Zaha Hadid Architects Goes Meta at the Seoul exhibition

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Blaine Brownell
The Imagination Zone with a projection of the Liberland Metaverse

The pandemic has changed our appreciation of architecture as both a virtual and physical experience. In the last two years, the use of digital tools has accelerated in the wake of isolation, quarantine and other restrictions on our mobility. Meanwhile, the restrictions imposed during this time have increased our desire to travel and visit unique physical places. As a result, in relation to the design process and experience of architecture, one could argue that there is an increased interest in both virtuality and reality. As such, how architecture firms address these dual priorities and their relationships is becoming increasingly important.

Perhaps nowhere is this double emphasis more evident than in Zaha Hadid Architects’ recent work. The exhibition Meta Horizons: The Future Now— currently on view in Seoul, South Korea until September 18, 2022 — chronicles the office’s myriad forays into analogue and digital realms, offering new insights into the architectural possibilities in both realms and how they relate to one another. Significantly, the exhibition at the museum is installed within ZHA’s own Dongdaemun Design Plaza building, a hugely popular public destination that was completed in 2014. The random combination of the exhibition and the architecture is kind of an annotation Total work of artor Gesamtkunstwerk, in which visitors can see the direct impact of ZHA’s design approaches on the surrounding space.

The immersive display 'Architecting the Metaverse,' an AI-powered video created by ZHA and Refik Anadol Studio
Blaine Brownell
Architecting the Metaverse immersive display, an AI-powered video created by ZHA and Refik Anadol Studio

meta horizons is organized around three themes: Innovation, Interaction and Imagination. Innovation focuses on design methods that advance diverse material technologies and manufacturing capabilities. Interaction highlights strategies to improve the design process and team collaboration from concept to production. Imagination looks at the application of virtual reality tools and the role of architecture in the metaverse. The work of several ZHA research teams is also on display throughout the exhibition, including ZHA Code (computation and design), ZHA Social and ZHA Analytics + Insight (social interaction and behavioral simulation), and ZHVR (virtual reality). The articulation of the specialized work of these teams shows the increasing emphasis on research in practice.

Besides designing physical spaces, will architects routinely take on a parallel role in creating virtual worlds? Will such places align with physical expectations (e.g. gravity, uniform scale) or deviate from them and invite new possibilities of interaction? What ethical obligations will architects have when designing the metaverse?

The first zone visitors encounter in the exhibition demonstrates connections between virtual tools and physical construction. In the early days of computer automated drafting and design/computer automated manufacturing (CAD/CAM), architectural software lacked material intelligence. However, today’s increasingly sophisticated tools are influenced by the physical properties of different materials and manufacturing processes. An exemplary result is Striatus, a 3D printed concrete bridge, part of which is on display in the exhibition. Traditional additive manufacturing processes deliver material in successive horizontal layers. However, ZHA’s Striatus robotic fabrication method features a polygonal print that allows the strata to gradually tilt away from the horizontal – in keeping with the curved shapes of the bridge segments. Such a process, optimized for the structural logic of the project, requires more knowledge about the material behavior and the curing time to avoid unwanted shifting or sagging of the liquid starting material.

The innovation zone shows various examples of material research and development
Blaine Brownell
The innovation zone shows various examples of material research and development

Another notable body of research concerns human behavior. Given the company’s experience designing many large-scale commercial projects, ZHA has developed methods to simulate human mobility and interaction to optimize design layouts. Looping video feeds present agent-based crowd simulation at work with expected occupant flows and various spatial configurations that enhance specific functions. Developed from codes such as the Reynolds flocking algorithm, the programming behind these simulations is fascinating to watch. On the one hand, the use of software to improve designs based on empirical analysis of staff movement and interaction patterns is very compelling. On the other hand, the notion that virtual tools can authentically predict human behavior is questionable — and uncanny. Can our individual behavior really be reduced to a few lines of code in a program? And what does it mean when we base our architectural designs on such a simulation?

A detail of the 'Thallus' installation in the Innovation Zone
Blaine Brownell
A detail of the “Thallus” installation in the Innovation Zone

ZHA’s deep immersion in the Metaverse is highlighted in the Imagination Zone. Here we see the company’s custom environments for the popular elimination game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, popularly known as PUBG, a virtual city called “Liberland” and “NFTism”, a virtual gallery to showcase non-fungible tokens. Users enter the Liberland Metaverse with their virtual avatars and can buy and sell real estate using cryptocurrency. The otherworldly metropolitan area is based on Czech politician Vít Jedlička’s proposal for a real micronation called the Free Republic of Liberland, located in the disputed territory between Serbia and Croatia. Liberland raises fascinating questions about the relationship between the real and virtual worlds. Virtual property owners in Liberland Metaverse will reportedly be involved in the physical location. In addition, the design appears to be quite buildable: the project renderings show a city designed in Zaha Hadid’s recognizable style with identifiable, real-world building components. But the project is not intended to be a copy of a physical location and is therefore not a true digital twin. This blurring of virtual and physical targets, both similar and dissimilar, will open up compelling (and confusing) avenues into the construction of parallel universes.

A scale component of Striatus' 3D printed concrete bridge
Blaine Brownell
A scale component of Striatus’ 3D printed concrete bridge

By showcasing its pioneering work in building design bridges between reality and virtuality, ZHA highlighted a great opportunity for architects. Besides designing physical spaces, will architects routinely take on a parallel role in creating virtual worlds? Will such places align with physical expectations (e.g. gravity, uniform scale) or deviate from them and invite new possibilities of interaction? What ethical obligations will architects have when designing the metaverse? How should we uphold our commitments to diversity, inclusion and access? How is the ecological footprint of virtual worlds – full of energy-intensive NFTs – calculated and optimized?

in the Dawn of the New Everything: Encounters with Reality and Virtual Reality (Macmillan, 2017), computer scientist and VR pioneer Jaron Lanier offers this description of virtual reality: “Never has a medium been so potent for beauty and so prone to creepiness. Virtual Reality will put us to the test. It will enhance our character more than any other medium ever has.” How meta horizons makes it clear that the architectural challenges and possibilities of the metaverse are becoming ever more apparent – ​​and they demand our attention.

The views and conclusions of this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or the American Institute of Architects.

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