The Astute Architect

Virtual architecture, intruding on the real thing

Virtual architecture, intruding on the real thing

Posting in Architecture

From Minecraft to BIM, SmartPlanet's columnist C.C. Sullivan shows how virtual architecture and real architecture are getting closer together, helping us tell stories and teach the next generation.

Architecture tells stories.

That's the idea University of Michigan architecture prof Sophia Psarra lays out in her recent book, Architecture and Narrative. The way forms and space are arranged tells a story. One's movement through a building has its own unique plot line, too.

Plus we all know that the best pitchmen build the most. Architects who are the most convincing communicators, who spin a world-class yarn, get more commissions.

Online architecture for the masses: A tower rendered in Minecraft. Image courtesy Extreme-Games.net

Yet lately, this architectural ability for storytelling is increasingly a feature of the virtual world. For at least 15 years, we've seen "massively multiplayer" games like Doom, SimCity and, lately, Minecraft create entirely new and surprising structures and urban environments online. Real architects increasingly use BIM, building information modeling, to construct and explore a virtual replica of what they build.

Immersive visualization platforms have gone from the military and amusement parks to valuable commercial uses. The most futuristic include the RealityCave in Waterloo, Ontario, where real estate developers and project designers don their 3-D goggles to "walk through" fancy new buildings long before they're built.

At RealityCave, no talking is required: The animation does all the work, and the design speaks for itself.

Inside Canada's RealityCave, architects and their clients explore unbuilt projects. Photo: Scott McQuarrie, re:actionphotography

At an upcoming seminar in Los Angeles on the topic, “The City and The Book," panelists including architects like Greg Lynn will sit down with publishers and animation studio executives to discuss storytelling opportunities of tomorrow. In the same breath, they'll extol the the virtues of interactive publishing and virtual architecture -- techniques now rapidly converging on each other.

Game designers will be at the table, too. Many of them graduated from America's best architecture schools only to be lured away to Hollywood to fabricate backdrops for shoot-'em-up films and Xbox backdrops.

There are indications the brain drain might turn around.

I’ve seen it firsthand. Eleven-year-old Myles Platt of Montclair, N.J., got hooked on Minecraft and decided he wanted to become an architect, which his father ascribes in part to his ability to build online. This summer, Myles went to an architecture summer camp in New York City, where he designed a complex skyscraper form inspired by Freedom Tower.

The torqued tower by 11-year-old Myles Platt, who got interested in architecture after playing hours of Minecraft.

If you haven't seen Minecraft in action, have a look on YouTube. Harry Allen, an expert on virtual online architectural worlds used for games and eye candy, says, "Minecraft isn't a game. It's a movement."

True enough. Since Minecraft launched last November, it has registered at least 36 million users. You can play it on your smartphone or computer to explore limitless virtual worlds, build your own homes, temples, rollercoasters and cities. It's all low-res, and there are lots of silly games and adventures to keep kids occupied.

The best feature about Minecraft is that you can collaborate on projects and earn special status by logging experience and achievements.

Canada's minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, inside the RealityCave. (By Anthony Reinhart)

Some educators are exploiting Minecraft to teach kids like little Myles Platt. At New York City's Columbia Grammar and Prep School, the second-grade teacher Joel Levin uses Minecraft as a virtual classroom. The kids join together online, working together to build their very own cityscape.

This is a long way from the first-person shooter games that first sucked millions of users into the virtual world. Those hyper-violent games created beautiful virtual architecture, however -- gorgeous and often baroque backdrops to color the shooter's unique narrative.

In the future, perhaps we'll all have our own personal architecture, a backdrop and cloak for our very personal stories.

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C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure