Who wouldn't enjoy the opportunity to change all the things about your life that you most yearn to change?
This is the question the designers of Second Life had in mind when they built their successful massively-multiplayer online world. Second Life is not premised upon the completion of quests, doesn't require you to have a job, doesn't demand that you defeat any alien races or slay any dragons. The whole idea of Second Life is that you have, well - a second life in all of its minutiae. Starting with the creation of a new you, the Second Life world offers opportunities for the designing and construction of virtual clothing lines, virtual cars and yachts, and even virtual villas. There's been loads of hype, so much so, that celebrities make appearances, and big business has taken note.
For all the grand dreams of what life could be in Second Life (SL), this metaverse, as it's called, is decidedly more geared towards the exploration of post-silicon body modifications than the possibilities of spatial experience free of gravity, budget, and all those persnickety details. When it comes down to it, from an architectural perspective, Second Life just sort of replicates suburbia. In a universe built from free and easily manipulated virtual building units, there is a surprising lack of interesting work going on. Evidence, perhaps, that spatial banality is not just a symptom of something larger, but an affliction in and of itself.
Typical private houses owned by SL residents.
As SL gains in popularity, there have been a few experiments which propose interesting trajectories for the online universe as a productive tool. Near LaGuardia Airport, a real world park is slated to open in the near future. Named quaintly Landing Lights Park , it sounds like it could one-day be that clearing where you lie on your back in the grass to catch views of the jets coming and going. What makes Landing Lights Park interesting is that the borough of Queens bypassed community design meetings, and saved on landscape architecture costs by inviting neighborhood residents to design their park from within Second Life. It's a little optimistic to expect the community would be moved to register, create avatars and learn to navigate the site in order to participate in the planning process. But even given this Build It And They Will Come premise, the design process itself raised some alarms. In the virtual-meeting transcript, the planner explained, "So what we've done is come up with a list of common items that are usually included with parks." He goes on, "We call these items "doodads." Each doodad is a 5:1 scale model of common things - a picnic bench, a walkway, a basketball court." All that work just to hand the community a catalogue of parts? Markers and write-wipe boards are starting to sound democratic ...
Archived from the Landing Lights Planning Meeting.
Landing Lights Park, at New York Law School's "Democracy Island."
But that "catalogue" mentality prevails in SL. It's as if when confronted with the 3-dimensional graphic manifestation of the infiniteness of the virtual universe , people immediately feel the need to fill it with things. So they purchase land, build (or purchase) houses, and fill it with furniture and objects. These homes sit like odd little dollhouses, physically irrelevant and structurally absent. After passing through the abandoned planning forum of Landing Lights Park, we visited a showroom of "prefab architecture" by a designer who unapologetically named his avatar ... um, "Rem Koolhaas." Rem makes his living (in RL) designing homes for avatars (in SL).
The pre-fab architecture-showroom of Rem Koolhaas. The other Rem Koolhaas.
When exploring the metaverse to find examples of these and other prefabs 'out in the wild' one slowly realizes that the main thing which is missing from SL is any sense of urbanism. There are moments of public space where piles of avatars meet up with one another, but opportunities to traverse from one defined place to another are rare. Why walk when you can teleport -- the primary means of navigation in SL? With the combination of jump-cut transportation and avatars which are overwhelmingly more interesting than the architecture, Second Life presents the ultimate indictment of public space: why shape places when it's all about the people, anyway?
Yet we can't help but feel slighted by the ease of movement in the metaverse. By taking too many liberties with the metaphor of an alternate life, SL fails to provide enough grit or resistance that gives RL genuine character. Other games transform some of the things we consider boring in RL into fantastic tasks in the game world. This is actually the goal and essence of gaming, one imagines: that through play we transmogrify casual into meaningful and fun into productive. Nintendo's Zelda: Ocarina of Time famously introduced a horse into the quest-game genre and provided a large world requiring you to traverse it. Here a sense of scale is introduced by the artificially short day cycle and as your character rides his horse across the map you experience sunset, a moon-lit sky, and sunrise which give the world a certain legitimacy. Games like Crazy Taxi , where you pick up and deliver passengers in a fictional city, or even the infamous Grand Theft Auto build their entire premise on the incidental experiences between point A and point B. Not to sound like a virtual Jane Jacobs, but by actively moving through these worlds we begin to understand the nuance of character of the different parts of the map and have a richer experience because of it.
