In the beginning of contemporary life, lets say around 1994, when the internet started being broadly used and Mosaic was the popular browser, life online was more or less a mirror of the physical world. Everything that existed online was a reproduction of something that existed here.
The best example of this is even older and it comes from the first website ever created, by the staff of the CERN Institute in Switzerland. That website contained the internal phonebook of CERN, so people could just log on and find the phone number they were looking for, instead of carrying filofaxes (!) around. That website was just reflecting information that existed on peoples' desks, only now they could access it from anywhere. Many years later, Netscape became the popular browser, and its' logo was ubiquitous: a rotating "N" amidst falling stars. At that time regular users slowly started creating their own websites, usually with the hosting that their internet connection provided for free, and these websites had terrible names like http://www.interport.com/users/pages/~captor/homepage.html : something you had to write down to pass on to your friends, so they could see your homepage, basically stuff they could see at your house, only they could access it from any computer. Still the internet was not providing us with any new information, just new ways of looking at the same information. The internet was still just a mirror reflecting reality, but something was already changing: We discovered BBS and chat rooms, and we could LOL (Laugh Out Loud), ROTFL (Rolling On The Floor) or arrange to meet IRL: In Real Life. In short, our social behavior was changing according to the medium through which we expressed ourselves. We had to learn the rules of the society of the internet, we had to learn that writing in capital letters was equal to screaming, and somebody could easily think you were mad at them, when in fact you had accidentally hit the "caps lock" button on your keyboard. Online, emotions are both abstract and cartoon-simple, and now we could express them with acronyms. We learned to read physical gestures in type, and began to see our screens as places where things were happening, and that those things were some kind of life.
Today the most popular browser is the Internet Explorer, and things seem to have changed irreversibly. Now the internet consists of objects that never existed before, like the world wide auction-house e-bay where your mother can sell anything to anybody, Google News, the robot newspaper that is edited by nobody. Instead it compiles itself by counting which news get the most clicks around the world, and accordingly displays a hierarchical news page out of those pieces of information. But more interestingly, there are Internet Objects that exist as places to experience the screen, animations that we control with our fingers, websites that become destinations, art or poetry, works that use their domain address as a title. These sites don't contain information as we used to know it, but they are there to express an idea or sometimes just an emotion: www.veryupsetwithyou.com, www.sentimentality.org, www.iamveryverysorry.com
Interestingly enough, the browsers' names reflect these changes precisely: Mosaic was a collection, or collage of found pre-existing pieces. Netscape was a landscape that we were just learning to navigate, and Internet Explorer is our tool to discover what is going on online. The recently introduced browser for the Mac OSX platform is called Safari, and now we are even more determined. We know the stuff is out there, we just have to go on a safari to bring it back and hang it over the monitor. So in just a few years time, the internet went from mirroring reality, to producing its own civilization.
More and more, the things that I find interesting or inspiring are to be found online. A place where black and white creatures descend from rainbows, then fall helplessly off the screen even though I try to catch them: They are in a hurry because they have another monitor to go to (www.oneaftertheother.com by Angelo Plessas, www.angeloplessas.com). Or a black screen where my cursor senses the presence of something invisible, and when I click and drag, a black disk rotates out of place to reveal someone looking back at me. Am I seeing through the screen, and is that person online? Is he looking at me? (See Through by Rafael Rozendaal www.newrafael.com). At another place by Mai Ueda, I always see two CDs spinning clumsily next to each other. Some might say it is not so interesting, but the place is called togetherness.org and sometimes when I am walking down a real street I'll see two identical objects spending their day together, and I will instinctively say "togetherness", which seems to imply that two pieces of hardware could be in love with one another.
Interesting things are probably still happening offline, and for everybody there are things to discover, like a remote city in Alaska, or a beach in Thailand, products of civilizations that inform our life, but they are hard to personally connect to because they are not on our monitors, they do not belong to our screens. You can go to a really good art gallery and see an object that you would have found interesting 10 years ago, but now it is harder to form a personal relationship with that object, because it is just sitting passively inside a room, and that room is not online, that room is not inside your room.
So if the internet has overcome its' initial purpose to copy or reflect real life, and it is now producing its' own civilization, is it time for our world to start mirroring the internet, to simulate life online?
I think this mirror already exists, and it started taking form ever since our social behavior was modified by internet life. It is a mental landscape, a filter through which we see the world, and through this filter we can see ourselves as pieces of information traveling from computer A to computer B when in fact we are just walking down the street or driving in a highway. But we still leave our offices and go to meetings where we say what we could have just typed, and during a conversation, our phrases could easily be replaced by Instant Messages, and our smiles by emoticons. And when we sit silently across our contact, the phrase "X is typing a message" almost seems to appear above our heads. And when we see somebody sitting in a café and smiling to their laptop screen, we know that she is in a room with somebody else, yet we cannot see that room. That room is invisible; it is part of that mental landscape that re-produces that internet in our life offline.
