Second Life

Reflexive Architecture: Virtual Worlds Redefine our Relationship to Objects

I’m increasingly fascinated by the work that architects are doing in virtual worlds, Second Life in particular. Documented and discussed at The Arch I can only offer a naive outsider’s view. I’m clueless as to how reflexive architecture, for example, helps to explore concepts of architecture as a discipline.

However, my fascination with reflexive architecture connects to deepening (and confused) thoughts about objects, interaction, and “physical presence” in virtual worlds. As an extension of this fascination, our group has begun to explore concepts of landscape architecture and in particular metaphors of public gardens and their transportability into virtual worlds. Reflexive architecture reinforces a rather stubborn belief that immersive technologies can be both toxic but more importantly beneficial. I base this on the belief that virtual worlds not only create an immersive “reality-like” environment for play, collaboration, and exchange of information but that projecting forward they may be the source of new archetypes. (Again, both toxic and not).

This is just theory, my own mental model. There’s significant literature that says that virtual worlds evoke different emotional responses (have a look at a paper on Alternate World Disorder), that users feel like their avatars are them (with little separation in personal identity between the avatar and the player “behind” the avatar – regardless of the “roles” or personas, users still call their avatars “me”), and that “virtual/digital” objects have a value that is no more or less than “real” objects (if something is valued it has value regardless of whether it is judged as more or less ‘real’).

If virtual worlds feel real, have objects with real value, evoke real (and perhaps enhanced) emotional responses, and ALSO allow the creation of objects and environments that aren’t possible in the physical world – then as new objects and environments are created, maybe we’ll start to see things that change how we view ourselves, the culture we live in, and the world around us. If so, is it possible to invoke spiritual responses because we now have access to new and creative metaphors? This doesn’t replace the spiritual/creative response you might get from seeing the stars at night or an inspiring cathedral. But perhaps it extends our toolkit for invoking this response.

The printing press extended the reach of writing and knowledge and the Internet extended the speed and ubiquity of access. Virtual worlds extend the capacity for collaborative immersion but might also be one of the more significant media for extending emotional experiences as well – much as TV invoked a new form of community and cultural response (think photos of the war in Vietnam on the nightly news).

So back to Reflexive Architecture.

The following shows the reinvention of virtual surface using the open scripts developed by Keystone Bouchard:


Far Link (Michael Ditullio) developed and comments on this virtual studio: “This particular virtual studio examines the use of kinetic elements as an extension to the base (fixed) architectural structure.”

Keystone furthered his own work with a study of music and reflexive architecture and jazz:


In both instances we have the use of ‘standard’ archetypes and have re-tooled them for a virtual world. In one instance we’ve taken the archetype of space (walls, building entries) and changed our archetype so that walls, the “physical world” around us, becomes fluid, dynamic.

OK – so sure, we know we’re talking here about technology that allows us to do almost anything, but what’s intriguing isn’t that the impossible is possible but rather how our minds move from what we know of ‘objects’ and shift these archetypes.

Reflexive architecture and the wonderful work on Architecture Island and at The Arch bring with them new archetypes – although the space is virtual, it’s a space that we treat as ‘real’. Over time, the membrane between the real and the virtual becomes more permeable. Our concepts of objects (both real and virtual) come to include new visual ways of understanding that objects are adaptive and reflect our interactions with them. This reinforces our growing awareness that the world around us changes because of our behaviours in it – the growing environmental movement is a long-neglected recognition that our actions change our natural enviornment.

As we explore new ways to represent and interact with objects in the virtual space, the lessons for ‘real space’ may include the carrying of new archetypes that change how we perceive, feel, and react to environments and each other. We have the potential to expand the technological and artistic reservoir from which we can draw symbols for a shared understanding of our place in the world.

Reflexive architecture also asks that we reflect on what we expect of buildings, objects, and how many connections and barriers there are in a world constrained by the physical. The concept of tracking avatar movement through a sim might make us reflect on how shared public spaces move through time, and how the ‘footprint’ that we leave behind is very real – having a virtual world remind us of our interconnections over time and through spaces might remind us that the isolation we feel in the modern world is self-generated – we share space, we interact with objects, we build community through the paths we carve, and we might start to carve those paths with more intention because of what we’ve learned through a reflexive building.

I’ll end with a final thought (and offer an apology for my very vague sort of meanderings): one of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism is that the source of greed is illusion. The word for illusion is Maya (the source of oh so many sculpted prims). Does this mean that virtual worlds are a source of greed? Or are they instead powerful reminders that many of our mental models for the “real world” are also illusions?


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