What Second Life may lack in urban experience it has already, spontaneously developed in economy. With the rise of harvesting enclaves in China and the growing popularity of SL, individuals have been filling their real-life wallets with the fruits of their online labors for some time now. With the ability to aggregate geometry from small units and texture map these forms with any image you choose (not to mention the freedom from the typical constraints of the physical world), the possibilities within Second Life should present a real opportunity for new creations. Compared to other online worlds like World of Warcraft , what makes the economy of SL interesting is that it's built upon the sale of wholly user-designed content. That is, there's not harvesting or other tasks to earn you money. All bank is the direct result of your creative efforts. Indeed, with all the constraints of 'real life' and the overhead of 'real buildings' removed, SL is a utopia in the waiting. Or maybe in peril... like most utopias, it is currently threatened by the all-encompassing allure of shopping.
The Second Life HQ of American Apparel, where you can purchase gold lame hot-pants and leg warmers for your avatar.
But there is some hope. Last year, 4th year students of architecture at Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm created LOL Architects , the world's largest virtual architecture office. With the aid of the 3D modeling tools bundled into the software of Second Life, the class set out to formulate the limitations and potentials for the production of architecture in a world where the boundaries between representation and reality are blurred. "The representation of objects as we see them and their measured description, two tasks that are conventionally distinguished in architectural drawing, will be shown to have been unwittingly, and in many respects, mutually determined and transformed." At this point we ended our tour of the SL metaverse, and Heather Ring sat down (virtually, of course) with Tor Lindstrand, RITS professor and founder of LOL. His research deals with performance, architecture and networks, offline and on. Much of his work is explored through International Festival , "a long-term project that operates between architecture and performance, emphasizing the performative potentiality of space and relations." This past semester, he taught a very-offline course called Cities are Made Of This , which concluded with a couple of built temporary projects in Tensta. But this semester, there will be a new set of student inductees joining LOL Architects, so we decided to meet in their Second Life headquarters: also known as, "The Office."
Me: i'm looking for tor?
Kapital Metropolitan: hi heather - i'm tor. good to finally meet you.
Me: oh! i didn't realize you were a girl -- i thought tor was a male name!
Kapital Metropolitan: ah! well, in second life i am a girl.
Me: ok, lets talk architecture.
Me : i cant get my little guy to sit down
[Wheel Fizz is in the The Office.]
Kapital Metropolitan: one thing i think its interesting to see what spaces or places in here become successful or most visited.
Me: ok, are you ready to begin?
Me: oops. what does make a good public space in second life?
Kapital Metropolitan: well, they all share more ideas about social activity than aesthetic quality. avatars attract avatars, so it's more about marketing -- but then there are spaces where people get married, spaces for rock concerts, events. so the visible architecture gets subordinated to a social network.
[Wheel Fizz has left the The Office.]
Me: how do you move your camera?
Kapital Metropolitan: press alt
Me: oh man, my camera has left the building. wheres my camera?
Kapital Metropolitan: i don't know --
Me: i think i screwed up my camera.
Me: i'm staring into the purple abyss!!!!!!!!!!
Me: are you there?
One of the most surreal things about Second Life is that when you chat, your avatar's hands perform a typing gesture, referencing your real-life body. In some strange technical glitch, I have no idea why there's writing all over my avatar's face or what -- in true Archinect form -- happened to her pants.
It was clear this wasn't working, so we decided to move the conversation to a good old-fashioned chatroom.
heatherring: Tor, i feel like the conversation we had in Second Life was sort of a disaster.
heatherring: I was talking over you, there was a time lapse, there wasn't a good rhythm, I was very distracted by the cameras and the space. Our communication felt stilted and slow, and all this seems relevant to the potentials of utilizing Second Life as a space for artistic collaboration.
Tor_Lindstrand: Very much so. I guess it's the same thing as with any communication tool. We have to adapt to the new technology. Like with email, people will find new, often quicker ways of talking. The question is how much time you are willing to spend on developing these skills. If overcoming that threshold of communication is too difficult, the population of Second Life becomes a very specific one, homogeneous. The broader audience will be pushed aside.
heatherring: And it seems to require the same commitment for learning scripts whether you're changing your appearance, choreographing the way you move/interact/present yourself, or whether you're building "architecture."
Tor_Lindstrand: This is interesting, because in life the borders between the different layers of our private space are clearly defined: clothes, apartment, house, city, country, continent. But in Second Life these borders are blurred, diffuse and this is something that is so elaborated. I think people spend a lot more time and economy on their avatars then they do on architecture or building.
Rodolphe Albert & Bengt-Olov Berggren produced tileable textures, and projected the pattern on themselves (who were then projected into SL).
heatherring: But when you look at most of the architecture in SL, it really is remarkable how conservative and boring it is.
