The otherworldly architecture of the metaverse
A cluster of giant blue orbs, with periscope-like eyes, rises from icy rock formations into the sky. A tube emerges from the cluster, connecting a final blue sphere with a door into the Ibiza-blue sea. This is Hugo Fournier’s Blueberry House—think Narnia meets Pierre Cardin’s Bubble House in the South of France. You can own it, as a NFT.
Metaverse architecture is an emerging art form. Like the opening sequence to “Game of Thrones,” it’s rising up all over Decentraland, Somnium Space, Sandbox, Cryptovoxels, and other metaverses. Fournier, a Paris-based designer and film director, is on one end of the spectrum, designing exteriors and interiors as non-interactive, conceptual dreamscapes. Then there are artists like Krista Kim, whose full-fledged Mars House (which sold for 288 ETH—a value of $512,000 at the time) can be explored in both Spatial and VR via an Oculus headset. And, finally, there are architectural firms that are taking on clients and big brands, ideating and designing metaverse buildings like they would for real world projects. Of course, they’re all doing it with twists—chiefly, without needing to adhere to the laws of physics.
Much like Dubai quickly transformed from a desert to a glittering metropolis, the metaverse boom is largely a response to the digital land grab of the past few years. In November 2021, a plot in Decentraland sold for $2.4 million worth of cryptocurrency. That same month, a plot in the NFT-based world “Axie Infinity” went for a reported $2.3 million.
The metaverse is going to aid the IRL experience with more jobs, no cars, and no traffic. Less pollution and more happiness.
— George Bileca, CEO of Voxel Architects
What is being built on these multi-million-dollar digital plots? So far, mostly art galleries, shopping malls, company headquarters, flagship stores, and music and event venues. 3D architects are also constructing villas and mansions. To give but two examples, Aurora is a nine-residence project in Sandbox conceived by Hamburg-based Shift/Studio, and Meta Residence is a nine-bedroom mansion created by Voxel Architects in partnership with ONE Sotheby’s. The latter will be meta-constructed in Sandbox and physically constructed in Miami. (Metaverse “Cribs,” anyone?)
Architecture lovers should be delighted to hear that there is a historical conscience at play in some of these works. The graceful work of art director Charlotte Taylor is often John Lautner-esque; Luis Fernandez’s spaces are reminiscent of the great Oscar Niemeyer; and Zaha Hadid Architects just announced their own whole metaverse enterprise Liberland which boasts a city hall, plaza and exhibition center all designed in Hadid’s signature, sinuous, Pritzker Prize-winning style.
Liberland by Zaha Hadid Architects
Should everything in real life have a metaverse twin? Perhaps we can stand to see fewer municipal structures (no fires to put out, no people to arrest?) or gas stations (though, there was that one gas station in PolkaCity that recently sold for $130k). George Bileca, CEO of Voxel Architects, whose firm designed and built the Cryptovoxels B.20 Museum—headquarters of Sotheby’s and Consensys—says he is sure that everything in the real world will eventually have a metaverse counterpart. “There’s a use for anything here,” he mentioned to me. “Even a restaurant can be a game where you need to eat in order to survive, or there can be a metaverse where your [digital avatar is] conditioned to eat.”( In fact, McDonald’s has already filed trademarks to build restaurants in the metaverse from which to order food to be delivered IRL.)
Creativity Without Constraint
So, is building in the metaverse a lot like Dubai, but without all the cranes and construction noise? A launch I attended recently on the Mona platform, called the Ready Player Me Sky Lounge designed by Mobin Faraz (a native of Dubai) felt very Dubai to me. With its neon-lit floors, tropical plants, and James Turrell-esque overhead lights, it put me in mind of both the Dubai Mall and the rooftop lounge at the Miami Fountainbleau.
As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown.
— Sir Norman Foster, English Architect & Designer
Mona co-founder Justin Melillo, who previously worked for Dreamworks Animation and Magic Leap, saw an opportunity to build a creator-first metaverse platform, offering the tools needed to build and own high-fidelity worlds. Mona spaces do not operate on a land sale model. Rather, they are working with partners like Spatial and MetaMundo to facilitate interoperability across the open metaverse.
Mona spaces have remarkably few constraints. The Cathedral is a Mona space that floats in mid-air and is surrounded by a Mars-like landscape. It was inspired by the structure of Milan’s Duomo, minus its roof and walls. The firm is also interested in cultivating outside talent. Mona’s Renaissance Build-a-Thon awarded 12 ETH (over $30k) to the creators of Andromeda Arena and Neon City Streets. Reflecting on the contest, Melillo said, “Some creators are building super photorealistic homes and gallery spaces, others are building vast worlds, and some are building wild concert venues complete with pyrotechnics, laser lights, and robot bartenders.”
Token Smart Ampitheater by Voxel Architects
Luca Arrigo, CEO of Metaverse Architects—whose clients include Airdrop.com and Forever 21—told me about a banking client that inspired his 21-person firm to reimagine the ATM. Right now, they’re working on a virtual machine that will envelop an avatar in an immersive experience. Thinking about his real estate clients, Arrigo said, “Why should there just be a For Sale sign? The sign could open up into a menu of information.”
What other commonplace items and experiences are ripe for transformation? Perhaps a school blackboard could open onto a VR tableau for a history lesson, or meetings could take place in a whiteboard-adorned jungle office space??
