I just received this very detailed and inspiring note from Marcos Novak, Professor and Director at transLAB at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in response to a post last week, “Architects in Cyberspace, or not.” Many thanks to Marcos for taking the time to respond, and for sharing such valuable and timely feedback for advancing architectural theory and practice into digital environments and beyond. He has contributed a timeless, yet incredibly fresh perspective to the current state of architecture in cyberspace.
Here I am.
Greetings to you, Jon, and to all. This is Marcos Novak.
You ask good questions. There are probably many answers. My answers will probably not apply to everyone, but may cover a fair amount of ground anyway.
First, to set this aside: Yes, of course, I’ve known about Second Life since (before) it started. Does anyone remember AlphaWorld? Active Worlds? Blaxxun? Am I there? Sometimes, though not under my name, and not very frequently. Am I the only one there? No, several of the people you mention make occasional appearances to see what is happening there. We’re watching.
To your list of comments:
do we recognize cyberspace as it happened? did we buy into earlier platforms? are we already there? are we authors, theorists, and academics, not architects? Is the jargon inconsistent? Is it not as sexy as we imagined? Is it that you just can’t find us? Is it that we just can’t find you? Have we moved on? Are we afraid?
Good questions all. I’ll try to answer them briefly to start with, one by one, and then give a more integrated answer to the sum of them afterward.
To begin, some brief answers:
_ do we recognize cyberspace as it happened?
Some sort of cyberspace has happened, but it isn’t yet what we imagined.
_ did we buy into earlier platforms?
Platforms come and platforms go. We use them, and adapt to new ones as times change. I don’t think anyone is holding on to a previous platform. What would that even mean? We also build our own. See http://allosphere.mat.ucsb.edu/cosm, and browse around, there’s more to be found.
_ are we already there?
_ are we authors, theorists, and academics, not architects?
This is an old and not very useful distinction. Yes, we are authors, theorists, and academics, AND also architects and artists. The distinction that is more useful is between those who do that is known and those who explore what is unknown — what Kuhn would describe and “extraordinary science” versus “ordinary science.” Once something is known, I move on to the next question. If by “architects” you mean “practitioners” then I am not that. If you mean an explorer of notions of inhabitable space, then I am that.
_ is the jargon inconsistent?
I had a conversation with Virilio once, where he was speaking French and I was speaking English. We understood each other perfectly. At one point he turned to me and said, “you know, you understand me better than the French do!” New developments require new language. Inconsistencies arise, but the people who are working things out recognize one another anyway.
_ is it not as sexy as we imagined?
There’s a lot of noise out there. You can find amazing things in that noise, but the signal-to-noise ratio is still too low. It can be exhausting to try to find the really good things out there.
A second limitation is the geocentric/Euclidean assumption built into most platforms and the GPUs that support them. The computational penalty for trying to build something that departs from the familiar is still too high. GPGPU may solve this, finally, but that is still to come.
_ is it that you just can’t find us?
Perhaps, but not for want of looking. In any case, I seem to have found this thread somehow, no?
_ is it that we just can’t find you?
Perhaps, but it’s hard to believe that anything or anyone cannot eventually be found these days.
_ have we moved on?
Of course, we are always moving on. That’s part of the game.
_ are we afraid?
No, that makes no sense. If we could say what we said when we said it, when it was truly dangerous and genuinely costly to one’s well-being (and I speak from experience on this, having plenty of scars to show for it), how could we be afraid now, when what we said has not only proven to be true, but has become dominant the whole world over?
Now, to something more integrated. I will write in the first person, so as not to appear to be speaking for anyone else, though, as I indicated above, my comments probably apply to much of the situation you are speaking of.
Much has happened since “Liquid Architectures In Cyberspace” and the essays that followed it. As you may recall, “Liquid Architectures” led to TransArchitectures in 1997, which brought together the worldwide community of people working with computers in a generative way. This eventually became ArchiLab in 1999. In 2000, at the Venice Biennale, where I represented Greece, I was among a handful of people working this way (Oosterhuis, Spuybroek, Goulthorpe, Rashid, and Lynn being the others, with a tiny group of others emerging at the wings). By the 2004 Venice Biennale, where Kurt Forster curated the exhibition at the Corderia, this had changed — there was practically nothing non-digital included. In effect, that was a declaration of victory — and that manner of working is now dominant everywhere, in every school or practice of note — but it was also a signal to look for new frontiers. As a matter of fact, I was invited to contribute to the 2004 Biennale with the specific curatorial intention to point to this new direction — and I showed my work entitled “AlloBio” — building onto my forays into “invisible architectures” from the late nineties, and adding nanotechnology to the mathematics, biology, virtuality, and interactivity that were present in my 2000 installation “Invisible Architectures.” It took a while, but “genetic architectures” are all the rage now. AlloBio prefigured them all. I’m pointing this our because it is evidence that it takes a decade or more for certain ideas to be widely understood and embraced.
