In Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke’s mid-20th century science fiction classic, a character wonders if the flattened inhabitants experiencing a far-off planet’s tremendous gravitational force are aware of the third dimension. In recent years, this hypothetical has found parallels in our growing digital universe, where we are continually drawn to our flat screens to confirm our relevance, connect with like-minded individuals, or create dating profiles. With attention spans riveted by endless digital content, walking down the street has become a delicate dance of avoiding people staring obliviously at their phones—those who, calling to mind Ada Louise Huxtable’s famous question, “Kicked a Building Lately?,” might walk right into one.
As more information is uploaded into the ether, will our existence be defined by what we encounter in the virtual world? It appears that the tech industry wants it this way, starting with Mark Zuckerberg’s awful and dystopian Metaverse initiative. If successful, fulfillment of our desires will require us to don a headset. The Metaverse and other platforms will feed our addictions by encouraging us to manipulate our profiles and seek validation. Independently developing a rich and coherent set of values will lose out to the fraught political and social endgame that plays out daily in the digital landscape.
There’s a lot at stake here for architects. Our role is to design places that are meaningful, rich with engagement, and stimulating. Ideally, we create them to improve the human experience, lessen our impact on the environment, and transcend quotidian reality into something sublime. This isn’t easy given all the inputs we must consider; success requires a disciplined approach supported by research and thoughtful listening to a project’s stakeholders. Perceiving and critiquing a space is largely a visual exercise; touch, taste, hearing, and smell play much lesser roles in spatial awareness. In order to break the ocular tether to our screens, should buildings awaken our other senses? A current art exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania by Sissel Tolaas makes a case for an olfactory experience. Or should the frozen music to which Goethe likened architecture thaw out and serenade us?
As represented in Amie Siegel’s subversive film The Architects, currently showing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, many architecture offices have become rows of computers with designers quietly interacting with their screens, shepherding virtual realities into three-dimensional forms. A typical milestone in that process is producing a project’s collateral—renderings and videos—to depict beautifully conjured visions. These are marketing necessities, and my office uses them as much as anyone else, but almost every time I visit a building or urban space after seeing it in a photorealistic image, there is a sense of disappointment, a diminishment of my experience as I engage with it, searching for the elusive magic that elevated it in its perfected pre-built form.
Many architects have decided to forgo the responsibility of incurring liability, handing their design work off to offices who know how to put a building together and are willing to accept the inherent risks. A possible future and rather bleak iteration of this process will have some of us deciding to skip construction all together and uploading our building designs to be experienced in the cloud. Not only would this emphasize sensationalism over competence, but carefully curated virtual spatial experiences will become the norm while we stay fully remote from one another.
Memories influence our perceptions, and when we experience a new social space, our reactions are drawn from our biases, innate curiosity, and will to understand. With the digital age and rise of social media, these reactions are constantly tweaked by crowdsourcing and embedded algorithms, starting the slow, inexorable process of displacing direct experience. There is, of course, a benefit to social media. The shared videos of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others have cast a necessary spotlight on racism. But when it comes to human interaction online, where do we draw the line between documentation and groupthink? My fear is that the desperate need for digital connection and affirmation will become so strong that our real world will become little more than a Potemkin village that serves as a backdrop for a virtual one. Will the generations ahead be aware of our real world’s richness? Or will they plug into Zuckerberg’s Matrix-like reality and go to work?
For better or worse, the digital rubicon has been crossed. It’s easy and completely justifiable to get annoyed with the person blocking the subway entrance, frantically tapping out a text message—this is ignorance of one’s surroundings. Of more immediate concern is the manifestation of our growing isolation from one another, such as when we see a couple sitting together in a cafe staring at their phones, or we’re ignored by a salesperson updating their social media feed. If buildings become secondary experiences for their users as they clamor to connect digitally, then what is the point of architecture?
Architects actively absorb influences while designing and making choices and we should use our design skills to increase public engagement. The results, like art, are ever changing in their interpretation by the communities they serve. People should want to know more about the buildings they walk by and the public parks they enter. Catering to billionaires’ enormous wallets and deficits of taste won’t help. Our projects should be supple and delightful, requiring our attention while rousing dormant sensory systems. Like the guy in Washington Square Park who draws community circles on the ground, can our designs gather visitors into concentric rings of social connection? Perhaps there are areas that turn off cellular signals and allow access to hyper-localized networks that map a place’s history, environmental impact, design achievements, energy performance, equity initiatives, and more. By being intentional in our desire to create something finite, yet real, architects can nurture a growing atlas of awareness that illuminates a community’s soul.
Architects face many challenges in their practices: How do we create more affordable housing? What steps are required to mitigate the impact of climate change? The answers are elusive, but aren’t we better architects when we start researching and designing for things that we don’t completely understand? Our success is measured by what ultimately gets built, and we must face the digital world’s influence on our work as a new challenge. We can save the third dimension, not by designing better phone storage pouches, but by recognizing that our role is to use our skills to foster better and healthier social connection in the physical worlds we create. Otherwise, if we follow the path laid out before us by the tech gods, the virtual world will overtake us and start diminishing our role as creators, thinkers, and innovators of a new, better reality.
Unless otherwise noted all images created by the author.