Architects and Designers Should Take the Lead in Creating Immersive Environments

For the past year, I have been in conversation with architects and designers who are involved in the creation of immersive environments. They see themselves as naturally responsible for leading the construction of these environments, and this should serve as a reminder that architects have the potential to take on this role. 

Despite how obvious it might sound, the metaverse has mostly been designed by developers and graphic designers, Therefore, it should work as a wake-up call for architects to be involved since they have skills particularly apt for it.

Whether the metaverse can be utilized as a narrative to claim a changing role for architects remains to be seen, but 2023 could be the year.

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Architects can add value beyond designing digital twins

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“Search History” exhibition, a project by Space Popular in 2022 at MAXXI Museum in Rome. Image © Space Popular

The discussion surrounding the metaverse has led to claims for professionals trained in the built environment to take a leadership role in debates where the physical and digital merge, and where ethical and well-planned strategies are essential.

As part of this movement, a number of speculative projects have emerged that align with this approach, including Space Popular, which has developed a manifesto for “a civic infrastructure to navigate the immersive internet”:

Most immersive environments are currently contained within several layers of commercially driven platforms. You may not be granted access and never know why, or the environment might switch off as a result of something completely out of your control.

Significantly, a pioneer company such as Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) has developed The Liberland Metaverse, outlooking the metaverse as a key area for research, speculative projects, and business opportunities as new clients “want their buildings virtually before they are built”, as stated by ZHA’s Shajay Bhoosham.

The value this kind of company sees in immersive environments is twofold. On the one hand, they see it as a natural evolution of the discipline due to the availability of technology. On the other hand, it is a way to attract fresh ideas and new talent to get involved in initiatives beyond digital twins, one of the first levels of usage of immersive environments.

For young architects and designers working around the metaverse as an inclusive environment for creators, providers, and consumers, the Covid-19 pandemic was a turning point. Some firms were already working on artistic and speculative projects such as Space Popular which made their first-ever proposal for an immersive platform in 2013, but for others, the pandemic was a “wake-up call”, as stated by Juliana Vargas from Gensler.

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The Liberland Metaverse by Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA). Image © Mytaverse

Indeed, for many, the beginning of the pandemic meant starting to build a lot of metaverse spaces for corporate clients, and in general for people who need virtual spaces. 

For a while now, architecture firms have been using game engines such as Unreal Engine to represent projects. This does not merely mean recreating virtually a real-life version, and democratizing what “being an architect” means (as it can be used by other professionals not necessarily trained in architecture), but involves learning to work with coworkers and clients, in a different way, taking into consideration new needs. Just as Space Popular stated:

The pandemic made us consider  what we can do right now, in this very moment, both through design and  research, and that requires working with people who are using virtual spaces today.

Architects can help to set a nation branding narrative

There is a need to move from metaverse cities as science fiction to an extended reality urban experience and many architects are already doing it. However, more professionals from the built environment will need to engage in their forthcoming impact in the urban environment.

Dublin and Singapore, for example, have launched their digital replicas (some misnamed as metaverses) for urban planning purposes, using machine learning to predict future events and trends. Along these lines, ever more powerful digital twins will enable data-driven decisions and will have a high take-up rate among city governments with the promise to make cities more resilient. According to ABI Research, more than 500 cities around the globe will have deployed digital twins by 2025 However, in 2023, with the emergence of new headsets featuring VR, AR, and XR, we will start seeing an overlap between physical and virtual reality experiences.

For artist Daniel Canogar, the implications of canceling our physical reality when going into the metaverse are not of his interest. Instead, he is much more intrigued by the potential friction between digital and physical realities. Canogar believes that augmented reality will make us think differently about our reality, rather than simply recreating it:

Immersive environments make sense at a time of instability, as they offer structured navigation and a circular world that is built for their centralized gaze. Having a platform with a 360-degree environment that is built around you gives you a sense of control in a world that is everything but controlled.