What was evident then, and is proven now, was that virtuality was going to break out of the screen and into the city, that it was going to permeate everything, and that really working at the forefront of it was going to be knowledge-intensive in many ways — in architectural and artistic terms, in scientific and technological terms, in cultural and philosophical terms, and so on. That knowledge was going to be required whether or not architecture schools or practices recognized it, and whether or not they were ready to make the necessary changes and enhancements to move forward.
For every human endeavor, there seem to be two levels — a high level of self-conscious innovation, the avant-garde in art and architecture, or advanced research in science and technology, and a vernacular level (Gibson’s “the street finds its own uses for things”) where people innovate unselfconsciously. In between, there are the pragmatic worlds of commerce and politics, vital and necessary, but with motives that are usually quite muddled. Second Life is a commercial entity being built by a vernacular population. As such, it is welcome, but it is also limited to moving through McLuhan’s stages very slowly. Specifically, it is still in the vestigial stage of an expressive medium, in which the medium copies a previous medium (cinema imitating theater, for example, or photography imitating painting). A medium does not come into its own until it stops being imitative, and starts exploring it’s own inherent language. Second Life has made great strides in this direction, but has not broken free. Computer games, and multi-user virtual environments of various kinds, likewise, have made huge strides in terms of their cinematic presentations, but are still preoccupied with monsters, gangsters, and dragons, all fantasies of the past, or of a future that is a literal transposition of familiar reality, and are not really exploring all that is imaginable.
The problem for everyone is that the edge of the imaginable in the 21st century is tied up with science, and the mathematics and physics necessary for its computation, on the one hand, and with art, the art world, and the international avant-garde, all topics that most people find difficult to penetrate, on the other hand. Very few people are willing to take on all that hard work, made even harder because the purpose of mastering all this is creative and synthetic, which means one has to learn an enormous amount, and still retain enough energy to put it all together into new configurations.
In the meantime, is is much easier to use the new technologies to make cool new forms and to have them fabricated, and schools that found it easier to do this instead of revising curricula, establishing labs, encouraging the study of virtual space and the continuum between actual, interactive (and, I argue,”transactive”), and virtual space. Companies see opportunity and jump in to make something happen, but between motive (make something profitable) and market (make something familiar), can’t really explore the outer limits.
Still, the wave propelling us toward virtuality is only bigger today than it was a decade ago, and people are born into it every day. The parents who resisted are being replaced by the children for whom most of this is just reality as they have first encountered it.
Change happens slowly. In 1995, I wrote “Transmitting Architecture” — a heretical pairing of words, at the time. In 2008, “Transmitting Architecture” became the them of the XXIII World Congress of the UIA — the International Union of Architects, numbering over a million members in over 100 countries. I gave a plenary talk there, along with Peter Eisenman and others of that order. I said I was very pleased at the enormous step forward that adopting that theme represented — but also informed the audience that their understanding of what I meant, and indeed what they words themselves carried — was limited to a very conservative interpretation. It had taken thirteen years to get to that point, and the full intensity of what I intended had yet to be comprehended. Perhaps another thirteen years would have to pass. This is true of all the essays — for all the things that have already been realized, there are many more that are not yet fully understood. I am constantly amazed at how long it takes for something that is very clearly articulated when it first becomes apparent to become fully absorbed. In the end, I’ve given up on expecting the things I write to be understood when I write them, and know ahead of time that it will take fifteen, twenty, twenty-five years or longer for anything I say today to really be understood widely. Some people will get it right away — as you do — but most will not. That’s fine. That’s the choice I’ve made.
Where am I now?
Everywhere — most of the things I do are international. I publish and exhibit my work in countries all over the world, I lecture, give workshops, teach at schools of architecture and art, conduct research with other groups, and so on. My academic base is at UCSB, where I direct the transLAB and am involved in the AlloSphere. My affiliations there are with MAT (Media Art and Technology), Art, and CNSI (California NanoSystems Institute). You can find out about all this online, and there’s even a TED talk describing some of our work. The program is research-oriented, graduate only, and primarily doctoral. It is noted for its combined technical and artistic rigor, and aims to produce the sorts of researchers, artists, and practitioners who can actually flesh out and extend the sorts of cyberspace described in those essays.
