This article is the first 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.
The Metaverse is currently hard to define. Try to think of it as the bringing together of the abundance of virtual communities we have created over the years on Facebook with the enormous range of leisure opportunities akin to shopping on Amazon. Yet, the Metaverse goes far beyond this and makes a new type of landscape possible by playing on the very qualities of placemaking we know from the cities, towns, and villages we inhabit worldwide. The Metaverse is a transactional space, and perhaps above all an experiential space where unexpected events take place and, importantly, shared events are enjoyed on an individual and communal basis.
The scale of this new landscape and its impact on our understanding of the virtual is hard to take in at this stage. We are still in what is very much a development phase of the Metaverse. The purpose of this series of articles on the Metaverse is to convey the potential of this new realm as well as to understand its constraints. As architects, the way the Metaverse relates to the physicality of our world - both natural and built - is, of course, of deep interest and represents an almost infinite potential to create change and vibrancy. Culturally, it has the potential to level the playing field of access to groups of people from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds without the normal limitations of physical geography or cost .... or even language.
To set the scene in the sublime, imagine we are riding a wave - shiny new surfboards under our feet - heading home towards an idyllic beach. Suddenly, we feel a chill, and notice a shadow crossing our boards … We move forwards with renewed intent, to finish this ride unimpeded, anxious to arrive safely. But, if we could turn around, we would see, not a cloud, but a wave, not an ordinary wave, but an unprecedented wave towering at a seemingly infinite height above us … silent, immutable in the force of its will. The sheer mass of this tidal wave is daunting. But for now, all we can see is the water rising against the shore. A shore that seems to be almost unreachable. We are now in the tidal wave’s shadow and unaware of the magnitude of what is to come. Anything might happen.
This, of course, is a highly dramatic example of the power of the Metaverse landscape. As a designer, it might be more natural to imagine yourself walking down a bustling street in some distant city. While aspects of the street seem familiar, you have never been here before, and yet you feel comfortable, safe, and welcome. There is a compelling edge to this evening that you can feel in the faces of the people around you - they look alive and interesting. The shops on both sides of the street offer a wide variety of temptations: clothing, books, entertainment, learning adventures, and unusual experiences, too.
Today, you find yourself on your way to an art gallery opening, a 15-minute walk along this city street. A dear friend is showing their work at the gallery - it’s been a year in the making - and you feel both pride and anxiety. Much to your surprise, you round the corner and run into a group of your friends, who you thought were on a trip to Venice. You spend the next twenty minutes, in a park full of hover-boarders. Did they experience that wave? You catch up with what your lives have been about since you last met. The stories shared are rich and varied. One friend has even made a side trip to the south of France looking for castles. You make your way to the gallery, exploring the artwork your friend has toiled over, celebrating their success. The gallery is a spectacular space, a converted refectory in a venerable monastery. The timbers of the vaulting are four-hundred years old with ornate carvings on the edges of each beam.
This warms your heart, and yet its theatricality serves to remind you that nothing is physically present in this experience. The last three hours have been completely spent online in a virtual world. A world that in so many ways is richer and more intensely interesting than your normal existence. While much of this experience is programmed, based on an algorithm you set up last month, parts of it are wholly unexpected. On this particular evening, your artist friend was, in reality, in the physical gallery just outside Florence, as were half the people you met and talked to at the opening.
The power of the Metaverse will lie in its ability through such compelling experiential environments existing in the intersection of the physical and virtual worlds. Importantly, its power revolves around creating a new sense of place and community that is nevertheless enduring, significant, and based on deep emotional bonds. These are established with the structures, activities, and people that exist there. This is what makes you return as often as you can ... to this place of infinite illusions.
Neal Stevenson’s Snow Crash is the science-fiction novel that coined the word Metaverse. The book was published in 1992, yet as mentioned earlier, we are still in the product development pre-launch phase of the Metaverse. Bits and pieces are percolating out from the edges. There are temptations to participate, rumors of new software, and spectacular AI images that seem to appear out of nowhere. Big companies are indeed committing impressive amounts of capital and labor to be the first, or the best, in order to establish themselves as The Portal to the Metaverse. It is an epic entrepreneurial race to become the dominant force that will shape our lives in unknowable ways.
The interaction in virtual space has an entertainment quality we know about from the world of gaming. When it comes to consumption and shopping or attending concerts, exhibitions, and sporting events, the Metaverse is not only about ease, but it is more importantly about having FUN and being engaged at an experiential level. It is a deliberate and dynamic move away from a largely two-dimensional and transactional space, like Amazon, where you search for things much like you might when looking something up in an encyclopedia, a menu, or a catalog. It also has the power to create a sense of community, as Facebook does, but at a level of intensity, we will be forever changed. In the Metaverse, you can enter a realm that has the transportive properties of something like Google Street View going live; opening the doors and gates to all those facades and parklands. Critically, this compelling new world of the Metaverse and the role of AI in it will raise revolutionary questions about how we experience space and, in turn, what it deeply means to be human.
In the Tidal Wave’s Shadow - Navigating The Metaverse 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.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 08, 2023.