Interestingly, when talking to professionals based in regional contexts where digitalization is part of the country strategy, such as in the MENA region, the metaverse can serve as a narrative for country branding, which in a world of change and instability can be seen as a way to manage their own country narrative.

After talking about the metaverse in Madrid, Paris, Riyad, and Dubai with built environment experts on the value of third spaces for cities, real estate, and future immersive environments, I have realized that the metaverse as a country narrative offers opportunities for digitalization and transformation.

This is what emerging and fast-transforming economies such as Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates want to brand themselves beyond oil production: a relentless optimism through the incorporation of digital twins in complex gigaprojects. Among the most popular ones, projects such as Qiddiya, The Red Sea Development Project, or Neom in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stand out, so that global architecture engineering and construction teams can collaborate both physically and remotely.

In particular, Saudi Arabia aims to transform its digital economies around three key drivers: gaming, e-sports, and tourism. In fact, I have often met several senior students and alumni from the school where I work, in Riyadh who are already working on interesting metaverse projects such as Qiddiya and Nemo Land Kingdom. Given that Saudi Arabia’s population is really young —more than half of the Saudi population is below the age of 25 years, the so-called metacitizens—, the prospect for mass and fast adoption of the digital economy is great.

Among its cities, an impressive case is Dubai, which was featured among the top 5 metaverse cities to watch for by the Smart City Journal in 2022. Moreover, Dubai recently ranked 18th among the most digitally savvy cities according to The Economist. Finally, the city announced an ambitious metaverse strategy to attract 1,000 metaverse-related companies and generate more than 40,000 new jobs in the sector, as part of its 2030 vision.

Architects can remove geographical barriers in a new playground 

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Meta Deep Space Base, a project by Osher Frank and Metaverse Architects. Image

The metaverse is definitely a new playground for architects, together with other stakeholders, such as game designers or developers. For most of the people I spoke to, curiosity, lack of fear, and the application of their architectural mindset are seen as the value they can provide, aligned with a sense of public gain.

For Osher Frank, a Toronto-based trained architect now working on metaverse projects, there is a distinctive way of using his architectural training for creating sequential narratives since the metaverse, unlike 3D models, allows users to interact with each other:

We have given some thought about the way your avatar experiences. [In one of the projects I worked on] the dockings of the ship are designed with an NFT collection and as your avatar goes, you can experience that exhibition and then when you get to the lobby, you first get to the outside then you can take a look behind you on the ship.

For Space Popular, it is about helping democratize opportunities:

You can think about access and inclusion in the so-called metaverse economy as something not for a few, but for the many. It can create a space of opportunity in learning, development, and education. Removing geographical barriers could help open doors, however, this is not of interest for most parties at the moment and that’s why we continue to be involved, to provide alternatives.

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"NFTism", a virtual art gallery designed by ZHA at Art Basel Miami in 2021. Image Courtesy of JOURNEE

As Patrik Schumacher recently stated, trained architects will be the ones who will design the three-dimensional immersive virtual world, having the ability to design inter-visibility, while co-location—being in a virtual shared room—will lead to serendipitous encounters that lead to a sense of community.

In a nutshell, the professionals I have been talking to see that they need to develop virtual environments, alongside other professionals. Indeed, the metaverse has already been designed by non-architects who often do not have the same skills that architects can provide, which could take the metaverse to a new more ambitious stage, where true community ties could flourish. 

And alongside this, there is an emerging country narrative of future development, specifically in emerging powers in which local professionals in the built environment see themselves playing a critical role in the building of such a narrative.

Even now that we have started to question whether the metaverse is the right term or even if it is just a fad, the debate spurred is useful. The apparent contradictory forces of freedom and restriction that the new metaverse requires, can only be positive for architects.

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Cite: Cristina Mateo. "Architects and Designers Should Take the Lead in Creating Immersive Environments" 03 Mar 2023. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

“Search History” exhibition, a project by Space Popular in 2022 at MAXXI Museum in Rome. Image © Space Popular


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