Tor_Lindstrand: I was thinking about where this comes from a lot in the beginning: if you can do whatever you want, why it becomes so totally predictable. Then I saw an episode of MTV Cribs and understood that if people have all the freedom and money and can do whatever they like, this is what they do. I thought that was kind of liberating, because I realized that I can stop concerning myself with trying to understand what people want.
heatherring: But wait -- do you think the architecture of Second Life indicates "what people want" -- or do you think it just indicates the limits of their imaginations?
Tor_Lindstrand: I think that we live in a world where the production of desire has been completely overtaken by market economy, and this is manifested so much in Second Life. I guess it shows that the major influence in thinking about architecture today is more through other media than through architecture itself. Rather than spatial experiences, it is much more about images, television, movies, games. I'm interested in how the image of architecture is so dominant in platforms like Second Life and how this relates to how the image is becoming more and more dominant in contemporary architecture, how we consume architecture as much through Hollywood, expensive coffee table books and tourist information as we do through spatial experiences.
Annika Hogsander's process.
Tor_Lindstrand: When I first started teaching at the advanced level, we used game engines as 3D modeling tools. The way it worked was: when you "played" the architecture, you were locked into your body -- a first-person perspective.
heatherring: Here there is sort of this double-disembodiment: one between yourself and your avatar, and the second, between the avatar and the world it inhabits.
Tor_Lindstrand: Well, this I think is partly because of how they are constructed. The avatar has a physical representation, but can also fly and look around in very strange ways. 360-vision. So there is a disconnect between how we look and what we are. And this poses enormous problems when it comes to architecture. Because it is not until we fully understand this new body that we can produce anything that is really interesting. When the architecture becomes more specific in relation to how we experience things then it will evolve quickly. But this will take time, we really have to rethink everything we know of architecture, which is so grounded in how we are in this world and the physical limitations of it.
heatherring: It sounds like a sci-fi scenario: What would our cities look like if a) we couldn't walk and talk at the same time and b) we had total mobility / fly-throughs in vision even as we were standing still?
Tor_Lindstrand: Precisely, and in science-fiction films it always look really silly. But the difference is that in Second Life there are already certain properties, things work in certain ways and when someone starts to develop that, then maybe we will see a completely new kind of architecture. I am sure this will happen, maybe not now or in Second Life, but in some future platform. We could start modelling a platform as similar as possible to our own world, but then we miss the opportunity to enter new ways of thinking and being architecture.
heatherring: But what is the goal? To understand how to design for this physical scenario in this virtual world, or to bring something back to our own world? Or do you see a cyborgian future where these are too intertwined to separate?
Tor_Lindstrand: What we see now is only the beginning -- I think the web will look something like Second Life or at least it will be a 3D space of some sort in a near future. If you think about it, Everquest , which was the first really popular online world, was released in 1999. And no one thought Second Life would have 2 million inhabitants a year ago, or that youtube would be sold for 1.65 billion dollars. So whether we like it or not, we will live in a world where these platforms exist, with or without architects. So I guess we have to prepare, because this world is coming.
heatherring: Perhaps understanding the relationship of the avatar's body to Second Life's world is not so different from understanding how our own body/space relationships are shifting as we wear these technological appendages. Like the dislocation of walking down the street with a cell phone. Maybe one day we'll all be walking around with some device (probably a cell phone feature) that gives us 360-vision ourselves, just like the avatars.
Askel Grip's watercolor mappings. (via)
heatherring: I read about this architect that designed a real-world house and built it in Second Life so his clients could walk through it .
Tor_Lindstrand: Ah, ok. But I have never thought of Second Life as a new cool tool to develop architecture as representation but rather to discuss the underlying structures of architectural production. For me it is all about how I can re-think social structures, work, life, networks. Architecture, and especially architectural educations are very bad in having a critical view towards the tools they use. There are many architects that just specialize in programs or methods, and this is the threat, because it pushes architecture into representation and makes it introverted and stale.
heatherring: How does working with these virtual-platforms help break down those conventions?
Tor_Lindstrand: Well, virtual platforms, as such, are not breaking down any conventions, but they can help us to see things differently. Maybe even think differently. So it's not so much about changing things (doing the opposite), which is more like producing an image in a mirror while continuing to do the same. It is much more about changing the way things change. I think for instance, excel has had a greater impact on contemporary architecture than Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Frank O. Gehry have managed together. When economy and architectural concepts become increasingly intertwined and transparent then the traditional role of the architect transforms and opens up decision making for professions traditionally remote from the design process.
heatherring: I think your student Magnus Nilsson has hit on something with his YURT++. As mobile housing, it's so resourceful both in terms of economy and social-interactions. Instead of buying fixed property and trying to convince other avatars to visit it, why not have your house/identity an extension of your skin, and wear it into any public space?
