When I first joined Second Life, more than a decade ago, there was a lot of talk about experimenting with architecture in the world created by Linden Lab. Back then, builders used to carry out their projects by using the old system of prims available in world – and it was more or less expected to see modern or contemporary buildings in a variety of sims. Then the technology for mesh went grid-wide and it would appear, to some, that next-generation architecture would thrive in SL: we would see parametric buildings everywhere, blobism flourishing, neomodernism and neo-futurism spreading around. Yet, what seemed to have gained momentum, since the arrival of mesh import, was a range of more tradition-inspired structures, such as rural or Victorian houses (many of which also fit the shabby-chic trend that developed more or less at the same time) or late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures for urban areas.
Of course, different factors contributed to that situation: the spirit of current time in SL, the fact that the hype around Second Life is over and so on – but, also, we learned that, ironically as it may sound, the old prims, with their straight lines and precise curves, are particularly modern-friendly. So, when mesh import became a reality in the platform, builders saw themselves released from the constraints of neat designs. There was more room to oldness, to roughness, to the introduction of structures that were apparently submitted to the effects of time passing (for, in many ways, modernism and contemporary architecture do fight against time, or deny it or aim the future or permanence in terms of style).
Nonetheless, modernity has survived in SL. Obviously, it won’t disappear, even if it has lost its supposed hegemony. Despite the provocative title of this post, it’s not that modern and contemporary architecture have vanished from the grid. And although we haven’t seen many parametric or deconstructivist buildings in SL, there are interesting examples of houses that draw inspiration from materials, designs and ways of dealing with space that come from developments we’ve seen in architecture in the atomic world since the third decade of the 20th century.
One recent case of a direct link to modernism concepts is the Cocoon House by DaD Design. It’s pure straight lines and glass walls between the internal and external areas, integrating both spaces. There are minimal decorative elements and the elegance of clean designs. Think of Mies van der Rohe and the Barcelona Pavilion or the Farnsworth House, or Philip Johnson and Lin Bo Bardi and the glass houses by each one, for instance.
The graceful simplicity of the design of the Cocoon House doesn’t mean that it’s just a shell with no thought put on its internal area. Had it been a gallery, it would be fine to see it as a purely open space. Still, it’s a residence and, because of that, some space divisions are functional. In this sense too, the building is very clean: it has a certain number of walls, but limited to what’s enough. Outside, a pool and a sitting area that, as noted before, are almost an extension of the core of the construction.
The universal aspirations of a branch of modern architecture that became known as international style led to different reactions, from the almost complete rejection of its core ideas, what derived into postmodernism, to its adaptation by means of the adoption of different materials and the moderate resort to ornamentation in order to tie the buildings to their local environments. Although postmodernism is rare in SL (no surprise there, since it has practically lost momentum in the atomic world), examples of that second reaction to the international style can be found here and there. I’d say a number of works by Maven Homes brilliantly represent that effort, as one can see in The Avanti house.
The Avanti combines straight lines – and precise, smooth curves – with different materials, such as concrete, steel, stone, wood and glass (which is used not only on windows, but also as part of the floor upstairs). Hence, it gains some uniqueness in its modernity and feels more local, more attached to a certain environment where that particular composite is possible and to which it relates to.
Of course, the vast majority of houses in SL are prefabs – thus, they are not locally made buildings. Also, in terms of materials, in a virtual world I’m not referring to actual stone or wood, but to pixels that are rendered in a way that visually resembles stone or wood. So, how is it that they may feel local and related to a particular environment?
In the atomic world (or real life, as some prefer), examples of huge areas built at once from scratch are uncommon. Modernist cities certainly represent an important percentage of the most recent ones. Yet, the typical situation is the one in which a building is planned to occupy an area already surrounded by other constructions, by a rural scenery or by a natural landscape with which it will interact. Locality, then, means the ability to integrate to that situation.
In SL, the situation is different. Locality can be built at once, not just little by little: one can create and old-looking rural area overnight or set up a traditional town in one week or less. Establishing connections between a building and a certain environment is, therefore, a matter of having it in a context where it makes sense, both in terms of design and of materials.
