The pandemic has changed our appreciation of architecture, both as a virtual and physical experience. In the past two years, the use of digital tools has accelerated in the wake of isolation, quarantine, and other limitations on our mobility. Meanwhile, the restrictions imposed during this period have increased our desire to travel and visit unique physical places. As a result, regarding the design process and experience of architecture, one might argue that there is amplified interest in both virtuality and reality. Thus, how architecture firms approach these dual priorities, and their relationships, is increasingly important.
Perhaps nowhere is this double emphasis more evident than in the recent work of Zaha Hadid Architects. The exhibition Meta-Horizons: The Future Now—currently on display in Seoul, South Korea through Sept. 18, 2022—chronicles the firm’s myriad forays into analog and digital realms, providing new insights about the architectural possibilities in both spheres and how they interrelate. Significantly, the exhibition is installed at the museum within ZHA’s own Dongdaemun Design Plaza building, a wildly popular public destination completed in 2014. The fortuitous combination of the exhibit and the architecture is a kind of annotated gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, in which visitors can see the immediate ramifications of ZHA’s design approaches in the surrounding space.
Meta-Horizons is organized according to three themes: Innovation, Interaction, and Imagination. Innovation focuses on design methods that advance various material technologies and fabrication capabilities. Interaction highlights strategies to enhance the design process and team collaboration from concept to production. Imagination considers the application of virtual reality tools and architecture’s role in the metaverse. The work of several ZHA research teams is also on display throughout the exhibition, including ZHA Code (computation and design), ZHA Social, and ZHA Analytics + Insight (social interaction and behavioral simulation), and ZHVR (virtual reality). The articulation of the specialized work of these teams reveals the increasing emphasis on research in practice.
The first zone visitors encounter in the exhibition demonstrates connections between virtual tools and physical construction. In the early days of computer automated drafting and design/computer automated manufacturing (CAD/CAM), architectural software lacked material intelligence. However, today’s increasingly sophisticated tools are informed by the physical properties of various materials and fabrication methods. An example outcome is Striatus, a 3D-printed bridge made of concrete—a section of which is on display in the exhibit. Conventional additive manufacturing processes deliver material in successive horizontal layers. However, ZHA’s Striatus robotic fabrication method features multiangular printing, enabling the stratifications to gradually tilt away from the horizontal—in alignment with the curving forms of the bridge segments. Such a process, which is optimized for the structural logic of the project, requires more knowledge of material behavior and curing time to avoid unwanted shifting or slumping of the fluid feedstock.
Another notable collection of research concerns human behavior. Given the firm’s experience designing many large-scale commercial projects, ZHA has developed methods to simulate human mobility and interaction in order to optimize design layouts. Looping video feeds present agent-based crowd simulation at work, with anticipated occupant flows and different spatial configurations that enhance particular functions. The programming behind these simulations, developed from code such as the Reynolds flocking algorithm, is fascinating to contemplate. On one hand, the use of software to improve designs based on the empirical analysis of personnel movement and interaction patterns is highly compelling. On the other hand, the notion that virtual tools can authentically predict human behavior is questionable—and eerie. Can our individual conduct really be reduced to a few lines of code in a program? And what does it mean if we base our architectural designs on such a simulation?
ZHA’s deep dive into the metaverse is highlighted in the imagination zone. Here we see the firm’s custom environments for the popular elimination game PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, popularly known as PUBG, a virtual city named “Liberland,” and “NFTism,” a virtual gallery to showcase non-fungible tokens. Users enter the Liberland Metaverse with their virtual avatars and can buy and sell property with cryptocurrency. The otherworldly conurbation is based on Czech politician Vít Jedlička‘s proposal for a real micronation called the Free Republic of Liberland, located in the disputed territory between Serbia and Croatia. Liberland raises intriguing questions regarding the relationship between real and virtual worlds. Owners of virtual property in Liberland Metaverse will supposedly have a stake in the physical place. In addition, the design appears to be quite buildable: the project renderings depict a city designed in the recognizable Zaha Hadid style with identifiable, real-world building components. But the project is not intended to be a carbon copy of a physical place and is therefore not a true digital twin. This blurring of virtual and physical destinations that are both similar and different will open up compelling (and confusing) avenues into the construction of parallel universes.
In showcasing its pioneering work in forming design bridges between reality and virtuality, ZHA has revealed a grand opportunity for architects. In addition to designing physical spaces, will architects routinely adopt a parallel role in creating virtual worlds? Will such places align with physical expectations (e.g., gravity, uniform scale), or depart from them and invite new means of interaction? What will architects’ ethical obligations be in the design of the metaverse? How should we uphold commitments to diversity, inclusion, and access? How will the ecological footprint of virtual worlds—full of energy-intensive NFTs—be calculated and optimized?
In Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (Macmillan, 2017), computer scientist and VR pioneer Jaron Lanier offers this description of virtual reality: “Never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so vulnerable to creepiness. Virtual reality will test us. It will amplify our character more than other media ever have.” As Meta-Horizons makes clear, the architectural challenges and opportunities of the metaverse are becoming increasingly evident—and they demand our attention.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.