I D É E S   F O R T E S    Issue 2.08 - August 1996


By John and William Hunt

Architecture : from the Latin, teks - to weave (as a net); also to fabricate, a root shared with text, textile, context, subtle and technology. More especially to build a dwelling with tools...

To those who fear anomie on the Net, fear the desocialisation that comes with increasing immersion into virtual environments, the answer is the virtual community. Digital technology need not - indeed, does not - separate people. It can unite them, simulating and enhancing patterns of "real" social interaction. At least, it can if it's designed to.

Who will design these acceptable new communities? One answer, simple, elegant and gaining ground, is that it should be the same people that build our existing communities: architects. There are currently more architects in Britain than there is work available for them. Many view this shortfall as a push to move away from the traditional model of architectural practice and to concentrate their energies on the opportunities that cyber- space affords.

According to Nick Dalton, who runs a postgraduate Virtual Environments course, architects are uniquely equipped to handle the necessary balance of artistic, anthropological, philosophical and technical disciplines required to give form and value to the "digital frontier". Not surprising, perhaps; they are, after all, products of what is currently the most diversely demanding of all professional training courses. As William Mitchell writes in City of Bits: "In the UK it takes seven years to become an architect and during that time a great deal of emphasis is on human issues; to imagine that those issues are irrelevant just because there is no de facto sun and no obligatory gravity or cold seems deeply strange." And architects need to use digital technology anyway - designing things for the real world now demands that they do so.

For a century now, the real world (as we typically understand it) has not been the only world that human beings inhabit. The advent of the telephone and the radio meant that close physical proximity was no longer necessary for interaction. Photography and cinematography made it possible to deal with the flowing three-dimensional world in frozen or animated two-dimensional forms. As these media evolved, architects have begun to realise that spatial structure is only part of their palette. Now, they are asking what principles they should take with them into entirely virtual worlds, and which they should leave behind for good.

As Winston Churchill put it, "We make our buildings and our buildings make us." As we create ourselves and our communities on the Net, the importance of architecture may actually increase, despite the absence of bricks and mortar. A building is at one level an idea about how to live. The need for, and scope of, such ideas is now growing faster than ever before.

John Hunt is the founder of Syzygy, a Web marketing company. His brother William is an architect.