Tools for Architecture – Architecture of the Immersive Internet
Lara Lesmes and Fredrik Hellberg (Space Popular)
Architectural Association School of Architecture
Recent developments in virtual technologies increasingly point to the possibility of a three-dimensional future for the Internet, persistently mapped over the entire planet. The inhabitable internet might eventually become a collective place for all humans to live, work, and play. Based on this assumption, what will the spatial internet look and feel like? How should we value it? How do we make it fair, safe, and equal for all? Who—if anyone—will own and govern it?
In the context of the immersive, inhabitable Internet, the role of the architect is ambiguous and their responsibilities remain unclear. One does not need an architect to construct physical spaces, nor to construct the two-dimensional graphic worlds we now inhabit. Will we need architects to conceptualise and construct three-dimensional virtual spaces? In short, should the essential role of the architect evolve faster, and sooner, than it has ever been required to before?
We see an urgency to formulate possibilities and principles for how our future digital lives—blending our intellects, emotions, and bodies— communities, and values, will be shaped.
We start by studying the current state of virtual technology and how it infiltrates the everyday both on an individual and a societal level. We then identify a program and design a tool or a system that addresses it. We design versatile solutions applicable to generic situations (non-specific). Once the system or tool is designed, we test it against particular future scenarios that are a projection of our current everyday lives.
What informed this line of enquiry and the brief for the academic year of 2018/2019?
Urgency on the verge of sheer panic. Our practice focuses heavily on questions surrounding our increasingly virtual lives and its effects on architecture, but we have always been hesitant to explore this with our students in the past. The immersive internet is currently being built without architects and we realised that there was no time to lose. The students struggled with the difficulty of envisioning spaces whose purpose and character we can’t quite fully grasp yet but we were overwhelmed by the result and are encouraged to continue.
How did this develop and respond to the work researched the previous year?
During the last two years we have had students who went directly against our brief and produced the most extraordinary visions for virtual architecture rather than physical building systems –which is what the brief outlined. There was clearly an interest from students to confront the virtual.
The methodology of our unit at the AA is the result of eight years of teaching, and it has evolved rather than changed from year to year. Our academic experiment Tools for Architecture has been first and foremost concerned with the experience of architecture and how it is informed by culture. This has not changed. If you consider the human mind as the architectural site, then it really matters less if it manifests through pixels rather than bricks.
How important is academia as space for architectural research and speculation?
For us it is essential. We have been teaching for as long as we have been practicing and we have always made strong connections between our own work and the work done in the studios we have taught. Partially because this is the model that we really appreciated when we were students at the AA but also because discussing ideas with our students has large impacts on the way we think about our own work. And you can only truly understand something once you get to explain it to someone else.
Can you expand on the concept of immersive internet?
Often referred to as the Metaverse or the immersive web, the Immersive Internet is used by the unit to describe a future iteration of the internet made up of shared three dimensional virtual spaces persistently mapped over the entire planet and linked into a perceived virtual universe where we might all live one day. As a result, all the content we now experience two-dimensionally –through screens– will become spatial and thus, of architectural concern.
How and to what extent is the research a critique to our contemporary relationship to the www?
As almost every new media, the internet is developing without much scrutiny and we are making huge mistakes which we will deeply regret. Similar to the critical wave towards TV and video in the 80’s, we are seeing a growing global concern for how the internet is changing us rather than the other way around –exemplified by the recent congressional hearings with Mark Zuckerberg or the social credit system in China. However the unit tries to maintain a strong optimism for our future virtual architecture and the lives we will live inside it, but we are increasingly concerned and will focus more in the coming year on issues of digital colonialism and digital citizen rights. As Jaron Lanier has suggested, we may face a global revolution against the internet and the forces behind it if we do not do something soon to regulate and restructure it. An interesting and terrifying parallel can be made to 16th century Venice, which back then was the Silicon Valley of its day, spreading information in countless languages and topics through the recently invented printing press to enormous financial gain. This ended abruptly with book burnings on the Piazza San Marco and a Venetian Index of Prohibited Books provided by the Inquisition. Let’s hope we can redesign the internet as we gradually move inside it without having to go through anything comparable. The question is not just whether we are paying attention, but if we are ready to make a change.
Are there already some case studies which effectively allow one to inhabit and share experiences within the digital realm?
