A decade ago, Michael Beneville opened his studio in New York City’s Flatiron neighbourhood. An arched window wall looks out onto 19th Street from the newly renovated two-story office, which boasts 20-foot ceilings and custom furniture. In terms of time spent in the studio, Beneville and his crew haven’t seen each other in months. For virtual meetings, employees of a small creative studio known for its design work on immersive experiences like Las Vegas’s mega–entertainment complex AREA15 gather around a digital table, their avatars carrying digital cups of coffee, as the pandemic continues to spread.
To promote the Arquia Proxima Festival in 2020, a virtual lecture hall called Space Popular’s Arena has been created. Republic Realm’s Ice Island is a part of Fantasy Islands, a project on the platform The Sandbox where virtual luxury villas are sold as NFTs. Image courtesy of SPACE POPULAR. REPUBLIC REALMA provided this image. An aerial view of Metajuku, a virtual mall in the Decentraland platform based on Tokyo’s Harajuku district, by developer Republic Realm.. A virtual cloud-based platform developed by BIG, UNStudio and creative studio Squint/Opera makes it easier for architects and developers to conduct virtual design, review, and collaboration.
UNSTUDIO+ 8 and BIG
There is a striking resemblance between the virtual and physical studio environments. The windows, hardwood floors, and contemporary stairway are all included in the flat rendering. During a Zoom call with Beneville, he explains to me that the airy layout is “basically a one-to-one representation of itself. There are a few things that are missing, however, that give a physical office its atmosphere: texture and individuality. There are no scuffs on the floor, no coats draped over chairs, and no random Post-it notes tacked to computer screens. As a trade-off, workers can access this office from any location with an internet connection.
Virtually re-creating Beneville Studios’ lofty New York Flatiron district offices. BENEVILLE STUDIOS’ virtual re-creation of its lofted offices in the Flatiron district of New York City. BENEVILLE STUDIOS has provided this image.
On the Vatom Spatial Web platform created by Beneville and Eric Pulier, he and his team built this digital version of their workspace, which is a 3D virtual world that people can inhabit in avatar form and navigate like they were in a physical environment. Vatom Spatial Web is Beneville’s own little slice of the metaverse, an inhabitable form of the internet powered by blockchain technology and accessible through web browsers, VR, and AR headsets.
Creating a Metaverse Architecture
Metaverse, the umbrella term for this constellation of world-building software that operates with its own set of rules, aesthetics, and purposes, is becoming more common as companies scramble to build platforms that will attract people to their respective corners of the metaverse. When it comes to platforms like Spatial.io and Microsoft Mesh, the metaverse appears to be an extension of work or life, where avatars can meet in either glossy modern environments or otherworldly landscapes for get-to-gatherings. Massive virtual worlds have been built by platforms such as The Sims, Second Life, and Roblox for years, allowing players to build their own structures and explore these ever-growing landscapes.
The 2021 event of the Architectural League Neyran Turan of NEMESTUDIO and Kevin Hirth of Kevin Hirth Co. created environments for the Vatom Spatial Web Ball. Architectural League of New York City provided this image. The 2021 event of the Architects’ League Neyran Turan of NEMESTUDIO and Kevin Hirth of Kevin Hirth Co. created the environments for this event on Vatom Spatial Web. Architectural League of New York City provided this image.
Instead of navigating a single interoperable metaverse, people in the future will navigate a tangle of interconnected digital spaces powered by blockchains and in-platform currencies that fuel their meta-economies rather than a single, singular metaverse. Beneville asserts that “no one is building the metaverse.” What ever the metaverse is, it will combine all of these things into something that is most beneficial to humankind.
However, in this new digital era, what does it mean to serve humanity best?
And who gets to make the final decision on this matter? Virtual reality, with all its advantages, still requires design and construction. Who will bear the brunt of the burden? Most of the built environment’s shape has been determined by architects, engineers, and builders since the beginning of time. Regulations, zoning, accreditations, and best practises are all necessary safeguards in the physical world. Skyscrapers cannot be built by just anyone for a variety of good reasons.
Whereas a collective reimagining of the built environment has come to be called the “metaverse,” As in the Wild West, anyone with a bit of crypto and an adventurous spirit can set up shop and create their own little corner of the virtual world however they see fit. However, reality is a lot more unequal than that. Money, access, and knowledge—the three pillars of real estate in the physical world—are increasingly influencing the metaverse. It’s already possible to buy large swaths of virtual land for thousands of dollars from speculative crypto investors and real estate companies.
