Wanted: Cyberspace Architecture
Dr. R. Rockwell
A new generation of computer network software aims
at building virtual communities: permanent (or at
least recurring) online meeting places where people can work and
play, buy and sell, gossip and govern, flirt and fight and generally
seek their fortunes.
The first such places are being built more or less
ad hoc. Their builders are mostly innocent of the history
of human efforts to shape the spaces where people live so that
these might better serve people's needs and express their dreams.
Construction tools appropriate to the physical (i.e. electronic)
constraints of shared online environments are rapidly becoming
available. But there is no generally accepted conceptual framework
for their design, no body of validated experience to guide their
construction. There is not yet an architecture for cyberspace.
In a world so new that its most fundamental properties
are still being created (gravity, for example), Cyberspace designers
confront - consciously or not - many of the classic architectural
- Selecting from alternative construction approaches
and materials. The "native"
medium of cyberspace, a finely woven mesh of polygons with subtly
refractive polychrome surfaces, demands more machine resources
than most visitors can currently afford. A richly realized environment
is thus, in cyberspace as elsewhere, inevitably an elitist one.
Buildings based on simple cubes covered with low-resolution bitmaps
are accessible to all, but are also banal and dispiriting. How
can we build virtual villages that are at once idiomatic, pleasant
to be in and socially inclusive?
- Using pre-fabricated elements to reduce costs
and speed up construction. Cyberspace
is made of software, and software engineers have been wrestling
for decades with a problem that is also central to modern architecture:
how can systems be modularly designed to make them both more economic
and more reliable? Here, however, the issues are more complex,
since cyberspace communities are built on a constantly shifting
infrastructure: In fact, the relationship between structure and
infrastructure is all but reversed: how can we design places for
human community that can survive a continual re-design of the
foundations on which they are built?
- Supporting sensible patterns of traffic flow.
In most virtual settings, people can fly.
In some, they can also "beam" instantly from one point
to the next, ignoring all barriers. People may be present without
taking up any visible space, or alternatively their virtual representative
("avatar") may be so huge or so resource-intensive that
it fills a space intended to hold a hundred visitors. What is
"traffic" when the users of a space are themselves constructs
produced by other (perhaps even antagonistic) designers?
- Designing to human scale.
In the virtual world, the role of "size" as a design
factor is disconcertingly variable. It depends on the visitor's/user's
field of view and functional reach, which in turn depend on the
power of the user's display and controls. It is like the shift
to electronic music, where timbre, volume and tonal range, once
given by the physical nature of instrument, become variables which
the composer/performer must learn to control. Issues of appropriate
scale don't go away, but must be redefined in relative terms:
what is the ratio of sizes that must be maintained to support
- Designing new structures (or re-purposing
old ones) to enhance existing settings. The
Musee D'Orsay and the new subterranean entrance arcade created
for the Louvre will soon have their analogues in cyberspace: perhaps
a conference room smuggled into the design model of an automobile
engine, or an entire city whose "streets" are the circuit
diagrams of a computer processor. Current work to build a database
of 3D images (the "Digital Human") to serve as an explorable
setting for medical education suggests part of the challenge:
how can virtual reality help make physical/natural structures
more accessible? The far broader issue is: how can we connect
the various virtual environments we build to one another? What
design criteria can be established to aid the process of linking
new worlds to old?
The would-be cyber-architect navigates this maze
of conflicting constraints in search of more than just the solution
to a puzzle. In cyberspace as in the physical world, the goal
of architectural design is always a place which, while fulfilling
its various functions, also communicates something to (and
about) the people who use it.
Consider this note an invitation - or even a call
or help. Architects have been refining their approaches to this
recurring challenge for generations, and ARCH+
is one of today's most articulate centers of that centuries-long
investigation. There is a profound need for architectural insight
into the task of building virtual environments that are fit for
human habitation. On the other hand, the software community has
learned some quite general lessons about the design of structures
flexible enough to survive repeated changes to their support systems,
and open enough to support repeated re-thinkings as to their functionality
-- topics of no small interest to anyone who designs physical
places for people in today's madly changing world. Our two communities
have a lot to say to each other: a conversation that cannot begin
soon enough to suit me.
© 2001 blaxxun interactive. All rights reserved.