In the months since Mark Zuckerberg announced the buzzword of the future in late 2021, we have all been poised on the edge of our seats anticipating how the new era of the metaverse will change reality as we know it. More than that, how will the metaverse transform the field of architecture, landscaping, and design? SCAPE set out to explore these questions by asking Gustav de Necker from Co-Arc International Architects and Lu Ke from SAOTA to share their respective architecture and landscape architecture point of views.
AN ARCHITECTURE PERSPECTIVE
The making of the metaverse
Explore any city, anywhere, modern or ancient. From New York in the 80s to Rome in the early first century – the world is your oyster. The metaverse offers architects endless possibilities, not only to inhabit and create in virtual reality, but also the opportunity to engage with clients in a digital space like never before.
The metaverse as an idea can be regarded as a future version of the internet that would be an online 3D universe made up of various virtual spaces. The concept of the metaverse has existed for some time in science fiction and is actually not the brainchild of Mark Zuckerberg. Neal Stephenson is credited with developing the concept in his novel Snow Crash in 1992, but other books and films like Ready Player One, and Surrogates have also explored the idea in the past.
The metaverse is a wide-ranging concept with as many applications and possibilities as the internet had in the early 90s. As such, the idea of an immersive 3D world, and how we will interact with it, is at this point simply brimming with potential. Entering an open 3D digital world using an avatar to explore, work, meet and relax is not unimaginable; we have seen these ideas in film and television before. However, it is the making of the digital 3D realm that could be an interesting subject for architects moving forward.
A world of possibilities
One key aspect that an open digital world offers the architect, is the preservation of cities in time. Cities can be captured as they currently are by using 3D scanning technology, allowing buildings to be preserved in this space long after they are changed or demolished. In this way, the heritage of architecture could be preserved indefinitely, offering users the opportunity to explore cities no matter which decade they live in. Moreover, cities or buildings damaged from natural catastrophes would be immune to these effects in the metaverse, remaining completely unharmed. In terms of culture, the metaverse would be invaluable, since it would capture a memory of a place, neighbourhood, or building that can be explored by different generations as places grow and change.
At Co-Arc International Architects we have already started using 3D scanning technology like Matterport to digitally capture our completed buildings to be visited virtually. These spaces are not integrated into a metaverse digital world yet; however, this is only the beginning of the digitalisation of the architectural space.
Although the notion of capturing an entire city as a usable digital space is an idea of great scope, it is not unachievable. Architecture continues to push into the digital space. While buildings are created in real time, their ‘digital twins’ are being monitored, viewed, explored, and visited in the digital realm. The notion of using Building Information Management (BIM) to create a digital twin building – something Co-Arc already produces for each building – offers our clients and our firm many advantages to learn from and develop design ideas. Plus, it enables us to monitor the successes and failures of buildings and their efficiencies in energy, water use, space planning, and so forth.
Creating for clients
If an architectural firm created a digital portfolio of their projects and housed it in the metaverse, they would be able to show potential new clients their entire body of work as an immersive digital experience. This would then allow clients to appreciate the scale, detail, and complexity of the firm’s designs. The architect would also be able to show the client imagined spaces – buildings in their context – and instead of a boardroom pitch, an interactive exploration and showcase of the potential building can be used to win over the client.
A potential drawback of this kind of use of the metaverse would be the amount of work that would be required to produce a digital building that could be explored in the first place. Architects know the time and effort it takes to model a building or space in 3D to a level that is acceptable to show to a client, and this labour-intensive risk might not be worthwhile in the initial design phases. The potential of the metaverse for the architect really exists more in the finalised digital twins of buildings, and the preservation of the existing cities as a record for world architectural heritage.
Digital urban planning
On an urban scale, the planning of cities within the metaverse holds boundless opportunity. Once real-world cities have been sufficiently captured within the digital space, urban planning in the metaverse could have a significant impact on how cities change over time. The possibility to test new additions and changes, not only to buildings, but also neighbourhoods and entire cities, is something that architects dream of. If every aspect of the city is digitised (e.g., electricity, water, and traffic patterns) then, just like the digital twin of a building, the digital twin of a city could be manipulated and explored to test ideas for future planning before committing to large-scale infrastructure projects that in the past would be seen as very risky.
Only time will tell
The metaverse as an idea is packed full of possibility. The way the metaverse develops, however, remains to be seen. Few people could have imagined the impact the internet would have on our lives as we entered the new millennium. Likewise, the metaverse would be another giant leap in the evolution of the internet. The problem is that the metaverse is not being developed as it is imagined. Different companies are developing their own versions of the metaverse that will be isolated from one another. The internet is simply the internet, and we are all able to explore it in its entirety. In contrast, there will not be just one single metaverse to explore, but a whole host of metaverses made by different companies, much like the different streaming subscription services we now have from the likes of Netflix and Amazon.
