NFT & ARCHITECTURE I Towards a Parallel Architecture

The Metaverse and its designed contents, especially architecture, often sold on NFT platforms – is considered today a new emerging reality blurring the boundaries between the tangible and intangible, the physical and the digital – soon to be meaningful for our everyday lives, workplaces, communication and consumption, as some of its creators claim.

First lets acknowledge the hype and meteoric rise of NFTs, before questioning and critically examining this recent phenomena and its relation and impact to architecture at large. A non – fungible token, short NFT – is the authentication of a digital asset. It certifies and gives credibility and originality to a digital artefact. These certified assets could be anything from a jpeg image, a video, a simple 3D model, fashion accessoires or furniture all the way to holistic architectural projects for virtual worlds. Even though a simple image or a piece of architecture could be easily copied and re-distributed, the authentication token renders it into singular work of art – ready for trade. Analogous to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre versus a million of printed copies of the same image.

Second, NFTs come in as a user friendly and intuitive accreditation method for designers and architects, to commercially make their creations available for a new digital market economy. So within an architectural practice one could consider NFTs as an agent connecting architects with markets and demand. This is a pivotal game changer to the established methods of working in an architectural practice, which relies on winning projects trough competitions or direct commissions.

Obviously this comes in quite handy as designers and architects for their majority today and with growing popularity use a myriad of digital tools to edit, market and also design their creations. Its a short and easy leap suddenly to commercialize the work as an NFT. In return NFTs also help giving credit both on the artistic level and also on the economic level to digital creators, who for a long time struggled with exposure and accreditation.

A cyber-capitalist approach enriching the consumption and trade of digital content suddenly on an exponential scale. People in hesitant disbelief or ambiguity following up on this simple in a nutshell explanation quickly get convinced by the legibility and economic force of the adventure when institutions, like the auction house Christies or the art trade show Art Basel incorporate works of NFTs within their portfolios. Simple pioneering NFT architectural projects such as the “Mars House” by Krista Kim were sold online for a net value that could justify a physical construction of a real project.

How can this be concluded and reasoned, and what values does the work, hence architecture for virtual spaces promote? What are emerging opportunities for creators and architects, are questions we shall shed light on.

It is an evident fact that in design as well as trade of “produce”, we are quickly moving from 2dimenisonal assets to 3d artefacts. Emerging worlds and spaces are in large demand for 3d content on a vast scale. So its quite natural that architecture and designers of objects and spaces will find immense opportunities in playing an important role in feeding and designing both the worlds themselves and the content contained in it.

The question arises how this new solely digital architectural and spatial designs relate to traditional values and architectural theories ? Will the phenomena create new ones beyond the commercial aspect. Are people still interested in design per se, concept, or to the meaning of the content? Can the Vitruvian paradigms of beauty – firmness and usefulness hold up and keep its relevance in virtual worlds? Do some of these paradigms need to be replaced by new ones? How can virtual architecture be concluded or rationalised within our world and economy?

If one looks closer to the quality of the actual content available today in the usual NFT marketplaces, it becomes evident that in this early times trade and investment is hyped by the expectation of quick value increase, return of investment or the pioneering participation in a new world order in first place, while the work and its values is rendered secondary.

This hierarchy will need to be reversed.

This dynamic obviously states quite a challenge for a profession like architecture as a discipline. The expectation to contribute positively to society and the environment, to participate and advance an intellectual discourse – to make lives more meaningful – on a civic level are not yet met within the virtual realm and need to find their counterparts in virtual worlds. The civic qualities for virtual worlds are still in development so architecture struggles to be a positive response or an agency to give definition. As spatial challenges will emerge in the broader spectrum of NFT architecture – it will be a crucial tipping point to conceptually be responsive and innovative and not only copy real world constrains to virtual ones. The demand for quality and the definition of these new qualities is something that still is waiting to be explored and also valued accordingly within NFT architecture.

In this sense one also needs to speculate what the alternative notions within these new spaces and architecture can be? What are added qualities and challenging experiences to be designed? If we will only continue the inherited architectural qualities and merits of the past, as duplicates in parallel within the digital realm – architecture will not sustain its relevance as a profession.