There are already countless public and private spaces with tens of thousands of inhabitants accessible through VR glasses. They are commonly referred to as “social vr platforms” and are basically an inhabitable version of Second Life, which was the talk of the town about 10 years ago. Just the other day we watched Blade Runner completely immersed in a virtual cinema together with about 20 other people occasionally chatting with the others in the cinema about Deckard’s replicant hints and Scott’s gradual decline as a master of sci-fi. All of them were present through an avatar. These platforms such as BigScreen VR, VRChat, Sansar, High Fidelity or Mozilla Hubs are the moon landings in the immersive internet and we spend as much time as we can with students in these strange places. In October of 2018 our students exhibited virtual spaces created in one of these social VR platforms at ArkDes in Stockholm, which are all still there, open for visitors.
How important will resolution be in enabling the success of this new dimension?
Audio-visual resolution is crucial. The reason why it is taking long for VR glasses to pick up in the mainstream market has been the low visual resolution which can make the experience rather discomforting. Meanwhile, the audial virtual experience has advanced much in the past decades and it has been fully embraced across generations. The way we are transported when we put on headphones to either talk to somebody, listen to music or simply quiet down our surroundings has significantly transformed our day to day.
What is truly powerful is the very high resolution that our imagination can reach simply by accessing its experiential archive. When we see something we have touched before, touch its triggered by vision. In the same way, when we hear something with great accuracy, the level of immersion creates a bodily response that, given the incredibly high resolution reached by audio devices, has led to a new art form – ASMR. The richer our physical experience of the world, the greater our haptic library and therefore the more intense our ability to autocomplete audio-visual experience with other senses. Human imagination is the greatest VR device of all.
You talk about feeling, how can this be represented within a digital space?
Places like instagram are all about feeling, aren’t they? We humans really don’t need that much fidelity to be touched as we have an extraordinary ability for abstract thinking. It is perhaps important to consider here that the strange virtual environments we can access today are just a step further in the evolution of media, gradually increasing our ability to absorb information and communicate. A romantic novel in 16th century Europe could create the most fundamental experiences if one only knew how to read the code. We gradually move towards a code-free experience of the virtual via photography,television and now virtual reality.
What is the methodology adopted by the unit?
When dealing with something as intangible and strange as the immersive internet discussion and debate is by far the most essential method. We therefore structure the year around a series conversations such as the full day symposium at the AA in March on the Architecture of the Immersive Internet, and similar events organized by the unit at Innsbruck University, ArkDes in Stockholm or at Zur Traube Janesc in Ortisei. We also have weekly group discussions where everyone participates.
Another big part is to work with the historical reference as the basis for the projects. This does not come naturally when looking at virtual environments, however once we learn how to look we can see the connections everywhere and thus build upon that which has already been explored, rather than start from scratch. We cannot see how any project –physical or virtual– would be relevant otherwise.
What tools do you encourage the students to explore and why?
More than anything we encourage them to use the internet. It is not only our proto-site but also the subject of most of our research as students explore how their own lives are directly affected by their use of the internet.
Beyond this we encourage them to use digital tools such as realtime engines and social vr platforms as mentioned earlier to come as close as possible to an embodied experience of what they are proposing.
What is the architect’s most important tool today and how do you see this evolving in 20 years time?
The internet, no doubt. Both for learning, communication and the execution of projects, physical or virtual.
We constantly make shared drawings on our phones while video conferencing with our clients 7 time zones away or download sunpath data to cloud render accurate light studies directly to our consultants dropbox. Instagram is the architects cocktail party of the digital age, Pinterest and Wikipedia the Grand Tour and online BIM files drafting tables. On the doorstep of the immersive internet we can see that this kind of shift is likely to happen again. We will finally rid ourselves from the mouse and even the pencil to draw with our whole body. We are also not alone in that doorstep but are locked in hands with artificial intelligence. It’s gonna get really weird…
How and to what extent is the role of the architect being challenged today?
The role of the architect will continue to be challenged as it sits in the muddy waters between the technical and the artistic. The early architects understood the discipline in a quasi vocational sense, with Alberti, Serlio, Palladio and a few others publishing books that clearly outlined their method and even encouraged others to build like they did. The starchitect of today has a very different approach with originality and differentiation at its core, which has proven to be a rather absurd value system.
At the same time, over 80% of buildings built today do not have architects involved, adding to the uncertainty of what is an architect for. In the coming of the virtual this existential challenge will only deepen as we realize that thousands of buildings and cities are already being created by game developers. Squeezed between engineers and automation in the physical, and by cgi artists and procedural digital environments in the virtual, the architect will be pushed to, once more, redefine itself.
Clue: the early citizens of the immersive internet go through the trouble of constructing enclosures in an environment in which there is nothing to be physically sheltered from. What are these spaces for? That is the role of the architect.