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.