I like ‘x’ – the x of “Let x be the unknown” – the unsung hero of endless algebra problems. While it’s true that ‘x’ usually turns out to be something like 14 oranges or 22 cents, there is a brief period before the final equals sign, during which ‘x’ could be anything at all. Such an ‘x’ offers unlimited possibilities for the imagination.
We don’t often get x’s in architecture. In the Middle Ages the ‘x’ in architecture equalled the gothic cathedral and in the industrial revolution it equalled the skyscraper, but these are rare events in our history. Now, however, it appears that the twentieth century has one big, final x in store for architecture: virtual reality.
Virtual reality is the art of making people think they’re in environments that don’t really exist, and computers are the toys of choice for creating this illusion. Most virtual reality systems consist of goggles, a helmet and a glove. When you put on the goggles, small TV monitors in each eyepiece give your left and right eyes slightly different pictures of a computer-generated space, hence creating the illusion of three dimensions. When you put on the helmet, a tracking device follows the movements of your head. When you turn your head to the left, the graphics on the monitors are readjusted to reflect that change in viewpoint. When you put on the glove, you have a tool for moving through the space. Sometimes just pointing will allow you to move in that direction. When you put them all on at the same time, the effect is supposed to be mind-boggling.
It isn’t. There is nothing like bad computer graphics to ruin anyone’s reality and these graphics are still very crude. In fact, the graphics are necessarily crude since more sophisticated images would take too long to redraw every time you moved your head. There is still a long way to go before virtual reality poses any threat to the real thing. But that’s not the point.
Far more important, and this is where x comes in, is the design environment that is suggested by virtual reality. It is quite simply an environment where you can build anything you can possibly imagine. There are no constraints and no restrictions and in this sense it represents an architect’s every dream, and every nightmare, come true.
Let x be these environments. X could become an environment where everything was built of silver and gold, but that is far too simplistic. Far better to let x be an environment where gravity no longer exists. Far more interesting to let x be an environment with its own new and unique laws of physics. Imagine a room in which different locations were in different time zones only seconds apart. Throwing a ball across that room would mean that it might appear first in the center of the room, then one foot from the thrower, then 2 inches from the far wall – all depending on what time it was.
Or we could use x to create rooms with numerous dimensions – in four dimensions a three dimensional room would need no doors because you could pick yourself out of that room just as easily as in three dimensions you can pick a shape off a piece of two dimensional paper. But I think that what x really does in this case is expose time and space for the charlatans they really are. In this case, let x be an environment where time and space don’t exist.
Next, x would be helpful in breaking down the constraints imposed by language. The whole problem of “you throwing the ball across the room” is that you (the subject) are distinct from the ball (the object). So let x be the situation where you are the ball and you throw yourself across the room. In such a situation verbs such as throw are woefully inadequate and a whole new set of subject/object merged verbs would be required. There is no doubt that such environments would quickly drive you mad, but viewed from the relative safety of this side of x they are merely provocative.
Virtual reality is often touted as a boon to architects in that it allows them to walk clients through buildings which are designed but not built. But this is bit like driving the space shuttle to the corner to get a quart of milk – you can do it, but it misses the potential of the medium. The challenge is not to recreate existing realities but rather to create new ones.
Unfortunately, the tools for creating virtual realities are firmly rooted in existing realities. Most systems use simple Computer Aided Design (CAD) systems to create environments. This seems to be a very real straitjacket on creativity as even computer drawing is very much constrained by our laws of physics and our drafting conventions.
Nonetheless it is interesting to imagine the day when the equipment improves and the virtual buildings begin to look better than the real ones. Remember, in a virtual building there is no value engineering and no budget cuts, every wall can be marble, and exposed steel doesn’t have to be fireproofed. The problem is, if I can go home to a cardboard box, snap on my goggles and be in Versailles, why would I want to spend good money on a stucco bungalow in Silverlake?