This article is the second in a series focusing on the Architecture of the Metaverse. ArchDaily has collaborated with John Marx, AIA, the founding design principal and Chief Artistic Officer of Form4 Architecture, to bring you monthly articles that seek to define the Metaverse, convey the potential of this new realm as well as understand its constraints.
For architects, one of the most captivating aspects of AI and the Metaverse is that of placemaking. How do we create compelling places that bring people to this new world and enable them to enjoy their experience there, getting them to return once the novelty has worn off? How much of this digital world needs to connect back with our day-to-day physical environs for it to feel meaningful and how do these artificial cities, towns, and neighborhoods come to life?
From 2000 to 2007 I taught place theory in cyberspace with Yehuda E. Kalay, Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. A focal part of this course was to impart to students how the makings of what constitutes a place are not solely in the hands of architects and designers. This is just as true in the Metaverse as it is in any urban or rural situation. The sense of place or “genius loci” is made up of its physical qualities, of course, but equally, it revolves around the people and the activities that bring it to life.
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Think of how powerful the sense of place is in wine-making regions and their villages for example. The production of wine and the activities, including rituals and festivities that are associated with viniculture, transform these places into ones with a particular significance that – and this is important – engage with us emotionally. As a result, these places become attractive, distinct, and memorable – just the types of places we like to visit time and again.
In fact, the example of places and winemaking illustrates a key point about places at their best. They are often equated with somewhere where more culture is produced than consumed. You can take in the delights of Napa Valley, the Mosel, or the Burgundy villages and not be a wine buff or even a drinker. Saying that food and drink are one of the main ways we connect with a place no matter where we are in the world. And meals are also one of the most important opportunities for social interaction.
Cyberspace will not offer opportunities for a shared meal but it will be a place where social networks come together. Weapon-based gaming has been a first step in demonstrating this but the development of e-commerce into a much more experiential platform in the Metaverse will enhance the communal character of this platform. For the Metaverse to serve a wide variety of people and cultures we will need to create places that do not rely on violence to engage users. Imagine, a shared shopping trip with your family or friends in cyberspace, for instance, will be made possible in a way that leaves the internet shopping experience feeling flat like browsing through the pages of the mail order catalog. Similarly, you can choose to go to a concert or sporting event with a group of people or meet at an art exhibition.
With AI advancing at phenomenal speed, the sequences of events that you would expect in real life and in 3D will make the internet look uninspiring. It may make you ask why the world wide web has not made use of 3D more and instead resorted to largely 2D pages that remind us of index cards. Initially, this was about PC hardware, memory limitations, and the bandwidth of the internet infrastructure. These obstacles are quickly being overcome. However, the interpretation of this new 3D realm of the Metaverse may be the very thing that either makes or breaks this next iteration of our potentially parallel digital age universe.
This is where architects and designers come in with a well-developed skillset and, critically, a 3D sensibility that is invaluable. Architects are trained in the building typologies and placemaking principles that have contributed so much to our cultural and social evolution. It, therefore, makes sense that by looking at architectural design theories, methods, and processes for organizing space into meaningful places we can develop compelling designs for the Metaverse. These designs should not only facilitate communication and social interaction but also embody the cultural values our society holds thus further supporting and enhancing the notion of dwelling in the Metaverse.
So how do we begin to marry what we know about placemaking in our built environment to that of the virtual world? Above, I have touched on three fundamental aspects of understanding place, be it here and now or in the Metaverse. These are people, activity, and physical context. Context is essential. You need to be somewhere, but how do we get to that somewhere in cyberspace in a way that is not just another gimmick that we will tire of after a few visits? How do you introduce the lasting qualities of placemaking when done well?
While there is no manual for this the conversation is vital for those interested in the longevity of the Metaverse. The research we did at the University of California, Berkeley led us to begin with some guiding criteria.
1- Places are settings for complex and rich events: they provide a reason and a purpose for being there. In digital games, the purpose may be to slay the enemy, to concur territory, or to ascend to ‘higher’ levels of the game. In physical space, the ‘event’ may be to shop, to be educated or entertained, to conduct business, or simply to meet other people.
2- Places involve some kind of engagement with objects or with people. Thus they require presence. Presence can be participatory, as in a game or in a MUD, or remote, as in voyeurism. Either way, it exposes the actor to social norms, cultural customs, and scrutiny.
3- Places provide relative location: they let you know where you are, where you came from, and where you might be going in the future, spatially, temporally, and socially. This provides places with a sense of uniqueness and a character of their own that helps to differentiate one place from another.
