VIRTUALISM IN ARCHITECTURE
This subject was suggested as a possible topic from the course outline. As it is an area of much interest and controversy was chosen as the direction of study for the paper. Previous research into Virtual Reality (VR), coupled with a particular interest in its architectural application also proved motivating. However, although the direction of the initial research appeared straightforward, after further investigation it became obvious that there were in fact two distinctly different interpretations that could be drawn from the area of Virtualism in Architecture. This division was between whether VR was used FOR architecture (VR used as a tool to aid in architectural design). Or whether it was used AS architecture (architectural design within the world of VR). Therefore this paper will be divided into two sections, each discussing the two different ideas with the aim of applying a necessary critical perspective.


Firstly, what is virtual architecture and how does it fit into the definition of architecture? Dace Campbell, Graduate student of the Human Interface Technology Lab at Washington University Seattle, offers his explanation. It is the ordering and definition of meaningful space as developed in response to a need or program. An expression of society in spatial experiential form. Thus virtual architecture, Campbell adds, is that which embodies and expresses values of society or culture in electronic form, with polygons vectors and texture maps as opposed to bricks and mortar (www.uni-weimar.de). The use of polygons and texture maps instead of bricks and mortar has an obvious advantage. It saves money. Bruce Sterling, a speaker for the Electronics Frontier Foundation (EFF) encapsulates it well. “Nothing ever rusts, nothing breaks, nothing collapses… it just gets diskwiped.” (www.eff.org) Problems which could eventually become costly can be eliminated cheaply and efficiently. Architectural ‘walkthroughs’ as they are referred to, are what a few architects are using as their tools for designing buildings. They possess many advantages. As humans are spatial creatures they respond better to 3-Dimensional visuals as opposed to 2-Dimensional or ‘blueprint’ style plans. Both the client and architect are able to view the same plan, and no grand ‘leap of the imagination’ is required so there are no differences in each others interpretation of the final product. As far as the designer is concerned there is increased opportunity to be creative as the technology provides unlimited possibilities. In terms of specific applications VR can be usefully applied when building homes for disabled people. For example, those whose movements are restricted solely to a wheelchair may require larger hallway space for maneuverability and lower bench heights in the kitchen. These can easily be rectified before the house is built. Thus minimising on post-production changes which may be costly. I3 (Interactive Information Institute) is the RMIT VR ‘showpiece’.It features a 150 degree wide screen which occupies the entire field of vision of the viewer. Instead of mounting a head display unit the environment is shared. I3 feature an architectural ‘fly-through’ of the Docklands planned area for development. This allows the user to view buildings from a multitude of different angles, and ascertain an improved idea of the finished product.

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As can be gathered, much of the discussion regarding this application of VR is unashamedly positive and optimistic with the future of the technology. Thus the proponents can be described as belonging to the Technological Deterministic school of thought. In other words, the technology has been created so therefore we must use it. VR is also largely associated with reaping in economic benefits, and if not now, is seen as a good investment for the future. Thus if there is a dollar sign attached to a specific technology there are inevitably going to be fewer critics, or at least less of a critical perspective applied to it. For example John Tabart CEO of the Docklands Authority described I3 as a “glimpse of our future worlds”. A statement which is if nothing else slightly hyperbolic. There is a large tendency to inflate anything that resembles technology from a science-fiction novel to be that from our supposed ‘future worlds’. However this ‘future world’ is also idealistic and is dependent on many other variables remaining constant, such as a healthy environment, in order to support its development. This movement into ‘future world’ also contains a myriad of social ramifications. Designers familiar with Auto-Cad and other similar design packages will no longer be required to have undertaken a university degree. VR can be learnt in a similar fashion. The result is a direct assault on those architects and designers who have been university trained in more traditional methods of architectural design. Members of this sector of the labor force may find themselves pushed out by younger uneducated individuals. It is also representative of an ever larger problem with regard to the struggle between labor and technology. The school of thought which best encapsulates this idea are the Neo It Marxists. They presuppose that there is a constant struggle between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, or those with the powers of production such as technology and those without. However, the consequences of having formally uneducated architects designing houses is fairly obvious. Even though the designs are in VR, they inevitably have to be converted into the real world, and must respect and adhere to architectural conventions and limitations as well as environmental ones.