The transLAB, the AlloSphere itself, MAT as a unique entity of extraordinary colleagues, our overall PhD program, and my “Transvergence” doctoral emphasis are all dedicated steps in the serious advancement of what the “visionary” essays outlined. We have not vanished — far from it — we have been building in the most serious way possible. Each of these steps has taken years to set up. The hardest but most gratifying part is that it takes years to help a student (even one who is already both technically skilled and talented in several areas) become fully agile in moving across all modalities at an level — but we have done this, too, and we are now graduating some incredibly strong individuals who are beginning to head their own labs and practices, on an international level. We are also building bridges with these and other labs, and establishing the necessary international network for pursuing this work.
Having the right people in the right places with the right preparation, and at the right time in terms of technological resources is something we could only dream of two decades ago, or even just ten years ago. This is an incredible times to be doing this work.
My phone has massively more 3D power than the campus “supercomputer” had when I was a student. GPS, WiFi, devices, processing, software, standards, and, most of all awareness and openness are ubiquitous. If anything, there is an overabundance of riches, and being able to discern what is truly new in all this is perhaps what is most necessary now. For this, I have chosen the prefix “allo~” as a filter — meaning “the other, of another kind.” That is what we are focused on — how do new technologies enable the “allo~”? And how do we build the “allo~” to a high standard, learning from the past but always aiming to the future?
Most of all, then, as now, the main concern was what I call “worldmaking” — in both fictional and actual senses. We make worlds — our global world, our personal worlds, our imaginary worlds. How to make a world is an artistic and an engineering challenge, an expression of one’s inner stance and psychology, but also statement about one’s politics and citizenship. As such, cyberspace, can’t be contained — not only do we move into it, it also moves out to us. Today’s connected world — wireless everything, GPS, devices, social media, and all the rest point to the overlap of actual and virtual. Cities have become displays. The library of media on my iPhone is rapidly catching up with my extensive physical library. If I include all that I can access of download on demand, it has surely surpassed it already.
Why am I saying this?
First, to suggest that as much as the world should come to Second Life (or any such place), Second Life needs to come to the world — in small and large ways, via smartphones or via building-as-screens, and, increasingly, via space-as-interface, immersive virtual worlds need to be “everted’ everywhere, so that they can mix with life wherever it happens — hence, everywhere. When that happens, Second Life may not look like Second Life anymore — it may be a much more abstract representation, but one that is much more integrated to how we live.
Second, to suggest that Second Life must focus on those things that do NOT resemble the familiar but to explore those that embody that which we could in no other way experience. There is always a frontier, and cyberspace — at least the interesting, non-commodified aspect of cyberspace that is the topic of advanced research and of avant-garde explorations — is always on the other side of the familiar. That’s what the prefix “allo~” that I used in naming the AlloSphere means.
Third, none of this makes any sense if our efforts are uncritical and the world that we are making in general is not examined and illuminated by our efforts. Cyberspace must combine forces with all the efforts to make our relation to nature, the planet, and each other, sane, and sustainable.
The MAK Center recently invited a group of architects, artists, urbanists, and others, to contribute an “urban futures manifesto.” These are collected in a book that was just published (see information, below).
My contribution is entitled “AlloPolis: A Transvergent Manifesto For Urban Futures” — and brings together many of the concerns about the world we are building and what suggestions I have for what needs to be done. I don’t think cyberspace can really have significance if it doesn’t engage the full scope of our reality, and this is an attempt to articulate that bigger picture.
Much of the work I have been doing over the past few years comes under the heading of “tranvergence” — first as a concept, and now as the core of the doctoral courses I teach. An introduction to these ideas, and a link to my previous expression of cyberspace can be found here:
I do not know if I have addressed all your questions. Hopefully, I have touched upon most of what you speak of.
I am pleased that you are interested in this topic and energetic enough to create a site and dialog about it. I am delighted that you represent a community, and encouraged by it. Keep building, keep shifting the balance. It takes time, but, in time, things accumulate!
I’m sorry we may have seemed distant or removed. That’s not the case — this is a long term effort, and involves a sort of intellectual “capacitance” — a loading up of energy before each major spark. The longer the silence, the greater the spark.
There are many new materials in the works, and much that might have appeared in articles or chapters will appear in books and new online forms. Stay tuned.
With best regards,