Posted by <Matt Shaw> on 2022-10-15
Click, click through cyberspace; this is the new architectural promenade.
—William A. Mitchell
Finally, a map that can be rightfully mistaken for the territory!
—David A. Ross
Architecture and its discourse in the age of the digital has been almost exclusively defined by tools that make architecture: digital design, fabrication, and construction tools. This essay will attempt to argue that recent advances in technology—namely game engines like Unity and Unreal Engine—have allowed architecture to enter a new era that finally engages the internet like Net Art has for several decades. We might call this Net Architecture.
Digital Social Space
As historians continue to define the digital in architecture, they often reach back as far as the Renaissance to posit that the advent of mechanical printing and number-based measurement systems were the advent of the digital.This definition clearly delineates the course for design applications, rather than digital environments, as the primary concern of architecture discourse. Other, tangential and extra-disciplinary digital discourses have also centered mostly around how advances in computer-based tools will affect physical architecture, even when addressing larger concerns about finance, politics, labor, and the social sphere. Architecture has been almost entirely ignorant to the project of digital space, or the design of online environments.
A notable exception is the work of William Mitchell, who in the 1996 book City of Bits charts how new technologies such as the telephone, the telegraph, and the ATM changed the way business was done, and thus how the corresponding architecture such as offices, universities, and art museums were transformed. He speculates on how emergent internet technologies of the 1990s such as video conferencing would transform architecture in the twenty-first century. Mitchell’s book has a dual function: it forecasts how digital technologies will shape cities and architecture, but it also hints at how these new technologies can learn from architecture. “The most crucial task before us is one of … imagining and creating digitally mediated environments for the kinds of lives that we will want to lead and the sorts of communities that we will want to have.” While Mitchell doesn’t give very many prescriptions for how this might happen, he did correctly foreshadow much of the internet and its online social spaces as “a new architecture without tectonics and a new urbanism freed from the constraints of physical space.
An early examples of this thinking—that of architecture created to be inhabited online, rather than simply a digital, archival reconstruction of an existing building—is Asymptote Architecture’s New York Stock Exchange Virtual Trading Floor and Command Center. Designed between 1997 and 1999, the project exists as a simulated environment with no resemblance of the NYSE building. It acts as a software-powered 3D interface for tracking financial data, visualizing real time the movements of markets and news events, as well as potentially flagging suspicious trading activity. The integration of data, as an architectural project of reifying important phenomenon, delivers what Wolfgang Ernst calls “dynamic archiving,” where the digital matter being managed and organized by the space is not about the building itself, but rather about making visible these important information flows of speculative capitalism.
Asymptote used 3d virtual space to detourne the increasing digital abstraction of capital by imagining a new kind of space built from and enhanced with data. Likewise, Greek architect and artist Andreas Angelidakis’s architectural experiments paralleled net art projects that were aestheticizing the internet in its formative years. Fresh out of the Columbia GSAPP Paperless Studio, Angelidakis began collaborating with artist Miltos Manetas, who envisioned “as special environment for the arts—a utopia” in response to the digital revolution. In 1998, Angelidakis designed Chelsea, a city for art and architecture in the Active Worlds platform, a precursor to Second Life, where Miltos’s community of artists, curators, architects, institutions, and galleries would convene. According to Angelidakis, “We were talking about the 3D web as a landscape of feelings and emotions, not so much about the content, but about making friends. Out of that came this idea, that was centric to me, which back in the time was acting like social media, but before social media.”
Misreading Carpo [Goodhouse 37], the technological leap from drawing proportionally to numerical measurement further separated the drawings from the materiality of building. It could be said that each time new representational or fabrication technologies arise, a shift occurs in the language of architecture, but also a shift occurs in the process: one that further alienates the architect from the building. For example, the advent of machine production put much of the process of building into the industrial process, while the dawn of the computer has nearly eliminated hand drafting, both of which abstract the process further into a managed system of data to be executed by others—human or non-human. The advent of game engines, and their ability to now simulate in real-time these 1:1 architectural environments, presents a new opportunity for architecture to escape the slow complexity of 3d models and rendering, and enter a collapsed space where representation and reality are the same.
Game engines shift the digital project in three ways. Animating architecture’s digital project into an interactive social project; building on old models of social media through embodiment; and allowing a spatialization of internet aesthetics already in finance, commerce, art, etc. This mirrors massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, a territory where innovations in digital worldbuilding and spatial interaction have been developing over the last decade.
Theseonline spaces are 3d environments experienced on a d screen via a browners. What are we losing and what are we gaining, architecturally?
It is clear that these virtual places lack the tactile, traditionally architectural phenomenological qualities such as touch and materiality. Other sensory qualities such as light, shadow, and space are changed into abstract, perceived experiences that become exaggerated and enhanced in this amaterial, implied space of the 2d screen—Think strobe lights on a rock.In a space without natural light, but with many artificial lighting options, new connections to architecture require a new way of thinking about bodily experience of traditional phenomena.
