Alternative truth is not just for politics anymore. It is becoming part of architecture as well, as renderers present us more and more with buildings that you can never be completely sure are real or not. Luckily, that trick only works on a screen, because buildings still form a barrier: the fact of a construction that surrounds and shelters you, with textures, colors, and even smells all its own, is still not something you can fake. As a result, alternative worlds remain re-creations of the past or promises of the future that we make present using slick software techniques or with the use of devices, as with augmented reality (AR) glasses and virtual reality (VR) goggles. The question now is: When will the present barrier be broken?
While the future world has been colonized by film, television, and video games, the past is now the focus of more and more pseudo-design work of its own. The recent exhibition of the work of Pierre Chareau at the Jewish Museum in New York (Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design, which ended in March), whose virtual components are still available on the museum’s website, was a hallmark of how far we have come in our ability to re-create the past. In one room, you sat on a piece of furniture that Chareau designed, surrounded by other fragments that remain from his interiors, including the 1932 Maison de Verre. Once you put on the museum-supplied goggles, those bits and pieces reappeared in a nearly seamless re-creation masterminded by exhibition designers Diller Scofidio + Renfro. What had once been gestures and admirable pieces of craft whose textures and contours were physically present now made sense of an interior designed in every detail to create a stage set for modern living.
Then there are those buildings that were real, but no longer exist. In this area, technology evokes what some remember as real experiences. Even without special goggles, the past can thus come alive, as the architect and digital artist David Romero shows on his site hookedonthepast.com. Here, Romero re-creates several of Frank Lloyd Wright’s structures, including the Larkin Building, the Trinity Chapel at the University of Oklahoma, and the Pauson House in Phoenix. Trinity was never built and the other two are long gone but all reappear in these re-creations that distinguish themselves from the usual photorealistic images because of the tones and flavors Romero gives them. The Pauson House, which once rode a ridge overlooking what was then a sparsely populated desert, reappears first in the late afternoon, with thunderclouds rising in the Southwestern skies, and then in the evening, with the glow from the interior offering refuge from the starkness of the terrain. The Larkin Building, on the other hand, shows up after rain has slickened the roads, the period cars, and the brick, softening the heroic contours of its geometries.
In both cases, the effect is one of an awaking of a nostalgia for what was lost. In the case of an exhibition currently on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art, Styles and Customs of the 2020s (on display until Sept. 4), which you can also get a sense of from the museum’s website, the collective DIS and Scatter has collected images of a possible near future, which is always under construction. The difference with most other VR experiments is that this future consists of the real building blocks we currently use to build our future–2x4 construction and messy concrete walls—to show a house under construction on a cliff, but looking towards a science fiction distance where strange and, for now, impossible shapes float just out of reach.
I can easily imagine that past and future will soon merge, with nostalgia and proposal fusing into spaces that improve on historical sites and use the past to inform the future–just as architecture has always done, and just as better science fiction movies, such as Blade Runner (1982), also do. The trick will be how this kind of free imagination, powered by technology, will survive when the real application for all of this will be either the kinds of VR constructions of future apartments that are now rapidly replacing model homes in real estate show offices or programs that use AR glasses to assist construction crews as they build the layered walls and structures that architects and engineers have designed.
If the way in which computer and communication technology has thus far spurred ever-greater bland efficiency in architecture, with only a few isolated and still not exactly beautifully constructed blobs as the exception that prove the rule, is any indication, then perhaps the greatest creativity will remain in the realm of art or artful projection out to the past or future.
For now, the most powerful VR experience I have experienced over the last few months is still of the more traditional kind: the virtual sets of the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, which imagine a world in which Germany and Japan had won World War II. Set in the 1960s, it shows Albert Speer’s Welthauptstadt Germania, his proposed headquarters for the Thousand Year Reich, in all its insane glory. It also shows Times Square with Nazi propaganda mixed with advertisements and the gritty streets of New York and San Francisco, which are now oppressed colonies under the thumbs of Berlin and Tokyo. My favorite element is the American SS Headquarters, a slab perforated by a grid of small windows whose massiveness and maladroit proportions were even more startling because the show placed it where the U.N. Building’s thin, horizontal, green-glass slab now stands. We may not yet be living in an alternative reality, but as that ephemeral, truth-free world closes in on it, we can already see its architecture.