To begin, a definition of architecture is offered which envelopes and relates the fields of physical and virtual architecture. Architecture is defined as the making of a place by the ordering and definition of meaningful space, as developed in response to a need or program (Ching 10). It is also described as the expression of society or culture in spatial, experiential form (Campbell, "Virtual Architecture"). Both of these definitions describe architecture as a concept or idea which has both physical and virtual expressions (Figure 1.1).
Physical architecture is the embodiment and expression of societal values in physical form (like bricks and mortar). It is that which is traditionally studied in schools of architecture and for which designers become licensed professionals. We witness physical architecture as buildings, parks, plazas, cities, suburbs, and landscapes. Like physical architecture, virtual architecture, "...need(s) to be designed. The world and the experience that one can have in it must be consciously shaped" (Best, Idiot’s Guide 2). However, virtual architecture is that which embodies and expresses values of society in electronic form, with polygons, vectors, and texture maps. Lacking physicality, it does not exist on a geographic site as traditionally understood. Rather, it is accessible via computer and human-interface technology anywhere one has access to the Internet.
Example of Physical Architecture
The Gothic cathedral Notre Dame de Chartres is an excellent example of physical architecture (Figure 1.2). It is a physical building in a specific context, with a well-defined entry off of an urban plaza. It uses physical materials of stone, metal, wood, and glass, as well as light, to order forms and elements in space to create meaning. From the plaza outside, a procession begins as one enters the building, passing through a clearly marked threshold into the interior of the cathedral. One walks along the body, or nave, where one experiences numerous icons and symbols which are given an expression different than the architectural elements which serve a structural function. The icons themselves refer to times and places to which people of a specific culture can relate. From the nave, one passes the crossing to the apse, a heavenly space at the end of the procession which serves, conceptually, as the heart of the building. It is a place for communication with the spiritual, a sacred space among the profane.
Examples of Virtual Architecture
While there are countless examples of physical architecture which have been designed and built over the millennia, there are far fewer examples of virtual architecture due to the relative youth (decades) of electronic media and computer technology. Nonetheless, the design of virtual spaces is an architectural exploration. By, "...placing the human within the information space, it is an architectural problem; but beyond this, cyberspace has an architecture of its own and, furthermore, can contain architecture. To repeat: cyberspace is architecture, cyberspace has an architecture, and cyberspace contains architecture" (Novak, "Liquid Architectures" 226).
The earliest examples of virtual architecture as mediated by networked computers are the text-based environments of MUDs (multi-user domains) and MOOs (MUD, object oriented). In MUDs and MOOs, multiple users to log in to a shared environment on a computer network and interact using text. Although the interaction takes place in one-dimensional text, the participants in the MUDs relate to their environments with two-dimensional maps (Figure 1.3). Often, but not always, the maps mimic or represent physically constructable environments.
In time, MUDs and MOOs acquired a graphic interface (Morningstar and Farmer). The interactions, which still took place in text, were then represented visually (Figure 1.4).
In recent years, we have witnessed the birth of the World Wide Web (WWW, or the Web). Using graphic user interfaces called information browsers, people can download textual and graphic data from the Internet to their own computers. The data is hyperlinked (FOLDOC), which means that certain words or images, when selected by the participant, invoke the downloading of other data. In most cases, the data is represented as pages (figure 1.5). However, with hyperlink technology, the pages need not be read consecutively, like a book. Rather, discontinuities in the way information can be accessed have enabled the spatial (rather than linear) organization of data. Furthermore, the spatial organization of the data sets are often represented as images or maps. Often, these graphics portray buildings and cities of the physical world.
The capabilities of the Internet are not limited to two-dimensional data. Three-dimensional environments have been created and shared in real-time as virtual worlds. The earliest of such environments were "stand-alone" worlds without hyperlinks (figure 1.6), but could be shared by invited participants across the globe (Mandeville et al.).
Recently, hyperlink technology of the World Wide Web has been combined with three-dimensional modeling languages (like VRML) to offer the potential of a rich experience of virtual environments, interconnected via the Internet (figure 1.7). These environments are filled with multiple participants on-line, interacting in interconnected three-dimensional virtual worlds.
Yet another example of virtual architecture is that of computer games. From the two-dimensional mazes and playing fields of early "stand-alone" arcade games to the complex three-dimensional environments of recent networked games for personal computers (figure 1.8), participants interact in specific virtual environments which are represented spatially.
One last example of virtual architecture is the work of Marcos Novak (figure 1.9). Novak’s work, self-defined as "liquid architecture" (Novak, "Liquid Architectures"), challenges the constraints of the physical world and responds to the context of the virtual realm. However, the abstract and unfamiliar forms and spaces which result are often found to be disorienting and distracting, becoming the focal point rather than the background environment for on-line interaction.
Most of these examples of virtual architecture have one thing in common: they use the metaphor of physical architecture to one degree or another in order to represent electronic information. "The architectural metaphor of cyberspace validates the designer’s work: just as spatial cues help to orient us in a real building, they also offer a visual structure for abstract information, revealing relationships and hierarchy" (Anders 78).
However, most of these examples tend to mimic the architecture of the physical world, recognizing and responding to its constraints. Few examples of virtual architecture respond to the constraints and context of the virtual realm. Those that do are often found to be disorienting and difficult to navigate through. Therefore, there is a need to explore and to discover which principles of physical architecture need not apply to the virtual realm (Schmitt et al.), and which ones are necessary for the participant to inhabit a meaningful environment without disorientation.
This study demonstrates that the use of architectural metaphor is appropriate for the design of meaningful spatial relationships in a virtual environment. It further explores the limits of this metaphor, to provide an understanding of where the design of physical space is or is not appropriate for the virtual realm.