If the human body becomes the subject for phenomenal perception, and spatiality and temporality is the vehicle which mediates it, then a radical realignment of the bodily experience is possible in Net Architecture through new visual, spatial, and temporal design possibilities. However, we are no longer bound by many of the real-world constraints of physical building such as gravity, walls, or threshholds like doors or windows. We can now experience the most fantastic works, become embodied in them, and interact with them in new and powerful ways. Moving through these digital spaces gives us a sense of time and scale, both of which can be manipulated to create experiences beyond traditional architecture. The boundaries set forth in the writings of Robin Evans as well as Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky can provide clues as to how 2d and 3d space interact, and how virtual spaces change the rules of these traditional notions of visual and compositional experience of space.
Evans, in his essay “Translations from Drawing to Building,” elucidates on the ways in which projected 2d representation captures 3d space. While Evans is discussing architectural drawings, we can apply this thinking to the browser space. He prefers to think of drawings as generators of spatial effects, rather than art objects on their own standing. Therefore, in digital social space, the translation of representational space into the building becomes irrelevant, as there is no longer a distinction. The tools of creating 3d effects on paper—graphic projection, trompe l’oeil, shading, and so on—are now embedded in the object itself. Representation and the actual object are the same. The map is the territory. A new set of problems arise as the collapse of 2d and 3d happens in the frame of the screen.
In Rowe and Slutzky’s seminal “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,” they citecubist traditions to propose a “phenomenal transparency.” Thisspatial condition arises from compositional arrangements of the implied visual overlap intersecting planes. While “literal transparency” is “a material condition—that of being pervious to light and air,” phenomenal transparency is “the result of an intellectual imperative, of our inherent demand for that which should be easily detected, perfectly evident, and free of dissimulation.” In digital social space, both deep space and shallow space are implied. The cubist characteristics of “frontality, suppression of depth, definition of light sources, tipping forward of objects, restricted palette, oblique and rectangular grids, and propensities toward peripheric development” are all qualities shared with the visual experience of digital social spaces.
However, the concept of phenomenal transparency is accelerated in the collapse of the 3d into the 2d. It is impossible to experience the spatial qualities through the movement of the body, only movement of the eye. Therefore, the space is constantly implying depth through the movement of planes in the regenerating representational space of the screen or browser. Furthermore, the implied transparency of the 3d-model-as-interactive-space allows for a range of visual and linguistic cues to be embedded in a hypermedia environment, where shifts in scale and jumps from space to space escape both gravity and time. Now, all spaces themselves are implied to overlap, and on top of them is layered an environment rich in media, creating new possibilities to toggle between space and media that are not possible in physical space. Implied, abstract transparency defines this spatial experience by collapsing media, space, time, and visual composition into one flattened space on the screen.
Phenomenal collapse is the condition in which architectural phenomena are collapsed from 3d tactile experiences into the simulated 2d frame of the browser. The result is a space wherevisuals and sound define spatial perception rather than touch. If for Slutzky and Rowe, phenomenal transparency allowed us to see the in-between space of overlapping objects, phenomenal collapse is the acceleration of phenomenal transparency, where multiple views, multiple media, and jump-cuts created by the full immersive hypermedia environment of digital social space allow us to perceive more than just light, surfaces, and textures. Literal and implied space are no longer bound to the temporal experience of the plan or section, but are now collapsed, while traditional architectural viewpoints are constantly shifting around the user, because the grid and the viewpoint (camera) are embedded in the software.
Therefore, the role of the designer is dual. First, they could create digital social spaces that add value to traditional platforms, such as Zoom, Twitter, Instagram, or YouTube. This is most often achieved by integrating multimedia from these platforms into a hypermedia environment. The second, is to choreograph a mise-en-scene, a filmic term that refers to the organization of stage sets, actors, costumes, compositions, lighting, and other elements of a setting. In digital social space, new opportunities for multimedia environments and new social relationships are opened up, allowing architects more control over space, and more freedom to give users choices in how to move through and around space. The topography of the network, or links, can be shaped through design, as well as onscreen maps, data visualization, or code that is generative or responsive.
1. as Mario Carpo claims in “Building with Geometry, Drawing with Numbers” in the CCA compendium When is the Digital in Architecture?
2. The discreet describes potential uses of automation and augmented reality in fabrication and construction, an ongoing project of Gilles Retsin at the Bartlett. For Retsin, his project of the “discreet” continues parametricism’s process-driven, digital research agenda, while privileging the part or the object as an autonomous, systematized building unit. Similary, “smart cities” discourse, dating back to the 1950s, where computer engineer Jay Forrester had began working with cybernetic approaches that would affect the imagining of physical spaces for human habitation. Today, Songdo, Korea, is a case study for the implementation of computer data as a highly organized management system for tracking city performance in real-time, where optimized abstract performance models area superimposed onto a real urban environment. The scholarship on the digital in architecture how architecture and buildings were changed by the digital tools much like net.art was impacted by the development and eventual ubiquity of the internet.