One of the major distinguishments architects will need to make in the future in virtual worlds conceptually is between “digital twins”, replicas of physical objects or buildings and “surreality” meaning objects and buildings that go beyond the actual known physical objects and its properties and exploit new ones that match and relate to virtual worlds. This is a huge opportunity for architects to expand their existing design investigations and gain relevance as creators in virtual worlds .

An interesting example in this sense can be witnessed by Andreas Reisinger with his collection “The Shipping Collection” which as a video sold on foundation, one of the main marketplaces for NFT items for nearly 450k $. Ironic in the sense that the project suddenly explores the notion of the impossible, the kinematic and less functional – as something that would only be possible within a virtual environment. These connections might not be yet meaningful, but start to tease a relation between projects and its context that can be discussed and valued as an architectural response.

So the question remains to be explored, what are those surreal qualities within architecture to be designed and conceptualized, similar to Reisinger’s approach in furniture design?

Looking at the first ever architectural NFT project by Chris Kim as an instance, one could argue that it has merely any relation to a trajectory of the architectural discourse and discussion. Is it architecture at all? What aspects of conventions does it ignore and which ones does it open up? It surely has spatiality and gradient surface texture as an expression, but is it in any sense innovative or intellectually provoking in relationship to virtual worlds ? The project as discourse and intellectual contribution of architecture and discipline in relation to virtual worlds is challenging, while its prominent feature of being the first in a series of spatial entities as an NFT stands out, and made history.

The new architectural business model is established on values of fast consumption and trade, instead on new concepts and opportunities, the notion of production and any type of Taylorism promoting quality. The new worlds do not set currently any intellectual or cultural constrains for designers – so anything goes. This in return allows for everybody to be a designer, a creator, an architect – something that is very well aligned with an egalitarian zeitgeist and ethos.

Todays digital endeavor with NFTs has its roots in cultural, technological and social phenomenas of the recent past. Re-establishment, decentralization, flat hierarchies, an increase in self engagement and control are just a few of the socio cultural phenomena’s that have yielded the way. The NFT market economy and hence opportunities in connection of designing and marketing architectural projects could be considered a natural evolution of difficult and infiltrated business models of the profession. If we will and all signs are pointing in the direction that this will be a real scenario – embrace digital worlds into our everyday lives, architecture and the work of architects will play an incredible important role in how we will shape and experience these new environments. A case scenario example would be virtual remote work places in the future, only existing as digital realms, accessed by innovative head mounted user devices. But the question remains, will these environments be still open plan offices, stacked on top of each other as iconic urban gestures, towers – expressing power of the institution they belong to? Or will there be new scenarios and spaces on how we spatially collaborate and communicate? This is merely a spatial and design question, once again pointing out the relevance of architectural designers for these emerging opportunities.

Historically challenges and a try and error mentality always yielded the field in the beginning and emergence of new trajectories. Be it the introduction of computational design, fabrication, social awareness, the sciences, new materials. There is a health struggle in the beginning with a lot of “failures” to learn from and to emancipate from. Its a question of time when architecture tailored for virtual worlds and the NFT economy will emancipate itself, establish a profound discourse and its own set of value criteria’s – and become relevant to the profession. Certainly there are architects who already work in this direction.

Architecture only slowly makes ties with this development, potentially being afraid of losing ground and discourse of the past – substituted by new paradigms. One can conclude from various medias that several key players within the profession are attempting to land projects trough NFTs for virtual worlds. The game changer to previous attempts of this kind is virtual space itself which is important to mention. A space where virtual artefacts and architecture becomes relevant and meaningful. These spaces have not existed with this level of accessibility, visual artistry and user friendliness before. Spaces or new worlds such as the Metaverse, Decentraland, Sandbox and a myriad of its derivatives. Without these new worlds that build on user participation and new experiences and also again business opportunities, socialising, consuming and communicating – digital artefacts and architecture would remain simply used up space on our hard drives. But suddenly there is a space to commercial deploy to, and the demand is staggering.

It is the combination of the new cryptocurrency economy, the accreditation of digital work as originals as NFTs and spaces of deployment where new experiences are promised – that makes NFT architecture – for the current so in demand.