But when people become avatars on a cell phone screen, and friends become contacts on an IM window, what do buildings become? Architecture is the context for all these changes, yet it has not moved with the same speed as our understanding of this new reality. There is a history of virtual reality, which is somehow close to the history of paper architecture, though they are not the same.
Paper architecture has always envisioned fantastic buildings that for a reason or other never existed, whereas virtual reality is full of buildings already built and experienced online.
Around 1998, when I first learned of the Active Worlds browser from artist Miltos Manetas, it seemed that the 3D internet was a surefire hit about to explode onto your screens. Instead of clicking onto text links and looking at static images, we would be walking around cyberspace with a new body, and hopefully a new mind. Immediately we bought a world, named it Chelsea and started building. Miltos was responsible for the propaganda, I was responsible for the environment and a girl called Ginger was responsible for keeping it together. Instead of creating a cyber fantasy-land, which would somehow be the most obvious thing to do, we decided that Chelsea would be a copy of the real world, just like websites were copies of existing information. Also Active Worlds had a pre-existing library of 3D objects, so I thought of it as a challenge: Could we create a new place out of this boring collection of 3D glass windows and brick walls? After a few tests, it became obvious that building online was different than building for real. For one, everything had to be designed and built on the spot; there was no laboring over drawings of a building before you were able to execute it. Another thing was that avatars were very busy citizens, and they had no patience for buildings that had to be explored thoroughly. They carried with them the attention span of the internet, which must be about 5 seconds: If it takes too long to load, just close the window. So these buildings in Chelsea World started morphing into a new type of minimalism. They had to be quickly recognizable, like logos would normally be, and their forms had to be simple enough to download quickly, which meant less polygons is more statement. The only way to spend more time online was to have company, and inviting someone over to your virtual studio was a totally new experience. Maybe you knew them In Real Life, but now they had a new appearance, and somehow the feelings you might have had for this person where now directed towards their avatar. The browser had a built-in set of "expression buttons" such as Happy, Sad, Angry and gestures such as Dance, Wave, Fall. Apart from typing , these where the only emotional tools, and somehow the feelings you wanted to express had to be as easy to download as the built forms. Everything was faster, and because it was new, more interesting.
Chelsea grew into a big community, and at some point I invited other architects to be guests and to contribute buildings. It received a lot of coverage, and was presented many times. But then we learned something else: Virtual worlds don't last forever, and if someone "forgets" to pay the hosting everything is lost, which is precisely what happened a few years later.
Chelsea was a first experience of building online, but still there was no hint of how online architecture could affect the built world, of whether the virtual was actually capable of casting a shadow on the real.
In the beginning of the year 2000, and while Chelsea was still active, the director of Fargfabriken Center for Art and Architecture in Stockholm, asked me to design a Diner inside the exhibition space. The idea was that this Diner would be a replica of a Diner in Brooklyn where artists spend their evenings eating and talking. At the same time, we had been discussion with Miltos the possibility of creating what we called a Teleport Diner, which would be a kind of theme diner where the guest would eat while visiting different Active Worlds and the place would be full of computers and projections. These Teleport Diners never found an investor, but the chance was right: Instead of replicating a standard Diner in Stockholm, or try to design a new version of the American diner, I would escape to the internet and design a diner in Chelsea World, call it Teleport Diner and install computers in Brooklyn and Stockholm where the visitors to the two places could be in the same place at once. Since the event was meant to take place in Fargfabriken, we also offered tickets to random Brooklyn Diner guests, so they could come to Sweden for the weekend. The only question was what would happen inside the huge empty space in Stockholm, because the computers had to be placed somewhere, and we guessed that a mental landscape was not enough to entertain the locals. The exhibition space was demanding a physical object, as these kinds of spaces usually do, and the crew in Stockholm was waiting for instructions with drills and pieces of MDF in their hands. Instead of designing a third space for Stockholm, I gave the builders instructions to copy the online Teleport Diner. Like everything else in Chelsea World, the Teleport Diner was based on the existing library of low resolution objects, and in the built version all the furniture was translated to simple monochromatic shapes or covered with photo printed material to simulate what is known in 3D modeling as a texture map.
Everything had very little detail to it and the result produced yet another surprise: The space looked like a computer rendering, and the visiting New Yorkers looked like confused avatars, mixing in with the confused Swedes like names in a chat room. You could talk to anybody, because everybody was there for no real reason other than having been there. Everybody was walking around a space which was a ghost of the internet, a built space that was not real but a representation of something that was not physical. For once the virtual became the real.