Back to The Avanti, it’s worth noticing, too, that Cain Maven did a great job in planning the spatial configuration there. The house is conceived in a way that combines the preservation of intimacy in some areas and openness in other parts, sometimes in the same room. The first floor is open to the patio on the back part, but reasonably preserved from observers located in other places outside the building. On the second floor, we can see, more or less, the opposite. The bedroom, for instance, is preserved from people in other rooms, inside the house, but opens to the external part – which doesn’t really mean that intimacy is exposed, because, being on the second floor, the area is already somewhat protected from the eyes of persons on ground level.
Greymoon Designs is another building firm in SL that combines modern layouts with different materials. Creekside, by them, is an example of a log and timber construction (where stone is also present) that follows precepts of a rational design which emphasizes geometric forms and (here they are again) straight lines, fitting what some have called “modern mountain architecture” – a name that indicates how local certain aspects of modernity can become.
The use of wood and stone in the Creekside house contributes to the integration between the building and the surrounding environment. If the construction is placed in a proper sim, its materials will increase the feeling that the house belongs there, adding to other strategies of connection with the external area such as the extensive use of glass. And in terms of details, Creekside doesn’t bring a characteristic that may not please everyone in some other houses by Greymoon Designs: sliding doors. For, in the buildings where they are present, they don’t really slide, but shrink in order to open and enlarge again for closing. It doesn’t really compromise the whole quality of the constructions, but some may see it as a problem – nonetheless, again, Creekside has no sliding doors.
Our next stop in this trip through recent modern and contemporary residences – and it should be stressed that the models examined in this post are all recent – is Barnesworth Anubis. BA’s Malibu Beach House is relatively small, but very spacious. It is perfectly liveable, not only some kind of cabin with a single room. Downstairs, it follows the “open concept” trend, with a kitchen and a space that can accommodate a living room and a dining area. Upstairs, there’s a bedroom that, actually, can be subdivided into two sections, incorporating, beside the bed, a sitting area, for instance.
The alternation between red and white on the inner doors and walls and their arrangement in rectangles resembles, to a certain degree, a painting by Piet Mondrian. That segmentation of the vertical elements of the house contrast with the horizontally observed openness (in other words, the now very popular principle of the open concept that integrates the kitchen with the social areas) of the construction, creating an interesting contrast effect. And it’s worth noticing that the open concept applied to BA’s Malibu Beach House doesn’t mean that the house is a mere shell: the rooms are there, they are just open among themselves, and this is different from just building a beautiful façade for what really is a big-size empty box, as some builders have been doing in Second Life (notice that it may work well when you need a pavilion or a warehouse, for instance, or some space for an exhibition, maybe, but not so much for a residence, where one would normally prefer to have different places for receiving friends, sleeping, cooking and so on – of course there are exceptions, such as those tiny apartments of the atomic world where the same area converts from a bedroom into a living room and a kitchen, but, apart from some space pods and similar facilities, such structures are really unusual in SL).
Finally, among the creations that appeared on the grid in 2017, the Water Garden skyhome, by elev8, deserves to be on any list of best houses. It’s a skybox, so it has no façade: it’s all about the internal area. For the use of concrete, Water Garden resembles some brutalist buildings. Still, the way wood is applied to the construction also gives it a more contemporary atmosphere. It assumes the form of frames that cut and, in some ways, reshape the house from each new angle under which the observer looks.
The house is built around a water garden and it has three floors. Some rooms are disposed in a more continuous flow; others feel more detached. They can certainly be organized in different ways, and that is an interesting characteristic of the house: the final use of each room is not predetermined.
The use of plants, not only on the floor, but also coming from the roof, breaks even further the austerity of concrete, already softened by the wooden additions. And it’s worth noticing: water, in that house, is not just a detail, but a main element, too, to such a degree that I would consider it part of the list of materials for the building.
As one can see by means of these examples, and there are many more on the grid, modern and contemporary architecture trends are still present in SL and probably will always be there. So, Second Life’s residents may have diversified, which is great, but it’s not that modernity is over in the virtual world. Or is it that, in a reference to philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour, we have never been modern?