Collage by Simeon Mihaylov
Collage by Simeon Mihaylov

How VR and Gaming are Changing Architecture

‘You’ve never used SketchUp?’ a girl on my course once said to me. ‘It’s basically The Sims with extra steps.’

The rise of Computer-Aided Design Software has revolutionised Architecture. Whether that change has been for the best is an ongoing debate; nevertheless, one of its unexpected consequences is that today’s architects and video game developers are working with strikingly similar tools.

In 2013, James Delaney and fellow Minecraft geeks set up BlockWorks. Back then, the company was just a bunch of guys arranging pixelated cubes in the forms of buildings and landscapes for Minecraft servers. Not exactly the sexiest of hobbies to be sure, but the joke’s on us. Today BlockWorks’ clients include Disney, Microsoft, the RIBA (yes, that one), the V&A Museum and many others. BlockWorks has grown into a collective of more than sixty designers. They use Minecraft for everything: from recreating historical environments to modeling proposals for utopian cities of the future.

“People have to stop thinking of [Minecraft] as a game. It’s a CAD tool, and as such, it is the most widely used one in the world.”

(James Delaney)

Minecraft is not the only technology to come out of the gaming industry that is being appropriated by architecture. Virtual Reality (VR) is another.

Post-Occupancy Evaluation is the practice of analysing a building’s performance after it has been built. By observing its users’ behaviour, the analysts can see what works and what doesn’t about a building’s design. The drawback? Once you find out your twenty-million-pounds airport extension has a critical spatial issue, it’s too late, the thing’s been built.

With the introduction of VR, this has changed. Nowadays, we have the slightly oxymoronic Post-Occupancy Evaluation Preconstruction (POEP). POEP creates game levels out of the spaces of the building, simulates circulation traffic, and lets potential users walk around the space and interact with it using a VR set. The POEP analysts collect the data from the way people explore the space and detect any outstanding issues. The benefits are clear. Not only can designs be tested before they are built, but users can compare different iterations of the same spaces as well. (Read more about the real-world application of POEP here.)

Minecraft and VR are only scraping the surface of the profound consequences the gaming industry will have on architecture. As the boundary between the physical and digital reality is dissolving, ones and zeroes might soon replace bricks and mortar.

Our lives are migrating online, but architects are stuck in the physical world. Our digital avatars need shelter as much as we do and new virtual designers have stepped up to fill the void left by architects. Virtual worlds such as The Sims, Minecraft, and Second Life not only allow players to create avatars and explore virtual environments, they allow them to make architecture.

As a consequence, a large number of people are currently designing buildings without an architecture degree. Without the limitations of tight budgets or the need to follow architectural traditions. True, many of these people are just doing it for the hell of it, but some are dedicated designers in their own right.

Due to its collaborative nature, architecture has always battled against the conservatism of tradition. It’s difficult to push your revolutionary idea when another 200 people are going to work on your build and some 500 inhabit it. Today’s digital tools make it possible for any one person to design a building and gaming provides the space for such virtual buildings. A point will come when architectural expression can be spontaneous and individual. The music industry was revolutionised when a laptop became all you needed to create the next hit record. The time when this holds true for architecture is growing ever nearer.

Digital architecture holds the promise of realising architecture’s loftiest aspirations.

What was once speculative, impossible architecture can now be built. The visionary architectural drawings of people such as Yakov Chernikov, Étienne Louis Boullée, and Lebbeus Woods are being brought to life by games such as Dark Souls, Mass Effect, and Destiny.

Purists have always maintained that there is a ‘quality without a name’ that makes a building a piece of architecture. What better place to unfold the immaterial qualities of architecture than the virtual world? In the virtual world, a work of architecture can be let free. Free of functional requirements, free of the laws of nature, of the passage of time, of the influence of tradition. It would be pure architecture: architecture for architecture’s sake.

Or would it?

Are not the very limitations of architecture what makes it unique within both the arts and the sciences? Has architecture not always rested on the tension between our loftiest ambitions and our everyday needs? And is the tradition, the social and cultural context of a building a negligible part of why we appreciate it?

To design architecture without the ‘limitations’ of physical reality and the heritage of human civilisation would be like painting without paint or composing without sound. It would be void of substance.

Still, it is early to dismiss virtual architecture as it is still in its infancy. VR technology is only gaining traction. Sixty years ago, basic geometric shapes were the pinnacle of computer graphics; today you can put on a headset and stroll around entire digital worlds. In a hundred years, virtual existence could be indistinguishable from the physical one. Our technology will soon enable us to truly simulate new worlds and those worlds will call for architecture. It could be architecture unrecognizable by our modern conceptions, but it would be architecture nonetheless.

In every age, architects have taken advantage of the cutting edge of technology. Today’s age is no different. Architecture will enter virtual existence with much controversy, but the process is inevitable. Video game architecture gives only a taste of that near future when we will be able to craft our own realities and take our architecture there with us.

Virtual Reality For Architects