Saturday, July 24, 2010

Architecture and Virtual Reality

1.  Department of the Navy virtual reality training.
We cannot detach architecture from its environment and study it as an isolated object. The sounds and scents of nature contribute to the feelings we have about our buildings. The mood of the Golden Pavilion in Japan is very different from the surroundings of Villa d'Este in Italy.  Neither can be removed from its setting and maintain the same meaning. 

Yet there is serious talk about the idea that architecture might someday, somehow be replaced by virtual reality.  Read various architectural journals like Architecture or sci-tech magazines like Wired, and the idea crops up perennially.

For readers not wired into the terminology, this is how Wikipedia defines virtual reality:

2. Golden Pavilion (Kinkaky-ji), Kyoto, Japan.
Virtual reality (VR) is a term that applies to computer-simulated environments that can simulate places in the real world as well as in imaginary worlds. Most current virtual reality environments are primarily visual experiences, displayed either on a computer screen or through special stereoscopic displays, but some simulations include additional sensory information, such as sound through speakers or headphones. Some advanced, haptic systems now include tactile information, generally known as force feedback, in medical and gaming applications.

The Colombia Encylopedia has a similar definition.  They are basicaly saying that it is possible to create the experience of riding a digitally-simulated roller coaster, for example, that is indistinguishable from riding an actual roller coaster.  The two experiences would be identical. 

3. Garden of Ryoanji.  Kyoto, Japan.
Let's be clear about this:  the environment around a work of architecture contributes to its character.    Context matters.  Time and space affect architecture and become part of it.  For these reasons, VR will never replace architecture. 

Well, I should temper that assertion:  VR will never replace architecture unless and until we reach some sort of Matix-like level of experiential unreality.  (To coin a phrase.)  We're a long way from that event.

4. Villa d'Este.  Tivoli, Italy.
There will come a time when architects will use virtual reality to make presentations of their ideas to clients. The technology is already available, but the techniques are expensive and cumbersome. Will virtual reality ever completely replace architecture? Will a virtual Notre Dame substitute for the real thing? It will only if you believe that Walt Disney’s Epcot Center is a viable substitute for a tour of Europe. The real thing contains  too many layers of subtlety, nuance and detail – not to mention spontaneity and serendipity - to faithfully be replicated.  The muscular movement of negotiating steps, the feel of ambient sunlight on a wooden porch, the temperature of filtered light through a carved screen. These ways of experiencing architecture have nothing to do with vision alone or any form of virtual reality now possible. Architecture is a total immersion experience. A computerized substitute will be a great presentation or teaching tool. However, there will be no Star Trek-like holideck for architecture in the foreseeable future.
5. Vekomaboomerang steel roller coaster.

If a building does not evoke some sort of emotional or intellectual response it probably isn’t architecture. Architecture has meaning. That is what distinguishes architecture from mere structure and simple shelter.  And it will be what distinguishes real architecture from a virtual fake. 

6.  Trekkie Borg.
So, to all you trekkies, avatars, and simulacra out there:  fasten your seatbelts; you'll be riding the real architecture roller coaster for a long time.


1. Interior Dept.
2. David Monniaux
3. S. Fujioka
4. Mmxbass
5. Will McC
6. Bruno Girin 


  1. It will be a while before it is that immersive, but not a long while.

    Some of your protestations sound like publishers whining about how digital content will never replace paper newspapers and books. Newspaper publishers are beginning to crumble, and Amazon recently announced that fully 50% of their books are now sold to Kindle readers.

    Nothing against architecture, it was once my major. I have immense respect, but your article is definitely selling Virtual Reality short.

    FYI - Before you claim to "coin a phrase", you may want to Google it. If it has 1,470,000 results, then maybe it is already in use. ;-)

  2. Only time will tell if V.R. can actually substitute for architecture. I should not rule anything out. As for coining a phrase, Mr. Grayson is correct that Googling "experiential unreality" will yield many links. However, the top links do not use the two words as a phrase. Even so, my pretense to the phrase was more an apology for its awkwardness than an attempt to stake new territory.

  3. No doubt, these and a few more benefits are there in VR technology for several types of enterprises.

    Virtual reality simulation