Other projects followed, like the Electronic Orphanage which was a space designed like a desktop interface, a piece of furniture called "System Folder" which was designed like a .gif animation, a new city plan for Stockholm based on the design procedures of Age of Empires and Sim-City, and a future version of the city of Paris made up of digital mirrors and light. These projects manifested in varying degrees how the growing understanding of the internet reflected upon versions of built reality and vice versa. In 2003 I received another invitation from Fargfabriken, but this time it was to be part of a two-man show called Pause, together with photographer Jean-Pierre Khazem. Khazems' contribution to the show was going to be the placement of live nude girls wearing only a silicone mask that was a copy of their faces, and I was asked to produce the space for these girls. The girls would be photographed inside the space, and at the opening they would stand around as a live performance, while their photos were exhibited in the space where they were shot. Once the girls left, the public could enter the space to see the exhibition. From a functional point of view, the space needed to be much larger than we could physically construct, just because it needed to accommodate 18 different backgrounds for the pictures. I designed a space based on an oblique geometry that enveloped the existing columns of Fargfabriken, and the placed that space between two huge mirrors. Due to the plan geometry, what was reflected in the mirrors was not seen as an exact copy, but a continuation of the space, a second or third version. The light came in through cuts in the ceiling that mirrored the geometry of the walls, creating a lighting effect similar to those produced with an advanced rendering program. This time I had not created an online version which to copy in the space like Teleport Diner, but I focused directly on making the space feel like the internet, perhaps even a Nordic internet that is cold, abstract and flowing with undefined emotions. During the performances the girls stood still, like chat-room users without keyboards, unable express any emotions, unable to write in CAPS or slam their fingers on the mouse.
Trying to describe such a space is quite difficult, and can lead to un-necessary poetics of nothing; so in short, it was a built space that never needed to be built because it was designed to exist inside photographs.
Sure enough, a few months later when the exhibition was over, the space was demolished and I came to think of it as a virtual space that had just paused to materialize.
While the 3D internet never fulfilled its promise, and virtual reality never really became a household technology, it was still interesting for me. I enjoyed designing buildings that could be executed by hitting the "upload" button on my FTP program, and then meeting my friends there to show them around. The exchange that took place was significantly different than anything else I had experienced, because it took place with the speed of the internet. You could immediately feel the others' presence, perhaps recognize them by their favorite avatar, and take a walk together to discuss the future.
In reality the 3D internet that we where expecting never came, but in its place came the Macromedia program Flash. With Flash one can create animations that are placed inside regular websites, sometimes with simulated 3D effects. Around 200o it became the de-facto tool for the new internet, and started a culture of its' own, with flash festivals taking place around the world, and users exchanging open source code to produce new pieces based on somebody else's' knowledge of mathematics and physics. In august 2002, I was asked to create an Active World that would host all the best people who work with Flash, namely the Neen group. It was supposed to be more or less based on the model of Chelsea World, only this time it was a private space for discussion, which would be open to the public during a series of exhibitions. I decided to treat each neenster as a "client" and ask them what they would like their space to be like, or to make an abstract demand, so that each building would be the persons' architectural portrait. In the internet you don't need buildings to protect you from the cold or the rain, and you don't need interiors in order to be private, but you need new visual landscapes in order to think. I realized that I didn't even know some of the people that I would be making buildings for, but I know their websites, so instead of making a portrait based on their personality, I would make a portrait based on their internet presence, because this was a chance to translate some of my favorite websites into buildings.
Out of this process came a nice collection of virtual buildings like Mai Uedas' philosophyinthebedroom.com where the websites patterns became structural materials, or Angelo Plessas' oneaftertheother.com where the rainbows of his animations where made to bounce off an invisible box, creating a simple enclosure. Other neensters didn't provide me with any clues, so I just reversed the process and imagine buildings that could be translated to a websites, like Yi Zhou's' pink and red stripe building, Nicola Tosics' dark cave, or Miltos Manetas' pattern tower. To complete the world, I added a teleport forest at the entrance, where each neensters' name-tree could be clicked on to transport you to their space. The Neen Mountain became a place for isolation, and the Helix building a place for discussion. Just like Chelsea, the hosting of NeenWorld expired and everything was once again lost. This time I had designed everything offline and I was uploading entire buildings, while keeping a copy of the world on my 3D program. Just before it expired I recorded several sequences and walk-through videos because I had decided that this time the expiration would leave behind some kind of presence.
P.S.: Ghosts of Neen World.
Having described the internet condition as a reflection upon our world, or sometimes a shadow cast by the virtual onto the real, I started thinking of these Neen World relics as ghosts, objects that used to live in our screens, but now cannot decide if they are online or off. Galleries and exhibition spaces seem to attract ghosts all the time: objects that represent dead ideas. They are perfect because the people involved with collecting art can relate to them easily: "I paid so much, and here is what I got, an object that I can touch, and it can cast a shadow on my floor". Once Neen World expired, I decided to experiment with printing these buildings using the relatively new 3D printers, and to reconstruct this world that we had been walking around for a year or so. Also it would solve the problem of what to give to a gallery, because even though galleries understand that a 3D animation can be an artwork, they really love real objects. The buildings and the avatars were printed in an off-white starch based material that looks a bit like a plaster-cast gnawed on by a mouse. Normally architects produce models in order to check what the building looks before it is constructed and they can imagine walking around it, and they try to simulate the spatial experience. These models are made to scale, always smaller than they would be in reality for obvious cost reasons. The ghosts of Neen World are look exactly like architectural models even down to the size but in fact they are the opposite: they are reproductions of buildings already constructed, and they are here to remind us what it was like to be there. And they are small not because they are scaled down, but because on the internet we are 2 centimeters tall.