Growth Engineering and other researchers have shown that gamifying an experience produces feel-good chemicals, which have worked wonders in education and workplaces. Metaverse counterparts could be fun, and maybe even change the way we view consumerist tasks. Either way, client interest in “metaverting” their businesses is exploding: Metaverse Architects gets three inquiries a day and has reaped $350k in revenue since January.
How Do We “MetaVert” Architecture?
Sir Norman Foster, the famed architect, once said, “As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown.” As we speed toward the future, our needs change. Driverless cars are already spurring designers to rethink the automobile as we have long known it (e.g., putting beds in the back, removing gas pedals, etc.). How will this work in metaverse architecture?
Do we really need beds, kitchens or bathrooms in the metaverse?
Melillo believes that even in the metaverse, there is still an appetite for architecture including beds and other familiar objects. “We have thousands of years living with objects,” he said. “People really do want to lie down.”
Likewise, George Bileca noted, “In our first Cryptovoxels building, we had a toilet in there with no purpose whatsoever—ultimately, it was used for a treasure hunt.” Moreover, he added, “Why do children play with fake houses? Just to play.”
Luca Arrigo takes the opposite view. “I’m not going to make a kitchen, toilet or bed, unless I’m designing a twin space of another that exists or will exist in real life,” he says.
I attended a Mona Twitter Space featuring The Cathedral in which the architect, Roberto Ercolani, explained that the reason he included one section of red sofas and one of blue ones was to help guests navigate the space. “Meet me on the blue sofa,” one might say.
“The Comfortable Room” by Hugo Fournier
Metaverse spaces can also act as showrooms for furniture. Inside Hugo Fournier’s “Comfortable Room,” you’ll see Pierre Paulin’s undulating Tongue Chair. In another of his projects called “La Maison Bulle,” there’s a Jan Ekselius Etcetera Lounge chair. Product placement has power: in one episode of the show “Friends,” Rachel famously bought an Apothecary Table from Pottery Barn, and the table long experienced an uptick in sales, even in syndication.
Optimistically, metaverses will stay subtle with advertising messages, and the “pop up” ad of Web1 or some of the political horrors of Web2 and social media aren’t ahead. It’s easy to imagine situations like Times Square or Tom Cruise in “Minority Report,” with ads calling out to us—“John Anderton, you could use a Guinness right now”—as our avatars move through their days. Hopefully we won’t.
“Mars House: 3 days/4 nights, No. 5 of 7” by Krista Kim on SuperRare
Let There Be Light
Hugo Fournier has not fully committed to fleshing out his spaces for metaverse compatibility. In a reverse-Icarus move, he cites the limitations of the current design tools, especially in terms of the lack of sun-derived light. “Light is what creates beauty and realism.” This made me think of a recent visit I had to Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute at sunset, and how spectacular it was to see the light fall on its Brutalist concrete cubes.
Justin Melillo doesn’t see light as a limitation in the metaverse. Using Mona, he says that creators will be able to recreate any natural or artificial light setting that looks no different than that of real life.
The Spatial-compatible Mars House created by Krista Kim is constructed to be a place suffused with therapeutic light. The first NFT of its kind to be sold, it comes with a calming musical score by Jeff Schroeder of The Smashing Pumpkins, and is an extension of Kim’s years working with light and as a devotee of Transcendental Meditation. Light in traditional art and architecture has long been important (think about Rembrandt, the 1960s Light and Space movement, and the works of Tadao Ando).
Frank Lloyd Wright once said, “Light is the beautifier of the building,” but just how real should the metaverse look? Would realistic lighting add to the experience or blur the lines between the real and virtual world and disorient us, like the Forum in Vegas, with its indoor sky that changes depending on the time of day?
Building a Better World?
“The metaverse is the ultimate art project in human history,” said Krista Kim, who describes a lot of her work as Digital Zen. She believes in building a metaverse with a higher consciousness; transcending geography, race and borders. Especially as more Boomers are looking into life-extension and self-care, she sees opportunity for wellness and wellness education.
There are also innumerable other benefits to designing for the metaverse. There are no construction workers, no falling objects, no permits, and none of the ethical, sustainability or supply-chain issues that come from sourcing timber, marble or other raw commodities. Though naturally, electricity consumption still poses a concern.
“The metaverse is going to aid the IRL experience with more jobs, no cars, and no traffic. Less pollution and more happiness,” said George Bileca. The virtual experience may also help with overcrowding at real world sites. Imagine a metaverse DMV without those dreadful lines, or going to a sports arena or concert without having to park.
Kim also sees the metaverse inspiring healthier real world experiences. She is working with an Italian glass company to build Mars House furniture pieces and with architect Thomas Schinko of Vasconi Architects to build a real world version of the property that will double as a wellness retreat and event space.
Does the Metaverse Need People?
It’s too early to say how all of these competing visions will play out. Maybe there’s room in the metaverse for all of them, or maybe the future of the metaverse has yet to be imagined.
Then again, perhaps the metaverse won’t even have humans. Kim is designing with human connection at the top of her mind—in fact, she first “met” her boyfriend and now-business partner in Mars House, where they had a three-hour conversation while wearing their VR goggles. Conversely, Hugo Fournier never includes humans in his work; he describes his renderings as post-apocalyptic and says he believes humans will disappear soon. Blueberry House, in fact, is intended to be on another planet.
As we inch into the metaverse, I welcome the light healers and the shamans and the ATM machines, and I hope I’ll live to see that endless blue horizon from a window in the Blueberry House.
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