Imagine moving to Downtown Manhattan from the suburbs and buying a piece of land in SoHo, for example. It’s not bad, is it? Real estate investors in the metaverse, or rather in the digital worlds where land can be purchased for the construction of a variety of structures, say that we’re in a similar pioneering stage right now. It’s possible to own real estate in blockchain-based virtual worlds like Decentraland (300,000 users) or The Sandbox (500,000 users), where it is predicted that more and more of our day-to-day routines will be transferred in the future.
Non-Fungible Art Complex Decentraland
Firstly, let’s make clear that the metaverse is not yet here. To put it another way, there isn’t a single virtual reality world where one can do everything from work to play to go to concerts and move around without any kind of restrictions. An alternative is to have numerous distinct digital environments, each with its own unique set of capabilities (whether based in virtual reality or not). Virtual reality social networks like VRChat and Zepeto resemble virtual reality social networks, while others like Microsoft Mesh and Horizon Workrooms look like virtual reality work environments. Another option is Decentraland, where you can buy (and sell) land in cryptocurrency and then build any kind of building you want on it, including art galleries where you can display your most prestigious NFTs, digital clothing stores, and gathering spaces for your friends’ avatars.
Knowledge of both traditional and conceptual art is required of the metaverse’s architect
As absurd as it may sound, the concept has proven to be a success, and as a result, prices have risen dramatically. In November of last year, a company interested in developing a commercial site for luxury brands paid $2.4 million for a plot of Decentraland. Recently, an investment fund invested $900,000 in Decentraland to buy a plot of land, betting that its value would rise in the future; similarly, prices on The Sandbox and Axie Infinity skyrocketed.
Bitcoin, ConsenSys, BitBuzz, House of M, Max Stealth, MoCA
It is one of the reasons why prices have risen so quickly because there are only so many plots. There are 90,000 15-square-meter parcels of land on Decentraland, for example. In the same way that scarcity always creates value, this kind of investment attracts investors because of its rarity. Besides the wild speculation that is common in the world of cryptocurrencies, there is something else that is worth noting: Digital tower: A company such as Tokens.com has purchased Decentraland real estate with the intention of renting out the space to brands who plan on holding events in the metaverse.
The hunch is that, in the metaverse that is gradually taking shape, a real economy will be created, accompanied inevitably by new jobs. Among these, one of the most promising seems to be that of “metaverse architect”. In recent months, there has been an exponential growth in specialised architectural firms working full-time on the design of structures to be built in the various digital worlds.
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Firms such as Polygonal Mind and Voxel architects, or designers such as Kirk Finkel (known as Untitled; xyz), have already receivedwide media coverage and have been paid up to $300,000. Hardly surprising, considering their clients include not only avid crypto-nerds, but also companies like Sotheby’s and celebrities like Snoop Dogg. “We work primarily with companies, brands, investors and art collectors to give them a digital presence in the metaverse through the buildings we create”, George Bileca, CEO of Voxelarchitects, tells Domus. “We have worked with companies such as Sotheby’s, ConsenSys and Real Vision and today real estate developers are also beginning to show considerable interest”.
Sotheby’s, Decentraland. VoxelArchitects, with permission.
From one perspective, designing for the metaverse seems like every architect’s dream. No physical constraints, no safety regulations, no construction sites, no engineers and builders to deal with. Pure creativity. “The architect of the metaverse must have knowledge of traditional architecture, but also of conceptual art. Because you are free from the limitations of the real world, creativity is emphasised more than the technical execution”, confirms Bileca. “That said, there are rules in the metaverse as well. Here the structures are made of polygons or voxels (three-dimensional pixels, ed.) and you need specific skills to build with these ‘materials’. Finally, the role of structural engineers has been taken over by the developers, whose job it is to make the building feel ‘alive’. They are the ones who create all the interactions: being able to open the doors, get into the lift or turn on a switch. When you design in the real world, these are natural interactions, but in this meta-space, it is important to think about every single element. In the end, it is not the design that brings the building to life, but the tiny details”.
Mona, NFT4, Not Fungible Arts Complex, One BC, Sotheby’s, Westcoastbill, Zonted
But why should we open a door, turn on a switch or get into a lift if we are in a virtual world without any physical boundaries? “When we started designing in the metaverse we took inspiration from real-world structures. That was to give newcomers a chance to adapt to this space, by offering them a reassuring environment”, Bileca continues. And that’s probably why many of the metaverse structures advertised – such as the one by digital artist Andres Reisinger – often have windows, beds and a whole range of accessories that are useless in the digital world (who would want their avatar to lie on a bed and do nothing?).
“Today, the architecture of the metaverse looks a lot like the architecture of the real world”, explains designer and digital architect Kirk Finkel. “Many virtual buildings even have bathrooms. But these environments don’t have the same constraints as the physical ones, so why should they be the same? I think this is a missed opportunity for architects, who tend to recreate what they already know. We have different rules at our disposal, a different language made of polygons instead of bricks”.
Mona. Courtesy Voxel Architects
There is another element that clearly distinguishes the job of architect in the real world from that of architect in the metaverse, and that is the fact that no digital building is meant for private use. Who would enter the metaverse and then hang about at home alone or with their partner (worse: their avatar)? “The architecture that is created here is mainly concerned with public space”, continues Finkel, who works primarily with artists, curators and art institutions to create virtual environments for digital art. “We design meeting points for people to gather from all over the world with just one click. My training in urban design has helped me a lot: basically, what we create is more a project for the public sphere than an actual ‘building’”.
Will a new aesthetic of the metaverse also emerge, perhaps beyond the very wide –and inevitable– use of ultra-futuristic and cyberpunk design? “Actually, it depends a lot on what virtual world you’re building in”, Kirk Finkel concludes. “A place like Somnium Space (virtual place built on Ethereum, ed.) hasa basic aesthetic that is ultra-realistic, where you can walk through the fields at sunset but surrounded by floating buildings. Older environments, such as Cryptovoxel, have a more raw appearance reminiscent of internet of the old days. Back in 2018, artists used to come here to buy land and build installations or host their studios. It felt like Berlin a couple of decades ago. But now that these virtual worlds are becoming mainstream, the metaverse as a whole seems to look less and less like Berlin and more and more like Las Vegas”.