4- Presence and location promote a sense of authenticity: it allows the actor to know s/he participates in a ‘real’ event, rather than viewing a previously recorded one. It is the sense one gets by actually being at a ball game or a concert, rather than viewing them on TV. The tell-tale signs of an authentic place are change and serendipity.
5- A place must be adaptable, so as to allow appropriation to the specific needs of the user, and to foster an ability to make a place personal. Well-designed places foster a sense of ownership and a sense of control, and at the same time a shared responsibility and access.
6- Digital places, unlike their physical counterparts, afford a variety of experiences: they can provide multiple different points of view, different scales, different levels of abstraction, and even different temporal perspectives.
7- The choice and control over transitions in Cyberspace from place to place offer much greater richness than physical space affords: one can hyper-jump, or use the journey as an event in and of itself.
8- Finally, well-designed places are inherently memorable: they are places you want to be in, stay at, and come back to. This could be based partially on a degree of enclosure and definition of the space, as well as on a textural and environmental richness. 
That very thought of the Metaverse’s potential to be memorable and its lifespan in itself may seem curious when we are only scratching the surface of this next iteration of cyberspace. I am interested in how spaces per se will be defined. Will there be a prevalence of interior and enclosed spaces as opposed to open public spaces? What are the spatial boundaries?
What will be the role of our culturally-based understanding of behavioral appropriateness? If ‘placeness’ is the consequence of the inhabitants’ way of life, as suggested above in the case of the winemakers, then the physical attributes that frame this way of life, provide a socially shareable setting or ‘place’ for it. Crucially, in a new type of space, its design will provide cues that both organize and direct appropriate social behavior in that particular place. How much of this type of spatial choreography or instruction will be intuitive or learned in the Metaverse? This equation will need to be carefully balanced to determine how at home people feel in their newfound digital setting. Individual responses and behaviors will no doubt vary greatly but the success of the Metaverse goes beyond the individual experience and relies on the impression of a shared social setting even if visited alone. Without this potential for interaction and feeling of commonality, the Metaverse would be a purely transactional experience with some light - although technically sophisticated - window dressing.
Places are thus far from shallow things defined by their surface. They have meaning that is based on the beliefs people associate with them. It is this meaning that determines the expectations of human behavior in a ‘place’ which, when violated, is considered to be ‘out of place’. These meanings arise over time as customs and mores take shape and are transformed within the cultures that use them. Different cultures may have different understandings of similar places and similar concepts, which contributes to feelings of estrangement when visiting foreign countries, where the same cues have acquired different meanings than back home.
While designers may not be able to create a sense of place directly, appropriately arranged forms can support the creation of a sense, whereas inappropriate forms can hamper its creation. By ‘appropriate’ I mean forms that support the desired functions of their users and match their conceptions of such places. Functional appropriateness is a measure of the fit between the activity and the objects or spaces that support it. Conceptual appropriateness is a measure of the fit between the form (or environment), and the expectations of the inhabitants of the place. Such expectations are a matter of social conventions, cultural norms, education, and ethnicity—what we call ‘acculturation.’ 
In architecture, we are familiar with how building typologies have evolved to address appropriateness in different parts of the world and how practitioners rely on precedents to inform their work and achieve a continuity that enables us to take ownership of the buildings whilst addressing all our senses, including how we move through space. This is wholly different from navigating web pages that are conceptually borrowed from the disciplines of traditional publishing and advertising. In cyberspace, we have the opportunity to transcend the 2D field that dominates the internet and bring together the rich world of 3D placemaking with the benefits of digital technology but we need some master planning skills to create a truly immersive environment that is more than just entertainment. This is the only way the Metaverse will be a meaningful player in contributing to society at large.
1- These criteria are discussed in detail in Architecture and the Internet: Designing Places in Cyberspace a paper John Marx co-authored with Yehuda E. Kalay, PhD
2- These concepts regarding functional and conceptual appropriateness are discussed in detail in Architecture and the Internet: Designing Places in Cyberspace a paper John Marx co-authored with Yehuda E. Kalay, PhD
“Placemaking in the AI era” is written by architect John Marx, AIA, the founding design principal and Chief Artistic Officer of Form4 Architecture, an award-winning San Francisco - based firm that designs prominent buildings, campuses, and interiors for Bay Area tech companies such as Google and Facebook, laboratories for life-science clients, and workplaces for numerous other companies. From 2000 to 2007, Marx taught a course on the topic of placemaking in cyberspace at the University of California, Berkley, and in 2020 he designed his first project in the Metaverse for Burning Man: The Museum of No Spectators. The following year, John Marx led a design team charged with creating a $500B portal to the Metaverse.