Tor_Lindstrand: In Second Life, you can measure the popularity of sites by the clustering of people. With Magnus' project, popularity can be mobile, turning architecture into something that you wear.
Magnus Nilsson's YURT++.
Tor_Lindstrand: I think Magnus' project and Alpar Asztalos' have that in common, that they point towards architecture as something mobile and something you perform - rather than stable structures.
heatherring: Alpar's 3D Graffiti is brilliant -- not just for its mischief and street-art sensibility, but also because it utilizes the social properties of SL as a form of research and documentation on ideas of property ownership.
IM: Zulan Luan: What are you doing on my property? / Raplaa Lazarno: 3d graffiti! :) / Zulan Luan: For what? / Raplaa Lazarno: experiment! / Zulan Luan: You are violating on my property. / Raplaa Lazarno: sorry! :) / Zulan Luan: You are going get reported right now. / Zulan Luan: That's not acceptable. / Raplaa Lazarno: OK! / Zulan Luan: Done reported.
Second Life: Your object '3D GRAFFITI' has been returned to your inventory lost and found folder from parcel 'Zoning violation - terrain reset.' at Ibiza 134, 175.
(the same hour)
IM: MIkeypookins Martin: retard
Second Life:Your object '3D GRAFFITI' has been returned to your inventory lost and found folder by 'MIkeypookins Martin' from parcel 'Alexia's and Mikey's' at Malmoe 126, 195.
(the same day)
Second Life: Your object '3D GRAFFITI' has been returned to your inventory lost and found folder from parcel 'Funky Tony ' at Grignano 93, 198.
(the same day)
heatherring: Erik Andren's project looks interesting too -- using scripting to make some kind of intuitive architecture, where rooms disappear when you leave them.
Tor_Lindstrand: It's a moveable and transforming structure -- a great example of temporary, instant-architecture for Second Life.
Erik Andren's transforming structure.
heatherring: I also really liked the idea for Elin Paajarvi's Cemetery for Lost Avatars -- a place to mourn the losses of a friend that never logged back on.
Tor_Lindstrand: The idea for the project came when she started to compare the total amount of residents and the ones actually online. There are huge numbers who register and never return. It's so easy to become a resident in Second Life but impossible to unregister your account. I think the official figures are something like only 10% ever come back a second time. So the figure 2.3 million is more like 200 - 300,000 -- which means there are 2 million non-active Second Life avatars. The need for graveyards is enormous.
heatherring: Well, that would be more true if your avatar's body was left wherever you logged off -- even if you weren't online. Just slouched over. That would be a much more interesting phenomena -- to have the 2 million bodies taking up actual space in this world. You'd really know which places are dead by how many limp bodies are there, waiting to be re-animated.
Tor_Lindstrand: That would be awesome, but I guess not very good business for Linden Lab since they want to sell Second Life as a place that lives and not full of corpses. I am totally with you, piles of dead avatars would be so good. Return of the living dead Extravaganza.
Elin Paajarvi's Public Memorial Place.
heatherring: So how would you characterize LOL architects' approach to virtual architecture? Could you talk about the processes and intentions of the class?
Tor_Lindstrand: Well, first of all - we have never taken any special interest in virtual architecture. I think this divide between virtual and real is very problematic - it's something that we have adopted from literature, especially science-fiction, this idea of a parallel universe. For me it is all about architecture. I think there is a much greater difference between how I work as an architect compared to how Mies van der Rohe worked in the early 30's, than there is between real and virtual architecture today. So as for the processes and ideas of the class last spring, we just introduced a field and researched potentialities through practical and theoretical work. It was new territory for me as a teacher as well. I didn't go in with a clear idea of what it was, leaving the students only have to fill it in, connect the dots. I do not work like that, and I am not so convinced of polished methodolgies and clear-cut modes of production.
heatherring: How will this be elaborated next semester ?
Tor_Lindstrand: This semester will be different, more about social networks . We are using The Office as a sort of open university, connecting schools and organisations to share the space with us. We will be collaborating with the Royal Institute of Technology Stockholm , Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, Technical University in Graz, University of Linkoping, Supermarit , Van Abbe Museum Eindhoven and International Festival . We are also discussing with Pirate Bay about setting up an office on copyright issues. And hopefully some sort of collaboration with Archinect . It's interesting to push the social sides of the platform. It's all about world domination, and we are aiming to be the largest architectural office in the world.
INVITATION: LOL Architects have invited the Archinect community to be in-world critics at their reviews. There will be Tor's class from Stolkholm and a class in Rotterdam taught by STEALTH , among others. If you're interested, let us know , and we'll keep you updated.
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