The image of people walking down a city street, staring into their phones, blissfully unaware of the world around them may be the ultimate symbol of the 21st century. In the last 20 years, humans have changed how we look at the world. We once saw it, then we occasionally read about it, later we might watch a stage or screen production, but now, in the 21st century, we’re using the internet as the primary portal to see the world. With the emergence of AI, there will be a viable alternative to how we perceive the world, architecture, and human consciousness.
In 1973, I saw Stonehenge up close and personal. The photos in books missed a great distraction: centuries of chiselled graffiti—names, words, and images, covering stones everywhere. Graffiti is defined as occurring “without permission and in public view.” Until the internet, there were social gateways to permission, and to public view. Graffiti was illegal and desecrating. Now, if there’s power and an internet connection, you can travel everywhere, without permission, or cost. We can all offer up graffiti on any aspect of our culture.
The chisel or the paint brush was a time-consuming, messy, and unforgiving way to project your thoughts on the world around you. In 1949, Ed Seymour in Sycamore, Illinois, mixed paint and aerosol in a can, and spray paint was born, revolutionizing the way graffiti could be expressed. New York City subway cars are utilitarian vessels that mostly live underground but are stored outdoors when not in use. In the mid-20th century they became the one of largest social canvases for human expression. These subway cars soon became covered, inside and out, with spray paint and magic marker ink. As a blank subway car accepts spray paint, the internet has evolved to be the way all of us can convey our thoughts and offer our reaction in a world that otherwise limits our impact.
While spray paint depends on the canvas of what the world offers, the world now offers a canvas that is detached from any place or control. We now look at that world as often as we experience the physical world—no culture, context, weather, history, or sensory perception required. Architecture follows how humanity uses technology. The human spirit does not change, but how we express that spirit does. In the last two centuries, human perception of time and distance were completely changed by technology, and how we perceive architecture will undergo a similar shift. We used to walk, then we used horses, and finally engines to power vehicles, collapsing time and distance. When Lewis and Clark walked across America it took three years, from 1803 to 1806. Now anyone can make that trip, without experiencing the world in between the coasts, in six hours. The internet similarly collapses our sense of space and place. We’re beginning to perceive and express architecture without the physical world attached.
Until this century, our lives were led in the analog world of physical place. Our buildings tried to answer the three criteria of Vitruvius: fitness, commodity, and delight. If buildings stood, they were fit; if they met needs, they offered commodity; but if they went beyond what was required, they provided delight—and this became the obsession of architects.
Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown divided the messaging of buildings into two intentions, duck and decorated shed. Ducks were, according to them, “Where the architectural systems of space, structure, and program are submerged and distorted by an overall symbolic form.” Decorated sheds: “Where systems of space and structure are directly at the service of program, and ornament is applied independently.” Five years ago, during a contentious press conference in Paris, an exasperated (and perhaps jet-lagged) Frank Gehry said, “In the world we live in, 98% of what gets built and designed today is pure shit. There’s no sense of design nor respect for humanity or anything. They’re bad buildings, and that’s it.”
I think the era of binary segregation—duck and shed, design and pure shit—is coming to an end. These distinctions are doomed because the essential way we perceive buildings is changing. Buildings are built with many hands, and dollars, excluding the individual from participation beyond use and criticism. Graffiti is the singular human expression that’s as public and tangible as the buildings that receive it. Until now.
In the past, our common culture distinguished between popular arts and fine arts. Pop music has a hook, a beat, lyric riff and melody; new music may have none of these elements. Defining fine art as illustration using visuals as messaging, art intends to go beyond our expectations or memory. Just as Gehry noted, most architecture is like pop music or illustration: it responds to basic needs, however crudely. These buildings become the background music for the lives we lead, when we use them. We tend not to live in art, we look at it.
The internet has flipped architecture’s game board: physical creation is not the only means of expression. Just as technology changed the perception of time and place in the 20th century, AI will create a “metaverse” in the 21st. This alternative world is not bound by any culture. We were once limited by what could be shared physically, whether published, built, performed, or exhibited, all judged worthy by others before they were seen. The internet allows anyone to express to virtually everyone: It’s the dream world of graffiti.
The analog world created the buildings, communities, and space that triggered human interaction and response. And that response resulted in commentary, critique, tourism, or demolition and removal—and graffiti. The world was a binary one of physical creation and response. Now creation and response are one in the metaverse.
Commentary adorns ducks and sheds alike. Beyond picking images or combining features in the infinite menu the internet affords, the internet will create a place where anyone realizes graffiti without the limit of the here and now, using their own hand to declare their identity in opposition to the physical world around us. These creations will have the same standing as the unavoidable scrawling we see on highway retaining walls and building facades.
The tradition of revolutionary zeal found in a Gehry building or a Zaha Hadid sculpture requires context for its insurgency. Without a blank subway car, Stonehenge rock, or brick wall, graffiti cannot happen. But unlike the tradition of figurative expression rendered upon the banality of a “shit” building context, the next world of perception will be between our ears. The world is now available for our expressions, without permission. Politics is exploding, music is fractured in delivery, writing is losing paper, and architecture, for many, may be losing buildings.
Architecture reflects culture. In the pre-internet age, the culture of architecture was a closed loop. We saw only what editors, curators, writers, and institutions selected for attention, except for the building we physically encountered. Our day-to-day encounters with architecture are increasingly on the internet that is open to everything, everywhere, all the time. Eventually, we will adjust to a new context, and we may lose the streetscape or the community or just the buildings we use as the basis for our understanding of architecture. The virtual world may become where we experience the ducks of architecture. We will see what’s projected upon our screens, selected by the banal, popular, or sinister vagaries of the internet.
The architecture of the metaverse (or whatever it will eventually be called) will be the crowbar that initiates the next change in our perception of buildings, independent of location or even people. The way most people perceive and react to architecture may morph into a kind of graffiti—where anyone can create buildings on platforms that we have nominal control over. This world will live in no place but in our minds. It’s a world of no context and full expression, where this brave new world becomes just a subway car for our cultural spray paint.
Featured image: Stonehenge, via Wikipedia.