House Call

 

Slideshow HERE

While colleagues, friends, family members and even fellow avatars may question my sanity for transitioning from a real-world architectural practice into virtual architecture, I felt reasonably assured I had made the right decision when I was assigned the role of Virtual Architect of the Capitol, toward the design and construction of the new United States House of Representatives in Second Life. To be sure, this was an extraordinary team effort of dozens of brilliant people who helped make this project a success. A more all-inclusive post delineating the day-to-day progress and credit of this project is certainly in order. But to stay within the thesis of this blog, I intend to describe some of the thinking behind the architecture of this project and what my hopes are for the future of the virtual House with this post. I hope to post a more comprehensive description of the entire proejct on Clear ink’s blog.

To start with, building an exact replica of the House (in 10 days) was not only impractical, but also inappropriate for a virtual environment. Exact replication of real-world architecture certainly has its place as a tool for the architectural profession, but building a carbon-copy of the real House, in this case, would be to miss the point of virtual environments altogether.

At the same time, a radical departure from the architecture of the real House would also miss the mark. Somehow, we needed to evoke the essence, and a sense of familiarity of the real House, while at the same time recognizing the freedom and opportunity of virtual environments.

In blog-manifestos past, I’ve shared my thoughts about the psychology of virtual way finding; and the need, in certain cases, to replicate recognizable real-world patterns. But where is the line between virtual interface that confuse the average user, and builds that replicate the real-world to such a degree that they feel claustrophobic and impede camera control?

The open-air build that resulted from our design deliberations seemed fit to represent a certain openness and accessibility of the new virtual House. I hoped the cascading stairs surrounding the chamber would help the place feel open and welcoming. Kiwini land-shaped ‘The Hill’, creating a sense of anticipation upon arrival as you climb (or fly) up the stairs to the House. The last few steps were intended to help the architecture of the House walk-out into the surrounding landscape, avoiding an abrupt threshold between the two elements.

The overall composition had taken shape, but lacked a sense of liveliness, or any SL spirit. Troi Timtam’s tireless effort on everything from trees, flower, birds, squirrels and so much more made the build come to life.

Building a representation of the Washington Monument offered the opportunity of providing a viewing platform. Given that people can fly in this environment, and could easily ascend to this point with or without the platform, I wasn’t exactly sure how or if it would actually be used. However, it seems to have become a destination, and the location of many impromptu conversations. To Dancoyote Antonelli’s point that virtual architecture is interface (Kvasir Olbracht says all architecture is interface), this symbolic point serves quite effectively as an invitation to ascend, even though the same point could easily be reached by flying. What’s more, it is rarely a solo avatar found atop the monument, but is almost always a group of people having a conversation. It’s as if the very existence of this location acts as a point of crystallization – a specified point in space in which avatars choose to gather. Someday I hope to understand, even catalogue, these tendencies and patterns as the foundation toward a new language of virtual interface – but I digress!

To encourage conversation (and eventual Congressional participation), we installed 6 discussion pavilions corresponding to the new legislative agenda set forth. Recalling a trip to Washington DC I took in 1998, I thought a reference to the under-visited, often overlooked, yet incredibly powerful World War I memorial would be a subtle albeit overlooked inclusion. Like everything else on the virtual Capitol, the tempietos are an arm’s length and symbolic representation. Yet functionally, the round shape focuses the energy inward, and defines another open-air, camera friendly discussion circle.

On January 4th, 2007, Congressman George Miller made his appearance in avatar form at the new Virtual Capitol Hill. The live video worked according to plan, and George’s voice could be heard by all in attendance, a remarkable achievement of everyone in Clear Ink’s tech department – bravo!

But, in this virtual world, where architecture is more of a fluid than an artifact, I don’t expect the virtual Capitol to remain static. In time, the discussion tempietos will inevitably dissolve, or morph into the latest legislative agenda. Maybe the virtual House can shift-shape into the virtual Senate at times? One way or another, this place needs to remain dynamic if we hope it will be useful as a space for public discussion and debate.

Alas we arrive at the most significant difference between real and virtual architecture. When I imagine a time lapse reel of the bricks and mortar Capitol over many years, the architecture remains relatively unchanged, while the politicians and their agendas flow through it like water; whereas the architecture of the virtual Capitol, taking full advantage of its new media, can flow and morph as rapidly as the political agenda within.

p.s. To underscore this point, it might be worth mentioning that the virtual real estate Crescendo Design used to replicate our real-life client’s site for presentation during the Autodesk keynote presentation in Vegas in late November is now Capitol Hill. We’ve since moved this client’s site to our own island with little disruption, but I’m sure the liquid-nature of virtual architecture was apparent in our client’s mind when he logged in to his virtual site after having been away for a few days, only to find his avatar in the middle of the virtual U.S. House of Representatives. The very same plot of land that had been his own private wooded oasis only a few days earlier…

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