NFTs are sold on the platform The Sandbox, where Republic Realm’s Ice Island is part of Fantasy Islands, a virtual luxury villa development. Ice Island by Republic Realm is part of Fantasy Islands, a project on the Sandbox platform where it sells virtual luxury villas as NFTs. Image courtesy of Republic Realm REPUBLIC REALM provided this image.
More than $10,000 is being paid for a parcel of land in some of the most popular virtual districts in the Decentraland platform, one of the largest metaverse platforms. Facebook’s Meta rebrand and the investments of Microsoft, Google, and Nike in metaverse technologies have fueled this price increase. It’s also a result of the platform’s finite virtual acreage and basic land economics. It has been stated that only 90,000 parcels will be made available by Decentraland, effectively re-creating the scarcity dynamics seen in cities such as New York and San Francisco.
According to Janine Yorio, it is reminiscent of the early days of the internet, when companies who were early adopters of a new technology could make a fortune. Co-founder of Republic Realm, a company that invests in metaverse real estate and NFTs, Yorio is a metaverse developer (non-fungible tokens). Including six large-scale real estate developments on platforms like Decentraland, The Sandbox, and Axie Infinity, her team has invested in more than 2,500 real estate holdings across 19 metaverse platforms. It’s as if we’re the ones in charge of managing the metaverse.
Metajuku is a 16,000-square-foot mall in Decentraland modelled after Tokyo’s trendy Harajuku district. Republic Realm has partnered with architects and designers, as it does in the real world. American designer Martin Guerra was hired by Republic Realm for the design of a virtual world where avatars can roam and buy virtual goods using their crypto wallets. A more expansive, more lucrative venture for the company is a planned community of luxury private island villas known as Fantasy Islands, which will be offered for sale as 3D NFTs on The Sandbox’s metaverse platform. They use their villas just like they would in the real world—to relax, entertain virtual friends, or keep their metaverse purchases in a beautiful display case—just like they would in the real one.
Metaverse Be Designed
BIG, UNStudio, and Squint/Opera collaborated to develop SpaceForm, a virtual cloud-based platform for architects and developers that allows for online design, review, and collaboration. Images provided by BIG and UNSTUDIO The BIG, UNStudio, and creative studio Squint/Opera team up to create SpaceForm, a cloud-based virtual platform that allows architects and developers to design, review, and collaborate virtually. Big and UNSTUDIO provided the image.
The villas were designed by Republic Realm’s in-house 3D designer and developer, Vlad Yakovlev, whose parcels of land measure 325 by 325 feet. From Costa Rican eco-lodges to Mediterranean-style island homes, each of the virtual homes has its own distinct style. One of Fantasy Islands most valuable virtual properties is a futuristic structure on an ice island. Republic Realm has sold six villas for $15,000 each so far (only 100 will be built). Around $300,000 is what they’re currently worth.
In terms of metaverse aesthetics, the villas are an eye-opening experiment. They have a soft pixelated fuzziness to them, like looking through fogged glasses at much of the metaverse architecture. Walking around a metaverse building can feel like wandering through a recently completed construction project. Metaverse architecture, in contrast to the photo-realistic high fidelity of video games, is often designed in lower resolution so that anyone, on any web browser, can access and load the spatial environments. Metaverse architecture
This has led to platforms like Decentraland and Cryptovoxels enforcing strict rules that limit what parcel owners can do with their land in their virtual worlds. For example, users of Cryptovoxels must pay an additional fee in order to construct their models in colour. There are strict design rules that must be followed in Decentraland in order for the platform’s wide variety of artwork to be rendered quickly regardless of browser speed. With these rules, everything from building height to the distance between neighbouring structures can be regulated.
Metaverse buildings frequently deviate from what might be considered reasonable in the real world, despite their resemblance to physical structures. Material constraints are absent in the metaverse, where gravity is non-existent. According to BIG principal Leon Rost, who has worked on a few virtual projects for clients, “things like structure, materiality, and cost, for that matter, all go out the window.” Architects who want to push the formal limits of what a space can look like are drawn to this lack of stylistic restraint. SpaceForm, a virtual meeting platform developed by BIG and UNStudio, allows people to collaborate in real time in futuristic rooms with holographic tables that display 3D renderings and data visualisations. Beneville, on the other hand, has built satellite-like performance stages for clients like iHeartRadio. Architect Jose Sanchez of Plethora Project, a videogame design studio based at the University of Michigan Taubman College, is working on a videogame that allows players to build their own structures that drip with greenery. When it comes to designing for virtual environments, Rost says, “the rules are different than in the physical world.”