Heaven or Hell?

The Metaverse, NFTs, Crypto-architecture, Fantasy Architecture and a word about the Real World at COP26…

by Herbert Wright

Do Androids Dream of Leonidov? (2021) by Simon Tyszko, courtesy of the artist

Big news is coming in for humanity. From Glasgow, the COP26 climate change meeting of world governments will decide if we give ourselves a future or we all go to Hell. (At the time of writing, it could go either way). But maybe that doesn’t matter anyway, because the news from Silicon Valley is that Facebook founder Mark Zukerberg has changed the company name to Meta to be better focused on the metaverse. 

What is the metaverse? It’s an online alternative digital world in VR (virtual reality), where you can work, play, trade, hang out and who knows what else.  Cyber-sex is surely just a temporary challenge to be solved by a start-up in wearable technology. Second Life is an example of a metaverse, but Facebook thinks the true metaverse may need 15 years to develop.

That timing could not be better! ‘Update to limits to growth’, a paper by Gaya Herrington published in Yale University’s Journal of Industrial Ecology last year outlined four scenarios and two of them suggested civilisation collapsing around the 2040s. That gives us plenty of time to make sure that the internet connection in our safe bunker will be secure.

Of course, the metaverse will need digital buildings, so no need for architects to worry — the work should keep rolling in. Sure, a building that’s not physical isn’t quite the same as a real one, but in the metaverse, as John Lennon anticipated in Strawberry Field Forever, ‘nothing is real’. Architecture has always produced fantasy buildings anyway. Competitions alone generate loads of them, because the only design to (sometimes) get built is the winning entry. Historically, some of the most fantastic buildings ever remained fantasy, such as Étienne-Louis Boullée’s Cenopath for Newton (1784), Ivan Leonidov’s Lenin Institute (1927) or Fred and Wilma Flinstone’s Flinstone House (1959). Oh, hold on, I just double checked, sorry… there are actually quite a few replica Flinstone houses in the US. Whatever. The point is, virtually anything can be made in the metaverse! Apart from food and drink, of course. But as any hikikomori kid in Japan will tell you, just order that online. 

Before we get giddy about the architectural prospects of our new life in Zuckerberg’s world, let’s stop a moment and get serious about going deep digital. I’ve previously warned about how we’re sleepwalking into an immersive digital world and of course the 1999 film The Matrix has left some thinking that we’re already in a vast simulation. In the real world, advances by AI (artificial intelligence) into architecture may well render most architects redundant. This summer, I gave a Zoom talk and imagined a scenario where every design made by (for example) Frank Lloyd Wright was fed into a deep-learning neural network. An infinite variety of fake Wright buildings could be generated, each customised to their function, program and site. 

In this month’s issue of C3 magazine Simone Brott of the University of Queensland, Australia, considers NFTs as a vehicle for architects to exploit. (Disclaimer: I edit and write in this fine Korean publication!). NFTs (Non Fungible Tokens) are unique chunks of data that are protected by blockchain and can be traded. Brott imagines architects no longer building but creating architectural NFTs. If a city masterplan NFT is securitised, ‘fractionalised’ and bundled on Wall Street, streams of revenue start to flow from multiple investors building with no connection to the architect. All that is needed is a ‘cryptoarchitecture’ trading platform and speculators will let such NFTs loose. It’s scary. Brott concludes that ‘NFTs will kill architecture’.

And she doesn’t mention that blockchain trading, as Bitcoin demonstrates, is a paradise for criminals. Worse, Bitcoin alone generates a carbon footprint as big as a medium-sized country. Until crypto trade moves from ‘proof-of-work’ to ‘proof-of-stake’ (sorry to get technical), it’s a crime against the planet. COP26 should have added it to the agenda. 

PHASE3 Architecture – Sugar Plum Square (2019) photo: © Luke O_Donovan

Meanwhile in the UK, as well as COP26, we have new visions of Heaven and Hell, both with fantasy architecture. First, an edible heaven: London’s Museum of Architecture is preparing to unveil their annual feast of architecture rendered in cake called Gingerbread City. This year’s theme is Nature and the City. Until December, we don’t know the designs that UK-based architects will bake, but a picture of PHASE3’s Sugar Plum Square from the 2019 show will give you an idea of the event. Already the names of some 2021 works have been revealed. Foster + Partners are making Honeycomb Heights, Zaha Hadid’s practice offer Museum of Gumball Ecology, and PLP (better known for their hard glass and steel skyscrapers) promise a Hazelnut Herbarium.

Oil Rigs (2021) by Pablo Bronstein, courtesy of the artist

Cake is one of the things we find in the Hell of artist Pablo Bronstein, a master draftsman famous for his works exploring the oddities of post-modernism and classical styles (as well as dance). But most of all we see fabulous fantasy architecture. His current exhibition Hell in its Heyday at the Sir John Soane Museum (Soane was an 18th/19th century giant of British architecture). Bronstein presents a banquet of water-coloured drawings of an absurdly decadent city called Hell. Modernist buildings contrast with eclectic buildings of gloriously baroque styling, including the oil rigs and factories that support the city. Is there a message about our own fossil-fueled consumerist society? Bronstein told me ‘yes absolutely. I’m looking back at between 1850 and 1950 as a precursor to what we are living through now. In [that] period we have the rise and fall of a culture based on limitless production and consumption. Now we are aware that there is a human [and] ecological price to be paid for everything’.

That price will be high, and it won’t be payable with crypto-currency, or in the metaverse. Apparently, ‘meta’ in Hebrew means ‘dead’, so what does that say about Zuckerberg’s vision? Architecture is for people in the real world and without massive leaps in sustainability that world will be hell. We need to get real! Not least because, as Txai Surui, a young Amazon native and co-ordinator of the Indigenous Youth Movement, said at COP26, the Earth is speaking. She tells us we have no more time’

Txai Surui speaks at COP26 in Glasgow, Nov 2021. Source Twitter@wwf/brasil

© Herbert Wright, November 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in November 2021 (during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow). It was entitled: Enfer ou Paradis: Dans le métaverse, rien de réel… 

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on www.herbertwright.co.uk.
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