The Faustian Danger of Second Life Architecture

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A sure thing for the shortlist of 2008’s Worst Architecture Books is a little number from German conceptual artist Stephan Doesinger titled Space Between People: How the Virtual Changes Physical Architecture. We won’t burden you with its grisly awfulness, except to say that you know trouble’s afoot when a press release details such innovative virtual projects as “clouds that can be inhibited (sic).” Freaky digital funhouses are swell, but they’re no excuse for rotten writing and worse editing.

We wouldn’t mention it at all but for Sam Lubell’s article in the current issue of T, in which the California editor of Architect’s Newspaper makes a quick circuit of the weird and wooly architecture of Second Life. The story appears to be a signal that it is getting to be traife in intellectual circles to assume that all Second Lifers are mouth-breathing sociopaths without a first life to fall back on.

You wouldn’t have known it from Space Between People. Most of the architects featured, the winners of an international competition for Second Life architecture, describe their entries in breathy, manic accents spiked here and there with half-hearted theoretics. Since so many of the projects were residential, the whole thing has the feel of a tree-house expo for excitable twelve-year-olds. (I wanna live in a mountain! I wanna live in a fractured polyvalent ludic envirosphere!)

A few of Lubell’s subjects exhibit the same sweaty enthusiasm — no question, there’s something profoundly creepy about Second Life architects. Even when they’re prompted by formal or philosophical concerns, the designers are inevitably practicing a form of wish-fulfillment, and the whole enterprise is very Freudian.

But it’s the future, gang. From Ithaca to Missoula, architecture schools aplenty are launching virtual think tanks, and if they produce two or three quality ideas that will bear the exigencies of RL (Real Life, in Second Life-speak) then perhaps it’ll have been worthwhile. On the other hand, let’s not forget poet Robert Frost’s sage advice about writing free verse: it’s like playing tennis without a net. Second Life architecture is like playing tennis without a net, with an enormous racket, and you’re Roger Federer. And you can fly.

Joshua Prince-Ramus of REX gave a talk at David Rockwell Associates this week in which he described at length the joys and generative power of the very practical constraints that are totally absent in Second Life. A little net, Prince-Ramus seemed to say, can be a good thing; it’s important to keep your feet on the ground, even if it makes your clouds a little more inhibited.