Virtual Dimensionality

Essay by Peter Maxwell

July 19 2016

Artist Olivier Demangel has made a bold prediction about virtual reality’s impact upon design in the near future. He envisages that soon every architectural firm will be equipped with a dedicated VR room with motion tracking design tools. And he believes that, within a half-decade, virtual architecture will be of such high quality that it will be difficult to distinguish from the real thing.

Demangel goes on to suggest that for architects, the experience is “going to be more powerful than cocaine.” Should this prophecy of the designer as digital sorcerer’s apprentice hold true, it would irreparably fracture what little relevance architecture still holds as a socially transformative practice.

Author Rory Hyde has said that architects have fallen a long way in social standing over the last half-century, from the onetime alchemists for a new and better civilization to overqualified decorators whom the public see as “only interested in formal novelty and fussy detailing, making everything expensive.” This is compounded by an increased emphasis on the architectural image as the main point of expression, creating a situation in which, architect Joel Wenzel claims, “the image exists independent of the concept, to be evaluated as a graphic.” And a different set of parameters for success mean a different set of outcomes—especially when it is the image, and not the built product, that wins the cold hard cash. Critic Oliver Wainwright has asserted that the increased sophistication of renderings has seen architects “fleeing the real world of people and places, scale and context.” So, what impact might placing architects literally at the center of these fantasies have?

Though perhaps unintentional, Demangel’s cocaine analogy rings true. Cocaine is, by cultural association, the drug of choice for the rampant speculators, the short-termists, the financiers and developers for whom architects are agents of the “value added.” If the image of the architect standing in a white room with what is effectively a blinder over their eyes is an apt summation of the discipline’s divestment from any of the real programmatic concerns affecting society—the provision of housing or the preservation of active civic spaces—then it is also an uncanny counterpoint to one particular object that became synonymous with another equally fraught period in architectural history: Haus Rucker’s Flyhead Transformer.

The design collectives of the late 1960s were formed with the express intention of redefining their discipline in the face of technological acceleration. They opposed consumer excess and political intransigence. New practices such as Archigram in the UK, Superstudio in Italy, and Haus Rucker and Coop Himmelb(l)au in Austria pursued new forms of ephemeral architecture which rejected the concept of building for permanence and wished to avoid entanglement with traditional power structures of finance and bureaucracy.

These groups instead focused on the transitory—on architecture redefined as event, performance or happening. This was a tactical form of design, one that didn’t believe in the grand visions of utopia that its predecessors had failed to achieve. Instead it sought to affect small-scale insurrections, and often retreated before their ideas could be co-opted and commercialized. They deployed a different spectrum of materials in their work: less brick, mortar and glass, more plastic, air and imagination. This was a living architecture, and often it adopted organic, even corporeal forms not only in its physical structure, but in how closely it related itself to the bodies of its users.

The Austrians were particularly keen on the notion of architectural symbiosis. Coop Himmelb(l)au wanted to create habitats that would commune with their “movements, feelings, moods and emotions,” creating pneumatic structures that would behave as an “organism” and that would “beat like the heart and fly like breath.” But this was also a cerebral architecture, one that used light, sound and image as construction materials in the same way as the gossamer skeins of fabric, steel and plastic that surrounded them. These were machines of sensory manipulation that transformed the environment through shifts in perception as much as through physical intervention.

They deployed a different spectrum of materials in their work: less brick, mortar and glass, more plastic, air and imagination.

But while Coop Himmelb(l)au tended towards grand public statements, it was their fellow Austrians, Haus Rucker, who perfected a more intimate and immediate form of architectural psychedelia: an LSD-like exploration of the limits of human awareness that is the antithesis of today’s coke-fuelled rush of arrogant self-belief. Their 1987 project, Mind Expander, saw two users sit side-by-side, thighs overlapping, with their heads inside a plastic dome covered with reflective color films in varying arrangements. This attempt at achieving an altered state was an unambiguous call for more introspection. It was the conscious tuning out of an external reality that, in the late sixties, was increasingly thick with information, and it was the reemphasis of unadulterated human cognition in communion with a partner.

The following year they mobilized this idea with their Environmental Transformers series, a range of helmets that elevated a set of the users’ senses by blocking another set. As one of the founders, Günter Zamp Kelp, explained, the architects felt they required “a filter to understand reality better.” In this new age of mass media, the urban environment needed some sort of translation to be parseable and intelligible once again.

One particularly famous image of the Flyhead Transformer is a bare-chested man with arms crossed, each gripping the opposite, his head bowed and lips slightly parted. His head is encased in a double-bubble green plastic dome, beneath which a second structure of eyepieces, headphones and less decipherable gadgetry obscure his face. It is a picture of deep trepidation and contemplation. Though it appears alien, it was in fact engendered by how alienating the built environment had become—and how myopic architects had been in their complicity with it.

When Malcolm McEwan penned his 1974 publication Crisis in Architecture, he identified the poisoned ground: ecological insensitivity and social exploitation on behalf of the market rather than the polis—it is this impetus to which the avant-gardes of the previous decade had been reacting. He claimed that practitioners were “caught up in a social system that rewarded their most selfish and destructive impulses while repelling their most generous and creative ones.”

There is a similar misdirection at play in contemporary design practice. As prosthetic and virtual environments begin to enter the mainstream, their reinforcement of the self-centered can only detract from the critical reflection so urgently needed in design today. The Flyhead Transformer forced its users into a new, less distracted mode of interaction with one’s surroundings—it was a prophetic technology detox more relevant now than ever.