would people watching other avatars yawn start to yawn in RL? How about if their own avatar yawned occasionally? Would the RL players get sleepy? (I'm starting to yawn just thinking about it.)

Elizabeth/neko

Posted Oct 15, 2005 6:51:49 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Elizabeth Dalton>Guess what -- there's an active bunch of Second Lifers who've been agitating for more different kinds of world environments for quite a while now, from better undersea development tools to space "sims" to alien worlds.

These are just the beginning of what is possible. We can change physics in these worlds! Pushing to extend the simulation of the real world, or even of the real universe, is only the start.

Richard

Posted Oct 17, 2005 2:16:31 AM | link

Hiro Pendragon says:

Richard>These are just the beginning of what is possible. We can change physics in these worlds! Pushing to extend the simulation of the real world, or even of the real universe, is only the start.

Absolutely! We had a discussion in the SL feature suggestion forum many months ago about this. I think it's obvious that if the future of SL is APIs and allowing others to host servers, then it logically follows that people will want to better customize their environment.

Link to the thread:
http://forums.secondlife.com/showthread.php?t=24120

Posted Oct 17, 2005 2:52:05 AM | link

Mike Rozak says:

Random comment...

Architects in RL use static materials (wood, steel, concrete, glass, etc.) to build spaces. Architects in VW use dynamic materials (images, sounds, code) to build spaces.

RL architects are constrained by physics. A VW architect is not constrained by physics, but in control of it.

Therefore, if you assume that the purpose of a RL architect is to use concrete, steel, etc. constrained by the laws of physics (namely gravity) to create public spaces for purpose X, then a VW architect uses imagery, sound, and code to create a "space" for purpose X.

If you insist on architecture in VW's as being "buildings" in the traditional sense, or even "spaces" in the traditional sense, then you're not taking advantage of the fact that space and physics does not exist in VWs except as a convenience/crutch.

By the way, RL architects will have to deal with some of these issues when video-wallpaper (a non-existant technology) becomes affordable, and all the rooms' surfaces can be used to display images/animations.

Posted Oct 17, 2005 3:37:39 AM | link

lewy says:

Maxx Monde wrote:

"Did you miss that part? Everyone is saying it, over and over. We're not there yet, but once we are - exciting things will happen."

Actually I'm one of those who's pointing out that VW's are in their infancy. Scroll back up through the comments and you'll see my comment linking the development of VW's to the development of movies.

Posted Oct 17, 2005 7:26:24 PM | link

Prokofy Neva says:

I, too, was disappointed by the judges' selections and also by most of the entries themselves -- but for reasons having not to do so much with the specific virtual architecture but with the social and political implications of their appropriation and usage of space.

While I can take a kind of pride that someone from Second Life won, I don't believe the appropriate entry was chosen.

First, the concept of a "public space" implies above all that *there is a *public using it.* This putative public would have been involved in the creation of the public space in some way and would be interacting in the space over time.

In RL, such "ownership" of a public space would happen through elected governments or via private corporations that still feel the need in many cases to adapt or allow for public use of their buildings, i.e. skyscrapers in New York City that still have public-access parks and benches and fountains at their base where people sit and have lunch.

In SL, the rough equivalent to something like this RL public space ownership concept would have to be something that grew and developed as an actual gathering place. For me, if a public space didn't have a track record of high traffic on it, it wouldn't be supported by the SL public as a public space, but would be looked at merely as the highfalutin favourite of judges with refined critical architectural aesthetics of the kind that gave us the famous arguments about the "turd in the public square" in the 1960s-1970s.

First, the virtual space would have to be commissioned or created by an actual resident of the world, someone with understanding not only of the world's technical building capabilities, but its people. Otherwise, how can it be called "public"? For that reason, I would think Lordfly Digeridoo's entry should have won, because he has selected a building that grew indigenously out of the world of Second Life itself, and is in an area that an actual virtual public really comes to (if I can say all those seemingly contradictory adjectives in one sentence). That is, simply put, people hang out there because it's a space residents made and occupied -- it is a public space. (It's not even an especially high-traffic space but for argument's sake, let's say it's more appropriate for the genre.)

