In place of a stadium or a large field, a recent music festival featured neon-lit floating tunnels and platforms where concertgoers could zip through and land on to boogie.
Some of the dance floors were dominated by waterfalls over 50m tall, while others were marked by rows of giant arches, evoking the superstructure of the conservatories at Gardens by the Bay.
If all that sounds fantastical, it is — because the entire concept was designed for the metaverse and hosted there.
Responsible for it was Fatemeh Monfared, an architect from Madrid, Spain, who founded Spaces DAO last year specifically to work on metaverse-related projects.
“I was attracted to working in the metaverse because I love 3D modelling,” says Monfared. “I love imagining these beautiful and fantastical spaces, which allow you to be super creative.”
She’s not alone in feeling this way.
In another part of the metaverse, an office is being designed that defies gravity and floats like a cloud. Its shape is similar to a javelin, albeit with a thick centre surrounded by a rotating, fully landscaped toroid from which a waterfall drains.
Once completed, it will be the headquarters of Italian studio Mercurio Design Lab (MDL), headed by its managing director Massimo Mercurio.
“As our company name suggests, we want to be experimental. The laws of physics do not apply in the metaverse, so our imagination is free to run wild. Pure creativity is the basis of our office design,” says Mercurio.
Architecting the Metaverse brings fresh ideas
With the metaverse being so young, it does seem like a blank canvas for every architect to design. Although it might seem at first that the sky’s the limit, closer inspection reveals something else.
Even when the brief says “go crazy”, there are boundaries to be drawn and respected.
According to Angel Flores, an adjunct visiting professor at Spain’s IE School of Architecture and Design, and lead programmer at Tanglewood Games in Durham, England, many fundamental considerations remain in place.
He asks, “Who will use the space and for what? What is the impact on the surroundings, and how will people feel when they look at and experience these spaces?
“That is before even considering some of the technical limitations that will come with the metaverse, which can only be formalised as it matures and takes shape, or its social impact, particularly regarding inclusivity and accessibility (see sidebar),” says Flores.
The music festival Monfared designed took place on the metaverse platform The Sandbox, where each space or “parcel” had a size limit of 96m by 96m that she had to consider. She also had to consider how to replicate the experience of attending a real-world festival in the virtual space.
The client’s brief is another factor for her, “A lot of the time, they tell us they had a dream and want to build it in the metaverse — so this virtual world is actually the place where dreams become reality.”
For Mercurio, because the project is his studio’s headquarters, he defined his own parameters for its conception. “We want it to express the advantage of being in the metaverse where it is free from the tyranny of gravity. We also want it to be an expression of our identity.”
On a more practical level, it will have meeting rooms, a theatre for company town halls and, most importantly, a gallery for displaying MDL’s portfolio in an interactive 3D environment. Within the latter, he wants to code it so clients can virtually walk through each project at the click of a button.
Flores says that architects need to balance this freedom without completely disconnecting from reality, “Without a certain degree of realism there cannot be an emotional reaction to make us care.”
(Related: 5 watchmakers going into the metaverse)
Reality check when designing for the metaverse
Designing for the metaverse can also involve mirroring reality — a method Shajay Booshan is well acquainted with. An associate director at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), he has worked on several such projects, including Liberland, a virtual micronation that can be built in the physical world when the conditions are right.
As Booshan explains, “We are only interested in contributing to the metaverse that is compatible or very similar to the architecture of the physical world as we believe there is a strong correlation between the two,” explains Booshan. “The two worlds are best if they are interconnected to offer useful spatial experiences.”
For instance, Liberland has a congress hall for parliamentary meetings, an incubation space to collaborate on crypto projects, a plaza, and an exhibition centre.
Whether a client wants a design for the metaverse or the physical world, Booshan says ZHA uses physical world architecture as the launchpad. “Because you have to start somewhere, it is better to begin with wisdom accumulated over thousands of years, and develop from there.”
He also sees the metaverse as “a sandbox for experimentation to make an impact in the physical world”. By using it, architects can use it to test design decisions rapidly and at a low cost to understand what will actually work in practice and thereby improve by leaps and bounds.
Digital twins are an excellent example of this duality, says Flores, explaining that these are the virtual representations of objects, buildings, or even cities that exist in the real world.
“Many cities are adopting them to make planning decisions, and Singapore was one of the first to do so. It is considered the first example of a digital twin covering the entire country,” he elaborates.
Taking things a step further, Mercurio is currently exploring with a developer in Vietnam for a way to seamlessly integrate a large community he is designing with the metaverse.
One way to accomplish this is by tokenising the properties, whether they are office towers or landed residences. This will facilitate the transaction process, similar to buying an NFT on the open market.
Another idea is to sell the homes as an NFT, with the bonus that the owner can build it in Vietnam, or anywhere else in the world, as he or she will own the blueprints.
Whatever forms buildings take in this cyberworld, Mercurio is certain of one thing, “I think we have not fully comprehended the implications of what this is going to mean for our society and humanity in general. This is an exciting time for the world and for creative forces.”
Eradicating Biases In The Metaverse
Cristina Mateo, Vice Dean of the IE School of Architecture and Design, says that now is the time to design it to be equitable and inclusive.
Why is it important to discuss this?
Because we can neutralise the possible negative effects of biases in real life. Several great initiatives are already available, such as Queendom, a decentralised metaverse platform created by women and minorities. Also, one obvious place we need to put pressure on is the improvement of avatars, including new facial shapes and assistive devices, or even wheelchairs for people with disabilities.
In the Metaverse, how can architects ensure that they are creating more diversity, enabling agency, and avoiding stereotypes?
They should apply the rules they already have in real life that put people at the centre of the design process. Nevertheless, designing in the metaverse without physical constraints can be used for community building, bringing awareness to these same barriers that exist in real life, especially in projects involving social inclusion for instance.
What other opportunities exist for architects to do the right thing in the Metaverse?
A lot of skills and expertise are needed to translate their thinking into the design process, to harness their experience in working with multidisciplinary teams and managing clients, rather than just obeying them. The metaverse should include people with diverse skills and backgrounds. Currently, most of the metaverse builders are game designers. Building networks of diverse talent is a must.