The new metaverse office for VICE Media Group, designed by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), is in a “great location,” according to Morten Grubek, creative director of the company’s creative services subsidiary, VIRTUE, and leader of its metaverse initiatives. VICE announced the launch of a metaverse office in early March, but as of now, says Grubek, the building—located right off of SoHo Plaza in Decentraland—is more of a playground than a workspace. “The building we got from the BIG team was originally intended to have around 70 floors. We only have two at this point, but we can constantly add new floors to it,” he says, “so every time we have a new idea or we want to test something out, we build it and put it into the building.”
Grubek reached out to BIG about a metaverse office after seeing firm founder Bjarke Ingels featured on the Netflix series Abstract. “He has a lot of energy and he talked about his philosophy as being like the movie Inception, and that just really appealed to my idea about what the metaverse is,” Grubek told RECORD. “It should be building something that still links to the real world but would never be possible in the real world. If Red Bull gives you wings in the real world, you would have a jetpack in the metaverse.”
After my conversation with Grubek, I logged into Decentraland, a browser-based platform, to see the BIG tower for myself. Your Decentraland avatar first spawns in Genesis Plaza, in a warm, wood-lined, lobby-type space, with booths and various snug nooks to sit in, though it isn’t possible to make your avatar sit. Sliding glass doors open and close when you approach, just like in real life. Outside the building is a plaza made with beige pavers and dotted with multi-colored plantings and pink and orange trees. Above me, the sky is blue and nondescript mountains lie in the middle distance.
The metaverse itself is not new: the concept has its origins in a dystopian 1980s science-fiction novel, and open-world multiplayer platforms like Sims, SecondLife, and Roblox have been around since the beginning of the millennium. But the recent hype around the metaverse, as a tangible investment opportunity and the natural next phase of the internet, was jump-started in October, when Mark Zuckerberg announced the rebranding of Facebook as “Meta.”
The name change, an indication that the company would transition from a social media platform into a “metaverse company,” has made the metaverse seem inescapable in its momentum. The word has been thrown around to the point of abstraction, but in short, the metaverse is a three-dimensional version of the internet. Until now, web design has been in the domain of graphic designers, but the metaverse offers an opportunity for architects to shape what proponents claim is the next phase of social reality.
“The metaverse is not an escape, and it's not a video game,” Patrik Schumacher, principal at Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), told RECORD. “It will become the immersive internet for corporations, for education, for retail, and also for socializing and networking in more casual arenas. Everything we are doing in the real world could potentially be substituted or augmented or paralleled with interactions in the metaverse.”
ZHA was one of the first major firms to take the plunge into metaverse design. In early March, the firm announced that it would build an entire metaverse city—a digital version of the unrecognized, and as yet unbuilt, sovereign state “Liberland'' that was founded seven years ago by the right-wing Czech politician Vít Jedlička. “At the time, I was very frustrated with planning regulations and overbearing political constraints on city development,” says Schumacher, who has long fought against government intervention in urban development.
Interior of a Liberland Building. Rendering courtesy ZHA
The actual design of Liberland, which is intended to go live later this month, is aesthetically consistent with ZHA’s broader portfolio, consisting of a number of white, curved buildings. Among them are a town hall and a number of designated plazas and hubs, each marked with the firm’s signature undulating, parametric style.
Although there are no physical or legislative constraints on building in the metaverse, Schumacher and other metaverse builders argue for a virtual world that closely mirrors our own: “We are well trained to recognize what kind of spaces we are in and understand how we should behave in this place versus that place,” he says. “If you're flying around in some abstract geometry universe, you wouldn't understand where you are and what's going on.”
The ideological bent of the metaverse aligns with Schumacher’s own political sympathies—in the past he has come under scrutiny for advocating for privatizing city streets and eliminating social housing—and with the broader decentralist and anti-institutional underpinnings of the crypto-currency community. Bitcoin will be the currency of Liberland, and its national motto is “Live and Let Live.” In Decentraland, users can purchase non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of artworks or wearable items for their avatars, with a cryptocurrency called MANA.
However, critics point out, the eager touting of the metaverse as a concept and technology by companies like Meta, Google, and a broadening swath of the Silicon Valley investor class, is placing even more power into the hands of big tech. Meta’s rebranding, uncoincidentally, came after a tumultuous year for Facebook with Senate hearings, whistleblower revelations about the company’s selling of user data, and billions lost in plummeting stock. “The metaverse isn’t a new world,” wrote Claire Evans in Metropolis. “[It’s] only a way of prolonging the grift of social media.”
In VICE’s own backyard, the company’s tech-outlet MotherBoard published a slew of negative articles about the metaverse both before and after Zuckerberg’s announcement: “The Metaverse Has Always Been a Dystopia,” “The Metaverse is the Ultimate Surveillance Tool,” “Facebook Spending $50M Researching How to Not Ruin Metaverse Like It Ruined the Real World.”
“It's hugely concerning that we have big tech, who already own all of the data of web 2.0, trying to build top-down worlds and environments,” Breanna Faye, a licensed architect who has been straddling the worlds of tech and architecture for almost a decade, told RECORD. “The word of web 3.0 is decentralization. How do we continue this proliferation of decentralized technologies and not just have very centralized companies creating huge data whirlpools and repositories like they did previously?”
Faye champions a grassroots approach to building out the metaverse and is a supporter and member of the Open Metaverse (OM), which is a platform in development both technologically and ideologically. OM was started by an anonymous figure known as punk6529, who has written a number of manifestos on keeping the metaverse free from the influence of big tech and political agendas. “It’s a return of the Jedi vs the Death Star style mission,” wrote punk6529 in a Twitter thread from October. “[We can’t] sleepwalk into a panopticon society controlled by a handful of people with a ‘God view.’”