But when the American Cancer Society, a huge and wealthy American charity, decides to come into the world, it is not coming into it as a resident of the world -- it's just using the platform as a technological device, a tool, in order to raise its profile and to raise money. It's trying to open up new vistas for its communications and fund-raising ventures. These may be very worthy causes, and forward-looking charities, educational institutions, even governments could be commended for researching and using the possibilities of Second Life and other VWs.

But these entities don't live in the world...at least not yet. In fact, quite often, what they do is come and go. The build for Relay for Life was entirely dictated as an outside venture, sprung full-blown only for that race, then dismantled. In fact, the winner himself said casually that the actual building was "outsourced" -- that is, it was just viewed as a project space and a set of tools, not a world with a public, and a public space that would interact over time. That's how it felt to me.

The Relay for Life was put on Linden sims -- not run through the world itself through all kinds of interesting user-built properties that have been built up over time and have character and a sense of place. The build was just for those three days, and therefore had a kind of hurried, ersatz, fake feel -- a shipyard or docks or bidge which no one ever really had spent any time living and moving and having their being on as a form of second life, but just a prop, a stage setting, for the big ad campaign run by ACS.

It's a noble cause and all that, and some people no doubt had meaningful experiences within SL engaging with it, but at the end of the day, it is a RL venture using the platform imposing from the outside, from the top, with a considerable budget (of time or money), not the user-created "it's your imagination" kind of world that SL is touted as.

Can stage sets built for temporary ad campaigns be called public spaces just because they are three-dimensional? I should think not!

Ad to that the kitsch that is displayed in something like the realistic-looking human mannequin figures with an almost Iwo-Jima-like staging, and you wonder how it could be commended for being especially cutting edge?

Even staying within a conservative sense of architectural, a lot more can be done to adopt SL buildings for the avian creatures that we are there, with opening of walls, roofs, windows and less dependence on the door as an entry-point. Nobody is going to want to sit and stare at a thousand points of light gyrating on a triangle representing data, they look for the immersiveness that comes to them from creating a simulated fireplace and rug.

Posted Oct 23, 2005 10:12:21 PM | link

Jade Lily says:

Prok, the Relay was not directed by the ACS. It was organized by the SL community, on behalf of the ACS. Second Life residents reached out to the American Cancer Society, not the other way around.

Posted Oct 28, 2005 12:24:56 AM | link

Prokofy Neva says:

Jade, I'm sorry, but I'm not buying this at all -- because the terms you are using to mean something to you are not really applicable to any authentic notion of "publics" and "public space."

First, there is no such thing as the "SL community". It's a fiction. The people in or around the ACS Relay represent a tiny fraction of this online subscribers population. And there's no one person who "runs the community" such as to speak "on behalf of the community". This notion that things like Katrina Relief of the Relay are happy "community" projects is one of the deepest fictions of SL.

What you're describing in fact as "the community" is *your little grouplet you feel is the community* where someone with a pre-existing RL connection (or game connection) to a friend/colleague in ACS ginned this thing up. It's not some groundswell of "community" grass-roots feeling generated by numerous cancer survivors and their families, etc. That would be utterly fake and you know it. It's just a connection that somebody arranged to somebody else in the ACS who was ALREADY in something called the Futuring Institute, i.e. already a cool thing with a tropism to other cool things called Future Salon, etc. THEN ACS rolled out this huge ad campaign -- which essentially is what it is. It has no authentic public participation. That's my point. What happens in SL so often is that a few in the elite put something over on the entire "public" like this and then claim it is "the public" when it is not.

The architecture is no more authentic because one or two people reached out to ACS first, as you're explaining, and then ACS bowled us over with their hugely funded (or hugely Linden supported) enterprise. The Linden backing, the free sims, the FIC builds etc. all spell "not public, but elite". And it all is ephemeral -- the build is now gone. So much for authentic public space, it was a parachuting-in to a VW to use it for communications, not an enhancer of the world, nor an expression of the authentic public sentiments of that world.

*The Relay Race did not run through the world*. That would have been something you might claim was "community" -- but for that you'd actually have to go out and talk to people, interest them, and get them to give over their land and spaces to participate. Instead, the race ran through Linden vehicle sims donated for the occasion -- government land -- with the usual predictable folks building on it.

Posted Oct 30, 2005 6:36:12 PM | link