PRITZKER PRIZE FOR ESCHER: REVISITED

Soon, VR will become an essentail part of the architect's toolkit - that much is clear. We might underestimate, however, how quickly this technology will advance.

While it might now seem like a lifetime, it was not even two years ago when I sat down to write what would become my contribution to the first issue of INVOLVED. The article was set to investigate the potential benefits architecture can reap from the rapidly developing virtual reality technology in the near future. And while I am happy to look back at the article and see the scenarios I imagined becoming reality, it is humbling to see how severely I underestimated the speed of progress. My predictions, accurate as they might end up, did not account for two factors that changed the VR scene in 2020 – a global pandemic and the resurgence of two separate cult classics.

FACTOR 1: STAY AT HOME…

The alarmingly quick spread of COVID-19 and the following string of never-ending lockdowns, confusing government guidance and the overwhelming pressure on health and public services unearthed a never-ending list of ugly truths we usually like to ignore. One of these realisations was just how much our personal space has decreased, closed in around us. With our lives being increasingly more ‘lived out’ – eating out, going out – the property market found a way to sell and rent us increasingly smaller apartments for increasingly larger prices. For many of us, our homes became not much more than bedrooms from which we venture out in the morning only to come back to at night.

However, even when stay-at-home orders cut us from the space where we perform most of our everyday lives, the other major space where we outsourced our personal space stayed open – and thrived – the virtual space. Our inability to leave our homes  which have become unable to satisfy any but our most basic needs emphasised how virtual space has seamlessly filled many gaps in our experience. It connects us to others, lets us stay informed through constantly updated news feeds, brings us entertainment from around the world. And yet, surprisingly for a species used to explore the 3D nature of reality to the fullest, our virtual spaces are disappointingly two-dimensional, still bearing more resemblance to the newspaper page than a lived-in room.

Interestingly, the precedent to creating dream worlds that could not be fulfilled in material space far exceeds the period of rapid growth of the virtual – from the many examples on the masterplan level, such as Le Corbusier’s plan for Paris and Will Aesop’s masterplans for Barnsely, Bradford and Croydon to the singular pieces like Etienne-Louis Boulle’s cenotaph for Issac Newton, Peter Eisenman’s House X and most of John Hejduk’s experimental work. While our colloquial understanding of architecture does not reach far beyond ‘a building’, there is depth to architectural theory and the understanding it has for a set of relationships between observing and dwelling, shape and volume, positive and negative space. There is no reason why these ideas should not be used to enhance our understanding of the virtual, to allow it to move from the rigidity of the video games to fuller, better systems that can allow for a multitude of different human interactions.

FACTOR 2: … AND PLAY SOME GAMES

It could be argued that there is already a strong demand for virtual spaces where we could lead our virtual lives. While COVID-19 put almost all industries into precarious positions, one of the markets that benefited from the pandemic was that of video games (and accompanying hardware). And while there were many games that took the world by storm in 2020, there were two that are holding the answers as to how the future virtual spaces could look and feel like.

The first game worth analysing is, by some metric, barely a game. With a very limited gameplay and no clear end-goal, the newest Animal Crossing instalment seems unlikely to have become one of the biggest sensations of 2020. However, somewhere between repetitions of menial tasks, calming music, cartoonish animal neighbours and the ability to slowly improve your home island with handcrafted goods hid a very calming and relaxing formula. It is likely that the game would not have seen such a massive success, however, if not one crucial part of the interactions it allows: the ability to visit the home islands of your real-life (human) friends. While there is only a modicum of meaningful interactions to be had with your hosts, the game nevertheless offers an opportunity to visit your friends in their virtual living rooms – an experience especially rewarding when the real-world home visits were highly discouraged due to the ongoing pandemic. This opportunity is likely one of the factors of the success of the game, which temporarily caused massive shortages of its home console.

The other game worth mentioning in the context of emerging VR technology is the new title from VALVE’s renowned franchise Half-Life. Like previous titles in the series, Half-Life: Alyx uses its first-person shooter tropes to test a new, innovative technology – as the first mainstream title to be experienced through a VR headset. The announcement of the game, together with a presentation of the impressive capabilities of a VR setup, prompted massive shortages of many leading headset brands and opened the conversations about the potential of the VR technology.

