Architecture and the Virtual World
First Monday

Architecture and the Virtual World by Nathan Glazer



I was only recently introduced to the virtual world, through a fascinating tour of and introduction to “Second Life.” I have also sampled “Achaea,” participated in the judging of some two dozen competition proposals for designing a social place in a virtual world, and while I have not played any of the games which create virtual worlds, I have read many descriptions, seen some reproductions of spaces created in them. I thus comment on architecture in virtual worlds today from the point of view of an outsider, who has seen too little, but much more than I was aware of a month ago before being asked to participate in this panel.

The first thing that strikes one with an interest in current architecture on the basis of this brief experience is how conservative and traditional the created spaces of the virtual world are. This is particularly striking because of the technical capacities now available to the creators of virtual worlds, which one assumes to be almost without limit. The creator of architecture for the real world, a world with economic and technical limitations, seem on the whole to be more imaginative today than those working in the virtual world.

So, in Second Life, a bar when created turns out to be very much like a bar in the real world, even if people can get there by flying through the window, a restaurant is like a restaurant, a piazza is like a piazza. The spaces created for the competition consist for the most part of familiar things like a medieval German village, or a tropical island resort, though some were more adventurous, matching and perhaps in one or two cases surpassing the kind of images one sees among advanced architects.

When virtual worlds evoke the future, they do not get much beyond Buck Rogers in design.

The games favor mythical and fairy tale settings, with knights, dragons, princes, damsels in distress, crenellated towers, secret jewels and the like. Even when the games and virtual worlds tell us we are in a world of the future, thousands of years beyond where we are today in technical capacities, the stories are remarkably traditional: King so and so, overthrown by a plot led by his brother–in–law, in exiled in another world, gathering his forces for an assault, etc. Of course one should not be surprised: what after all is different in the Star Wars series from traditional tales except for the technical wizardry? It’s the same throne–room, with a few more buttons thrown in, and odder–looking courtiers. When virtual worlds evoke the future, they do not get much beyond Buck Rogers in design.

I note too the strong taste for the medieval, which suits these stories of heroes and villains, dragons and goblins. Also I note some taste for the classical — if one is building a monument, it will be a classical monument. I think of some of the reasons for this, and suspect it is that whatever the technical capacities of the new medium, those using it are not advanced designers, and if they have to build a monument the easiest thing to do is pull up a few columns from an inventory of design features and put a pediment on it. (Do all these come as ready–mades that one can just call up? Do they have to be individually designed by the player? I am unfortunately deficient in knowledge of these details, which would be helpful in explaining the results). I wonder too if architects are interested in playing these games or constructing buildings and settings in these virtual worlds. Perhaps CAD fully occupies their time at computers, and we should not expect design in the virtual world to be created by those who are most imaginative in the real world.

This architectural conservatism or traditionalism among the designers of games and virtual worlds is all the more striking when compared with what is happening in the world of architecture in the real world. There a great premium is placed on originality and daring imagination. The functional world of early modernism — the four–square building, or the building composed of four–square elements, the flat roofs, the plain surfaces of glass and plastics — have been succeeded by buildings that flare and bubble, with walls and roofs that lean or curve, or may look as if they are ready to take off in space. Such buildings are almost impossible to present in simple and understandable floor plans. Indeed they can only be presented to clients and experienced by them through computer simulations of the spaces these acrobatic maneuvers will create.

The world of real architecture paradoxically seems to be approximating something like a virtual world in which anything can be done, and in which buildings become less and less immediately tactile objects but rather visions hard to grasp and understand and experience. So a widely admired and noted project of recent years was a “blur” building, all of whose physical elements simply disappear in a permanent mist, and in which the figures of real people strolling in the mist become ghostly. Many surfaces today are designed to change with the climate, or the diurnal change in light. Light itself is sometimes proposed to replace or supplement a building, as in the case of the World Trade Center, where two powerful beams of light were used to create a temporary monument — and many proposed that that should be the permanent replacement for the towers, and thought that would be better than any real building.

The evanescent, the immaterial, the hard to grasp or understand, more and more characterizes advanced contemporary architecture, but the creators of virtual world tend to stick to the tried and true, despite their ability to do almost anything.

So, when the imagination really runs riot in the virtual world, we get, ironically, a medieval castle, or a classical landscape, or a world of the future that was being drawn in comic strips 75 years ago.

What this paradox suggests to me is how hard it is, and will be, to change people’s desires when to comes to space and design. So, when the imagination really runs riot in the virtual world, we get, ironically, a medieval castle, or a classical landscape, or a world of the future that was being drawn in comic strips 75 years ago.

Whatever has been wrought technically, and indeed what has been done and can be done is amazing, it is not easy to overcome the strong taste for the comfortable, the known, the already experienced. We see this in the kind of stories they prefer, and the kind of spaces in which they want these stories to be set. And why should we expect or desire matters to be different? People also want on occasion to break out of the known, traditional, and comfortable. In the world of design this breakout used to be most evident in world’s fairs, where designers threw up buildings and spaces to be experienced for a while — and then to be demolished. This World’s Fair–kind of taste has migrated into the everyday world, and we see it exemplified in current–day museums, theaters, buildings for sophisticated entertainments (though even for these quite traditional spaces for the most part suffice). When it comes to houses to live in, modernism, and its variants, never appealed to most people. Imagination in how to live doesn’t play too much of a role in the virtual world, either. People can build their houses to their heart’s desire there, but I didn’t think many of them build modernist houses. I do not decry this result. It rather reassures me that despite the new technical wizardry, people are pretty much as they were, in their tastes on how to live. End of article


About the author

Nathan Glazer is Professor of Sociology and Education Emeritus at Harvard University. He is the author of many books on American society, urban problems, ethnicity and race, among them The Lonely Crowd (with David Riesman), Beyond the Melting Pot (with Daniel P. Moynihan), Affirmative Discrimination, The Limits of Social Policy, Ethnic Dilemmas. and, most recently We are all multiculturalists now. He also writes on architecture and urban design, and has published articles in these fields in Architectural Forum, American Scholar, Public Interest, New Republic, and elsewhere. He has edited, with Mark Lilla, the book The Public Face of Architecture. He has edited a book on the National Mall in Washington, which is now seeking a publisher.


Editorial history

Paper received 16 January 2006; accepted 18 January 2006.

Copyright ©2006, First Monday

Copyright 2006, Nathan Glazer

Architecture and the Virtual World by Nathan Glazer
First Monday, volume 11, number 2 (February 2006),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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