“There’s a lot of utopian rhetoric about cyberspaces and virtual realities…It is…dangerously wrong to think that we can run away from our problems by hiding inside our gadgetry. Cyberspace does offer new kinds of public spaces…new (however) does not, by definition mean better.”
Bruce Sterling, Electronics Frontier Foundation, www.eff.org
The second area of contention is that revolving around VR as architecture. It takes the concept of VR and architecture one step further. Beyond VR being seen merely as a tool for creating architecture in the real world, it is itself able to be created in cyberspace. Thus architectures new application is in building virtual worlds. Dace Campbell, belongs to the Cyberculturalist school of thought which seeks to raise levels of communications to greater and different heights. VR is one platform which allows users to communicate in such a way. Campbell is in favour of tailoring the theories of architecture to the needs of VR. He envisages the future of VR as instead of using standard web addresses he proposes the user navigate around and interact with the computerized world as we would our own physical one. For example a street scene could be the interface for email usage with houses representing individual email addresses. MUD’s
(Multi User Dungeons) and MOO’s (MUD Object Oriented), are the first examples of virtual worlds however both were either text based (MUD), or 2 Dimensional (MOO). Presently there exists many virtual worlds or communities on the net. Blaxxun is one such example of an online community that gives the user the opportunity to ‘communicate’ in this highly developed world. Once immigrated the ‘citizen’ is given the options of choosing a specific colony from as diverse a range of possibilities as sporting or spiritually oriented ones. From there you can decide to purchase a home, furnish it, become employed or donate your time to help develop the community further. There is even the added opportunity of designing further aspects of the community so that you can share in the responsibility of developing the world further. From a Cyberculturalist point of view Blaxxun’s ‘Colony-City’, as it is referred, is an ideal interface for people to communicate with one another in an honest, exposing and alternatively a concealed way. In this sense it is very voyeuristic as you are able to become ‘intimate’ with people very quickly without much time being spent on formalities. Inquiring as to the other persons ‘Age, Sex and Location’ are the only commonly required formalities. The computer interface also provides a buffer or protective shield with which the user can retract from if it becomes too much. Because of this there is more of a tendency for people to reveal themselves, and contrary to the opinion that it dulls communicative abilities from personal experience it was found to have the opposite effect.Instead it actually helped to enhance them. From a more Globalistic perspective the opportunity to have virtual spaces online can also facilitate better communications on a business level. Globalists believe in the idea that the world is getting smaller in terms of greater inter-connections between cultures. As a consequence a general intensification of consciousness world-wide is thought to be occurring. Greenspaces was developed by the HIT Lab aimed at linking human senses and minds via VR. By this they intended to help individuals transcend geographical, language and cultural differences. Thus communications could be made more efficient by moving minds around the world instead of moving mass (people, paper), and therefore saving on the respective resources needed to do it. www.hitl.washington.edu.
Similarly with the previous discussion we meet again many positive proponents for VR under the guise of Cyberculturalists and Globalists. However one must also ensure that an adequate ‘Reality Check’ is employed at every instance. As this is a new technology there is much potential for hype to emerge versus actual practical and useful application. Is it merely a new form of communications escapism, or is it a whole set of new problems surrounding by a convincing amount of hype? By assuming that the use of technology is solving problems are we in fact creating a whole set of new problems, as well as managing to avoid sorting out the ones that already exist. Problems such as environmental degradation and a decline in social cohesiveness don’t just go away because we are immersed in a virtual environment they are there to greet us when we come out. As with any technological advancement there is a need to balance out what the technology can do versus the inflated hype that invariably will accompany it.
References
Benedikt, Michael (ed), 1993, Cyberspace: First steps, The MIT Press, Cambridge.


Larijani, L. Casey, 1994, The Virtual Reality Primer, McGraw-Hill, New York.


Sherman, B., & Ladkins, P., 1992, Glimpses of Heaven, Visions of Hell: Virtual reality and its implications, Coronet books, London.


URL’s
www.blaxxun.com
www.eff.org
www.geocities.com
www.hitl.washington.edu
www.uni-weimar.de

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