While the accomplishments of Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Half-Life: Alyx offer different perspectives on the future of VR, it is worth noting that they are still video games, part of an often formulaic and always profit-oriented industry. Nevertheless, the modes of interaction and new technologies they are heralding can be realised in a wider concept and for purposes other than just entertainment in order to explore their full potential.

OUTCOME: SOCIAL CLUB/ART GALLERY/CONFERENCE

While many video game environments are certainly impressive, they are tailored to provide a particular type of experience. The rare exceptions are the so-called ‘sandbox’ games – ones that define only the most basic set of rules (not unlike rules of nature in the material world); otherwise, they let the players roam free. This allows for using them for more than just gaming, as was the case with UN-Habitat’s Block by Block initiative.

Block by Block uses Minecraft to enable people in Palestine to design their own prototype public spaces. As a result, people who otherwise would not be able to participate in the design process now can take a more active role. There is one more interesting aspect of this initiative – as the spaces are being designed on the multiplayer server, the process of designing itself becomes a simulation of public life. The server becomes something more than just a design tool, it becomes a virtual plaza in its own right, a place where people come to enjoy their free time, share their ideas and take part in social activities.

Even more creative freedom comes from designing an environment from scratch to serve one’s needs. And while there are some architects that still prefer to work with a pen and a sheet of paper, recently-graduated architects are expected to master a variety of 3D design tools – from simpler ones, like SketchUp, to ones that already have a depth of information, like Revit. Is it too much of a reach to suggest that the emergence of virtual reality architecture will push some architects to master game engines like Unreal Engine, Unity or Source 2 in order to bring their designs to life?

We have already seen an emergence of virtual art galleries and tourist attractions well before the pandemic started – allowing visitors to experience the artworks without the prohibitive price tag connected to travelling to see them in person, to visit usually overcrowded places like Venice or Dubrovnik, or to even walk through places currently renovated (Notre Dame), long lost (Ancient Rome) or never realised (imagine the potential to visit all of the failed Sydney Opera House competition submissions!). Used in this way, VR can be both an educational and an egalitarian tool, allowing more people access to more works of culture than has ever been possible before. Everyone could access works of art, culture and architecture – historically a privilege of the few able-bodied and affluent enough.

And it could be a great alternative to global conferences. As most of the conferences in 2020 were either cancelled or delegated to low-quality Zoom calls, an architecture conference, Punto de Inflexión, took place in the virtual venue designed by the team of architects. Freed from the rigorous laws of nature, the virtual rooms presented a mix of utilitarian patterns and dreamlike logic, allowing the participants to wander around the extravagant rooms as they take this new reality in.

While benefits of such systems – for once, allowing for such a conference during an unprecedented pandemic without compromising on quality (not to mention the reduced carbon footprint which might make these solutions tempting even after we are finally allowed to meet other people again) – are easy to recognise, there is a depth to potential design ideas that is just waiting to be explored.

OUTCOME: NEW ARCHITECTURE

This is like exploring a new, alien world – with a new set of rules to follow, as the only restraints to the design are the limitations of the hardware used to create and experience it. Gone are things like gravity, strength of materials dictating maximum spans, energy efficiency – that is, unless an architect chooses to include them. Here comes a possibility to experience not only Venice, but also every one of its facets captured by Italo Calvino in Invisible Cities. Additionally, and possibly even more importantly, gone are the restraints put on by geometry itself. No longer does the architecture have to follow Euclidean geometry or even be confined to three-dimensional spaces.

One of the interpretations of the impossible staircases, logic-defying waterfalls and magic mirrors that M.C. Escher brought to life is that they were an expression of mourning of the divide between the richness of human imagination and the restrictive nature of reality. Thanks to virtual reality, this gap might soon become just a bit narrower as we go for a stroll through the House of Stairs to meet for a chat with friends we are not able to see in the material world.