Digital architecture exists profoundly since it inauguration to the profession with the rise of computers from the mid 70ies to the first paperless studios at Columbia University in the 80s. New spatial concepts influenced by mathematics and postmodern French philosophy changed the way we think and how we create. Early experimentation depicted wireframe graphics and surfaces and the application of animation as a method of designing. Something quite alien at that time to the profession. These developments in architecture continued with profound new assembly methods in the material world with new fabrication methods, being responsible for some of the canonical architectural project of the recent past.

In a way it is interesting to see that in the last 20 years architecture and the profession has thrived to rationalize and develop the early digital experimentations to the material word and to the built environment, and now with NFT architecture this development is reversed back to a purely digital domain, without the necessity to actually build something.

The difference that one will need to point out though is that within the development from the early digital experiments to physical built work, innovation was a key driver. Innovation within architecture itself, not the technology that is enabling it. This was an evolution of concepts, new architectural languages and expression, the engagement and enlightenment of its users and participants all the way to modes of construction as a natural response to the technological opportunities. This level of innovation is difficult to trace with NFT architecture at this early stage, and one could argue that it is unexplored territory. Today it is still rather the conventional projects that get implemented, rather than any direct response or spatial innovation within the opportunities in this new economy. Nobody rethinks architecture by its definition and elaborates on new potentials and spatial experiences in relation to let’s say: navigation, orientation, signage, narrative of spaces. These architectural domains will need to be rethought and partially re-invented for a specific digital context that is indifferent to our existing worlds. This again here sets out opportunities for canonical projects yet to be developed.

With some of these conclusions and observations one can clearly state that it is a steep beginning to make architecture relevant as a profession and valuable contribution and not only a business model in virtual worlds. If it wants to sustain relevance with its specific set of competencies it will on the one hand need to let go of some of its perspectives and values as a compromise – but will also need to establish new ones which make it a relevant contribution for its future users, or shall we say avatars.

As a more speculative outlook where this journey might go, we again need to acknowledge and closely observe the world around us and point out the phenomena of simulation and immersion. With the tools and assets available, ranging from AI to big data and machine learning, and exponentially increasing levels of representation – we seemingly thrive towards a parallel digital world. Maybe at a future scenario difficult to distinguish from the real world. The question is will this new world be something “new” or are we craving a healthy “replica” of our existing world without the current challenges of climate, social inequality, political unrests, starvation etc. Will it be a “brave new world”? Its undeniable that we already live in a semi digitalized environment, and daily rituals – if we pay attention – how we communicate, consume, date, navigate our cities – are all already part of a digital world. It is the responsibility of architects and future designers and profession to shape and give meaning in these emerging environments.

If speculatively all these currently somewhat disconnected streams of invention today would merge and be consolidated, and advanced by rapid technological developments – one could claim that in the far future there could be a world, holistic and purely digital that has relevance in its occupation next to our physical world. Maybe todays “Metaverses” are the first attempts as they try to not only embed entertainment but also social, cultural, commercial and political engagement – which all are in demand for architecture.

Joseph Beuys declared the “The expanded notion of the artwork” in the second half of the 20th century, which holds more than true to this canonical transition on all levels for art and architecture trough means of digitization. Challenges will need to be faced because of this extension of our world. Rather than closing in and reverting our views and concepts to old ones, one needs to embrace these new phenomena’s and capitalize on its pioneering moments, and failures and opportunities.

Architects will need to reinvent qualities that will state new competencies of the profession tailored to virtual worlds and the opportunities. What is key in this development is to stay relevant as architecture stands today as a key human endeavour to shape and advance our built environment.

Confidently we can look forward architecture doing so in parallel in new virtual worlds to come. 

Bence Pap
Bence Pap is an architect, educator and technology enthusiast. He studied architecture in Vienna and received his Diploma from the University of Applied Arts – Studio Greg Lynn. Bence’s interests lie in the intersection of architecture and technology, expressed in speculative projects with novel mediums. He is the founder of the architectural office ATELIERPAP and in 2019 co-founder of ARTEFACT- Mixed Reality Studio, a practice focusing on the design and implementation of mixed reality solutions.