Clicking on the map square in the upper-left corner of the Decentraland interface opens up a green grid, an expanse of plot points which represent millions of dollars in land value. There are 90,000 plots in Decentraland, a fixed number, each backed by an NFT. In December, real estate in Decentraland was trading for an average of $26,600 per transaction, a 155% increase since Meta’s rebranding. The value of NFT-based virtual land sales has skyrocketed as brands like Gucci, Coca-Cola, and Domino have staked their claims in virtual reality, boosting metaverse platforms like Decentraland and Sandbox.
Soho Plaza is a fair distance northwest of Genesis Plaza. I could simply click on the corresponding point on the map to teleport to the office’s coordinates, but I opted for the scenic route instead. Accidentally running onto a moving tram, one of many that traverse the main routes of Decentraland, cut my travel time in half. As you move through the virtual world, buildings and scenery generate ahead of you: galleries, games, stadiums, fountains, and plazas unfold byte by byte.
In the metaverse, technically, anyone can be an architect. Decentraland users can build using an in-platform tool, or import models designed in other programs like Blender or SketchUp. Nonetheless, the services of a contingent of “metaverse builders” have risen sharply in response to the growing demand for metaverse property. “I've seen bids of $200,000-$300,000 for custom designs by a virtual metaverse builder,” says Faye. As part of a collective of technologists, all with a background in architecture, she has launched an architecture NFT project called Metakitex, which aims to make the metaverse more accessible. Metakirtex uses an algorithm to generate meta-buildings, with fully accessible and interactive interiors, at an affordable price.
Metakitex's generatively designed "Meta-American Dream" homes. Rendering courtesy Breanna Faye
Schumacher argues that virtual design actually increases the value of the profession. “It puts the focus on our core competency,” he says, “and distills the essence of the architectural discipline in its distinction from the engineering disciplines.” At a time when the value of the profession is being thrown into question, says Schumacher, “It’s going to be an avalanche. Prices will rise and salaries will rise because there will be a shortage of competency.”
SoHo Plaza is an arts and culture center of Decentraland, one of several themed community districts created by the Decentraland Foundation. As opposed to the somber and traditional design of Genesis Plaza, SoHo Plaza leans into the fantastical. Giant fauna and dinosaur statues hover above a skatepark dotted with blocky trees and art installations. A glass walkway, accessible by elevator, runs above the scene.
Approaching VICE headquarters. Screenshot courtesy Decentraland.Org
VICE HQ lies on the northwest corner of the plaza; its white curved horizontal bands, adorned sporadically with tasteful twines of ivy, is inset with a bluish reflective material, both of which glint in the meta-sun. Unlike the other buildings I had explored thus far, BIG’s VICE building seems to have been designed by architects who recognize that meta-architecture doesn’t need to abide by traditional schemas. Why do you need an elevator (like the one my avatar got stuck in while trying to access SoHo Plaza’s glass walkway) or to wait for an automatic door to open, when you can walk through walls, or fly in through the roof? Your avatar can clamber up the VICE building’s extruding ridges as if they were stairs and access the inside via openings in the center of the structure.
The architectural possibilities of the metaverse, says Faye, have yet to be fully explored. “If I own this land, I can change the building. Today it can be a gallery, tomorrow it can be an event space for a private party, and the next day it could be a stadium,” she says. “You might actually in the future have a Rolodex of different buildings because of the different programmatic ways you want to use your virtual land.” Architects have worked within virtual and augmented reality technologies for years, but the metaverse will be a living lab for how people use virtual space: it will unfold as a dialogue between designer and user.
The first room I found at VICE featured a TV screen with floating ticker tape news. (The company’s longer-term vision, says Grubek, is for VICE journalists to report from inside the metaverse.) There’s a gallery and a display of wearable VICE merch that you can buy for your avatar. After stumbling around for a while, I found another room, this one marked by a placard announcing an upcoming fashion event and a warp-tunnel that zips you into a separate darkened space with floating headshots of the VIRTUE team as well as two statues. The first is of two hands, each holding a different colored capsule (a la The Matrix) and in the corner, an oversized and scantily clad female figure with her hands reaching out to you (who resembles a character from the 2017 sequel to Blade Runner). These two references to imagined dystopian futures—one in which humanity is unknowingly trapped in a simulated reality and another set in a stylized Los Angeles in the thrall of corporations and shady tech ventures—could be tongue-in-cheek, an acknowledgement or maybe a dismissal of the future that metaverse critics foresee.
Inside VICE headquarters. Screenshot courtesy Decentraland.Org
I couldn’t find a way out of this last room. After groping along the walls for an exit and trying to jump up and down under a lone spotlight to teleport back out, all to no avail, I clicked out of the browser entirely.
Clearly there is work—and plenty of money—for architects in the metaverse, and more firms are leaping at the chance to build out and within this new future. But it’s still unclear whether the demand for a virtual life on the part of the larger public will live up to such rampant speculation and investment, especially in an age of widespread awakening to tech’s privacy violations.
But in many ways, we are already in the metaverse. Technologies like Zoom bridge the divide between virtual and real life, and the proliferation of smart devices mark the internet’s foray beyond the confines of our screens. The question that remains is whose world will we build—a brave new one, or simply an infinite territory for the powers that be to expand their reach? I couldn’t resist asking Grubek about Motherboard’s consistently negative takes on the metaverse. “I love it,” he says. “I think it’s super healthy; you need to think critically about the metaverse. But we are building the future here, and it's not done.”