Has Covid-19 Sparked Virtual Reality’s Architectural Coming Of Age?

The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated architecture’s digital revolution, serving as a catalyst for increased use of VR, among other technologies, in architectural practices. With sites closed and travel limited, Luke Christou investigates how firms have turned to VR in order to evaluate designs, update clients, and foster collaboration. 

Images courtesy of Perkins+Will

Virtual reality has been gaining ground in architecture for some time as a way of improving the customer experience and enhancing collaboration. According to the RIBA and Microsoft’s Digital Transformation in Architecture report, 35% of architecture firms are already using some form of immersive technology, with another 29% planning to invest within the next five years.

Nissen Richards studio director Pippa Nissen says: “Being unable to travel to site has made us rely heavily on software such as Rhino, where we can create real and detailed models to walk around and view with our clients.

“We’ve found this an ideal way to work with international clients, and, in the future, shall have more of these kinds of meetings. It’s a sustainable solution too that will save on time and travel and will also reduce risk on complex projects, as we can describe an experience to people as it will really look, helping to build client confidence.”

 Arthur Mamou-Mani

“Nissen Richards Studio created a virtual reality environment while working on the ‘Opplyst’ gallery at the National Library in Norway in order to better communicate ideas with the client.”

Catharsis, designed by Arthur Mamou-Mani, was created in virtual reality following the cancellation of Burning Man 2020.

Encouraging virtual spaces

As well as increasing use of VR during the design process, the lockdown period has also led to the creation of virtual spaces, many of which will never exist in the physical world.

Architecture firm Mamou-Mani’s Catharsis, a timber amphitheatre, was originally set to be a physical structure, assembled for the now-cancelled Burning Man festival in Nevada, United States. However, with coronavirus having halted those plans, the firm sought out game designers to bring the construction to life in virtual reality. The result is a precise recreation, accessible through social VR platform AltspaceVR, where users can explore the installation and interact with others using a virtual avatar.

“ You can show two-dimensional content very well on a two-dimensional website. 

Likewise, Space Popular, a multidisciplinary design practice known particularly for its work on virtual architecture and the immersive internet, launched a VR art gallery during the pandemic on behalf of the Architectural Association. The gallery, named AA Earth Gallery, showcased Earth-themed drawings and models created by the school’s students, staff, alumni and prospective students, to mark the 50th year of Earth Day.

“Of course, you can show two-dimensional content very well on a two-dimensional website,” Space Popular director Lara Lesmes points out. However, by offering a virtual environment, AA Earth Gallery was able to foster conversation that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible in the current climate.

“That was, of course, triggered by the fact that people cannot get together. Otherwise, they would have put up a website and a physical exhibition in their physical gallery in the university,” Lesmes explains.

Rifat Chadirji, 1926-2020. Image courtesy of Tamayouz Excellence Award

Natural transition towards the virtual

“This [the creation of virtual experiences] was already a trend pre-lockdown, but has accelerated over the last few months,” Nissen says.

While the pandemic will eventually pass, virtual experiences will continue to thrive alongside the physical. Even with the easing of lockdown measures and reduced social distancing, these spaces will continue to serve the purpose of bringing us closer together. This will come, according to Space Popular, as part of a “natural transition” towards increased “virtual togetherness” - the removal of physical distance aided by technology. Just as the letter, telephone, or video calling helped to reduce that physical barrier, so too will VR.

“ It is of much higher relevance now, but even if we would magically have a vaccine in a month, the trajectory will be the same for humanity in bringing us closer together. 

“Any form of virtual togetherness, even the telephone, even the telegraph or sending a letter, they’re all part of the same technological process of conquering distance and being together as closely as possible,” Space Popular’s Fredrik Hellberg says.

“It’s the same project to bring us together. All of this technology, even the most advanced VR and AR technology, were in full swing way before the pandemic. Nothing has changed in the ambition to bring us together. It is of much higher relevance now, but even if we would magically have a vaccine in a month, the trajectory will be the same for humanity in bringing us closer together.”

COVID-19: A watershed moment for virtual architecture?

Last year, architect and film director Liam Young questioned why more architects weren’t showing interest in designing virtual spaces. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V, one of the most purchased video games in history, offered up a sprawling metropolis that an audience of more than 110 million people have interacted with to date. Yet, these environments are being designed by “someone that essentially did a YouTube tutorial on Unreal Engine”, according to Young.

While the environments we interact with through video games and cinema continue to grow increasingly more impressive, architects have “never really considered” these virtual environments as being part of their discipline, Hellberg says.

The pandemic has drawn attention to virtual environments such as Space Popular’s El Laberinto de Pikachu y Badtz-Maru, a virtual maze created in social VR platform Mozilla Hubs, partially for Hellberg’s niece to enjoy while in lockdown. But would this have generated quite the same level of interest in different circumstances? Perhaps not. However, could this increase in attention be the tipping point for wider acceptance and practice in the field? “Not for the discipline of architecture,” Lesmes insists.

“ It’s maybe a moment of interest, and certainly our work has been getting a lot more attention, but I think it will be gradual. 

“There was also a huge wave [of interest] when Second Life was very popular,” Hellberg adds. “Every big UK design magazine was writing constantly about Second Life…. ‘And now the virtual will start’... It’s a long time ago already.”

Space Popular’s ‘10 Propositions for Virtual Architecture’, published in 2018 as part of the exhibition catalog for ArkDes’s Value in the Virtual exhibition, does predict that virtual craftsmanship will gain appreciation and eventually become mainstream, but this shift will be a gradual process.

“It’s maybe a moment of interest, and certainly our work has been getting a lot more attention, but I think it will be gradual,” Lesmes concludes.

Virtual reality headsets haven’t quite taken off as they were expected to. In October, Google halted sales of its Daydream mobile VR headset due to a lack of “broad consumer or developer adoption”. Falling prices and improved quality should help to address that, but how virtual architecture grows will ultimately depend on how the technology advances – “It needs to coincide with the hardware,” Lesmes says.

Space Popular’s AA Earth Gallery is a virtual reality art gallery that was launched during the pandemic on behalf of the Architectural Association

Preparing for the future

Space Popular, however, has wasted no time in waiting for this gradual shift to occur.

Just as VR will amplify the togetherness created by our current online world, it also has the potential to amplify many of its negative aspects.

“It’s incredibly exciting and will bring a lot of good things,” Lesmes says. “All sorts of new forms of interaction, involvement, embodiment and therefore empathy. There is an incredible amount of really positive things, but it’s very important to address the potential dangers, especially in the context of the past few years where we have seen what social media has been capable of.

“If this has already happened… The things that could happen when you can gather biometric data, when you can look at where my eye is looking. That is very scary.”

“ The things that could happen when you can gather biometric data, when you can look at where my eye is looking. That is very scary. 

We’re still now considering how best to regulate internet and social media platforms, despite the likes of Facebook having taken off more than a decade ago. Due to a lack of foresight, social media users have suffered through huge data and privacy breaches, political meddling, exposure to harmful content and much more.

By considering the positives and negatives of virtual reality and virtual environments ahead of time, we can begin to establish the regulation and criteria needed to ensure future spaces are safe.

“If we see it coming, we can hopefully step into it consciously,” Lesmes says, “instead of sleepwalking into an augmented city.”

Virtual reality