As a consequence of a photo contest that I have recently won (yes, I am proud of it!*), I have got to better know Cain Maven, architect and house builder in Second Life, and engaged with him in a discussion on how the community of bloggers have been writing about architecture in SL. Mostly, I would say, we can now see blogs that focus on consuming, on buying and decorating, like some sessions in magazines that list items that “would be perfect in your home”. In contrast, the sources for a more substantial reflection on architecture in SL seem to have been shrinking or fully disappearing.
I don’t think one has to be a specialist in order to discuss architecture in SL. What I have in mind is a reflection on how people divide spaces and create enveloping structures in Second Life. We don’t need to dominate all the concepts that experts use for addressing such a subject, we can do that by means of our own amateurish vocabulary. In a daily basis, we are all in contact with a series of defined spaces and buildings, both in the virtual world and in the atomic one. It means we can rely on our own experience to talk about architecture in the terms that I’m suggesting here.
When SL was a new world to be conquered, there were some very notorious examples of builders who have pushed the limits of architectural imagination, making the most of the fact that we don’t really need foundation structures, like pillars and beams, to build in the virtual world – and considering that Second Life gave us instruments to make evolving buildings that could adapt to its occupants. Those times are gone now. It doesn’t mean that people cannot do it or are not doing it here and there, but that a more established market for residential and commercial constructions has appeared, relying on less experimental experiences. Still, even in that market, some creators integrate elements of a more liberated conception of design into a more traditional architecture.
Defying the atomic world constraints
Of course, to a great extent, I’m thinking of Sergio Botha. Those who follow this blog regularly will probably have noticed that I admire his work. Space, in his hands, is organized in a very minimalist way: subdivision of rooms and subsets can be indicated with very few elements. In the name of such an elegant simplicity, where straight lines rule, some heavy elements like walls and rails can fly, defying gravity in the name of an aesthetic cleanliness. That characteristic, present in many of his buildings, can be found once again in his Lyon House, which also incorporates lots of water in its project.
In a different way, CD store also has a house that resorts to Second Life’s specificities: the Blancus, Open Air Living Home. In SL, houses aren’t physical shelters. They don’t have to protect avatars from rain, wind, unwanted interaction with animals and other perils. Apparently taking that into consideration, CD offers us a building that can be cozy without relying on full ceilings and walls.
Blancus is not just an open space with no divisions. There are items, a pool, partial walls and other features, that help defining and organizing its internal environment. The bedroom is the only closed area, giving residents some privacy. For the rest of the building, the translucency of certain modernist projects, which use lots of transparent elements, is taken to a certain extreme: not even glass is needed.
The atomic world as a model
Going back to the work of Cain Maven, owner of Maven Homes and Quantum Luxury Homes, what we see is a contrast with the former examples, under the same spectre of modern references. Especially at Maven Homes, much of what he does, as I see it, draws some inspiration from what is called the Mid-Twentieth Century Modern style. His recently launched Lakeshore Contemporary Home, with shed roofs (i.e. single-sloped roofs) asymmetrically placed, is a good example of such an inspiration.
Maven’s buildings incorporate no big virtual experimentalism: their model is the atomic world. I don’t mean that as a criticism, not at all. They are some very good, well polished examples of a tendency of the market for buildings in SL to reflect more traditional real life patterns for houses and other structures. Let me be clear about it: I have no numbers to support the idea that a more established building market in SL has dominated the scene, it is just my impression. If I am right, though, it is just natural to expect RL-like constructions multiplying and spreading throughout the grid.
Of course, and Cain Maven knows it very well, even if you get inspiration in the atomic world, your buildings in SL have to consider some characteristics of the platform. For instance, houses generally need a high ceiling in Second Life, for people generally don’t experience them in first-person view, but with their camera above their shoulders, from behind. There have been discussions out there on what would be a better camera position or a good size for avatars, but the fact is that most people tend to keep the default settings for camera perspective and they also seem to like their avatars to be tall (which actually doesn’t matter that much in terms of proportion: if all things go tall, then ratio between them will be kept anyway).
In that established market, a different example of how to deal with references to the atomic world can be found in Roost. Their style ranges from neoclassical and Second Empire (they even have a Psycho-like house) to modern, but, within that scope, they clearly adopt a more familiar design on their buildings.
Take their Palm View House as an example. It clearly draws from classical modernism, but not from its avant-garde impulse, as given by names as Van Der Rohe or Gropius. At some point in the 20th century, modernism was incorporated in every-day life and its design became part of how people saw the world, how they saw cityscapes and their surroundings. That’s where the Palm View House comes from.
Why bathrooms matter
Familiarity can play a powerful role in Second Life. On the one hand, virtuality allows us to explore imagination, to go beyond the limits of the atomic world. On the other hand, finding familiar references may contribute to identification with the platform and to the willing of visiting it regularly. I’m not suggesting that familiarity is the very reproduction of our current atomic life. We certainly can reproduce idealisations or alternative views of real life – for instance, if I live in a huge town in RL, I can choose to have a different experience in SL and opt for a rural environment. Still, it is possible to do that using references of the atomic world.
Something that I find very consistent in Roost is their use of bathrooms. I haven’t checked all their houses, but I’ve visited some, and all the ones that I’ve seen had bathrooms (other buildings on this post, like Maven’s Lakeshore, have them too, by the way). I sometimes joke that I am bathroom-obsessed, but the truth is that such a room is good sign in a SL house, especially in those that have deep references in the atomic world. And this is not only because it contributes to the ambience. Also, it requires some work on space organization. I mean, one can have an open loft where living room, dining room, bedroom and kitchen may resort to imaginary boundaries. For builders, that’s really convenient: one can rezz a cube with no internal walls and call it “house”. But if you want to add a bathroom to it, things change a bit: you have to think where it would go and how people could have some privacy inside it. For that, I consider bathrooms a great feature in SL houses. And if they are planned in a way that guests could use them too, and not only residents, that’s even better.
Having introduced a discussion on familiarity and the specificities of SL – and the consequences of that for architecture in such a platform – I’d like to move towards an examination of diversity reflected in buildings offered in Second Life. This will be the subject for the second part of this post.