The idea of an all-encompassing metaverse, the way the internet emerged as the World Wide Web, is not currently developing quite as open and expansive as its name suggests. However, it would be naïve to say that the metaverse is just a buzzword that will soon drift off into obscurity. The metaverse has every opportunity, in whatever form it takes, to fundamentally change the way in which humans interact with the real and digital world.
A LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PERSPECTIVE
Over the last few months, the metaverse has increasingly been influencing many of us to think about the new world and how to design it. Following the trend, a few well-known architectural firms have been inspired to design buildings in the virtual space. For example, Bjarke Ingels Group’s virtual office in the metaverse for media company Vice Media Group, and Zaha Hadid Architects who generated a great concept with their Liberland Metaverse city design.
The metaverse focusses on three core technologies: Firstly, extending reality technology, including VR and AR; secondly, digital twin technology, which helps designers to mirror the real world in the virtual world; and thirdly, using blockchain to build an economic system. Moreover, there are various subsets that reimagine the metaverse in different ways, such as NFT and character avatars. During the pandemic, many people were stuck at home and could not visit familiar or foreign places. The metaverse is imagined as an intermediary tool that marries the real and virtual worlds to allow us to meet people and places – be it in our virtual hometown or visiting friends abroad. To that end, architects and designers are also starting to imagine a new environment and how to bring these different experiences to the virtual space. However, while many designers are curious about the metaverse, they are not quite sure how to enter it and how to benefit from this new online sphere just yet.
The upsides of going online
Designing landscapes in the virtual world has plenty advantages, and since there are no environmental legislations, building regulations, or white or blue papers, it brings an invaluable sense of freedom to industry professionals. For example, landscape architects can incorporate unique experiences within public grounds or open spaces and help structure virtual cities. Since the transportation system is unnecessary, people can also safely and freely walk, jump, and run in the virtual world. Another interesting point to consider while designing virtually, is how these spaces can positively engage with people by giving them a place that is pleasant to be in.
Landscape architects can use ‘digital twin’ technology to mirror real places, buildings, and landscapes as virtual replicas. During this process, they would also be able to make improvements by shaping landforms or adding plants or landscape elements. This could result in fascinating designs that enable avatars to engage with these spaces.
Most recently, ‘The Line’ project in Neom, Saudi Arabia, showed great imagination. The smart linear city concept integrates many high-end technologies to avoid the usage of private motor vehicles and to allow residents to walk freely in the space. Therefore, there would be no carbon dioxide or other harmful emissions that would be harmful to the environment. Using metaverse virtual technology, landscape architects can improve the area from a space-making perspective and further explore the futuristic aspect of the concept to emphasise the end-user’s experience.
During the pandemic, many design studios worked remotely – something that promoted the development of the metaverse as a virtual work space. Many people envision this work space as being useful for holding meetings with other team members or presenting design concepts to clients, especially because of its flexibility. Some people may prefer to have a meeting in a wild natural setting as the environment might be more related to their project, and the client can then easily engage with the topic.
Quality and clients
Last year, I chatted with Greg Truen, Principal and Professional Architect at SAOTA, about the metaverse and he was so excited about it. SAOTA was one of the first design firms in South Africa to implement virtual reality technology into the design process. Architects or designers can immerse themselves in the virtual space to carefully review their buildings and study the relationship between the building, the surrounding landscape, and its views. This advanced process will greatly help to improve design quality.
Landscape architects can use this new technology to design their projects on a 1:1 scale and invite clients to jump into the metaverse to walk around their new home with them. A landscape architect could ‘virtually’ walk next to the client and explain details that the client might have missed on paper. Even better, people who are not familiar with planting knowledge could be educated during the walk-through tour in the virtual space.
Take it forward
In my view, landscape architects ought to step into the metaverse as early as possible to explore these new opportunities. The profession still requires skilled people who have comprehensive planting knowledge. For example, placing the right plants in the right place or climate zone is the only way to make the space feel like an appropriate environment. The virtual world does not only have to be about the high-tech side of things. It also affords the opportunity for education, especially on the subject of endangered or extinct species. Additionally, it could introduce heritage buildings or districts that used to be there but no longer exist or look the same. Building these designs in the virtual world can help heritage conservators or landscape architects to better understand, preserve, and study these important sites.