VR – the real architecture of delight

10 March, 2020

With MIPIM, the Milan Furniture Fair and the Venice Biennale all postponed, what’s so irreplaceable about them anyway asks Oliver Salway.

Even without the coronavirus outbreak, using so much energy to transport delegates and artefacts to industry events across the globe and to construct temporary installations with a mayfly-like lifespan, doesn’t seem smart .

But what can’t we replicate through virtual means?

With an object-based show such as Milan’s Salone del Mobile, there is a certain logic that you need the opportunity to ‘kick the tyres’ – to sit on the B+B sofas and see if they’re comfortable. But architecture shows, like the Venice Biennale, never show us the real thing – just representations, photos, films, models and CGI’s.

At best you might get a ‘real’ fragment such as a bit of 1:1 mock-up, devoid of context. Virtual realities aren’t the ‘real thing’ either. But unlike any other medium of architectural representation, they can immerse you in the space at life-size, either a millimetre-accurate scan of a completed building or an abstract concept model.

And there’s no better way than VR to communicate the spatial experience.

Also the 360-degree nature of VR quickly reveals the shortcomings that architectural photography and renderings conceal through clever camera angles and creative retouching. For the exhibition-goer or grand-jury judge, VR offers a ‘truer’ facsimile.

VR is not just a medium of representation but an artistic medium in its own right – the first new art form of the 21st century, and its surreal potential remains untapped. Imagine how much more dynamic the national pavilions of the Biennale could be freed from physical constraints. Forget isolated Instagram-able moments, this could be the real architecture of delight.

Not that digital technologies are immune from criticism. The spotlight of shame has now fallen on the environmental toll of data-streaming, and VR is particularly guilty, although we can power data-centres renewably, cool them under the sea and use techniques to optimise the amount of live data we transmit.

What virtual realities currently lack is a credible means of consumption – at least for crowds the size of a Biennale audience. Putting on bulky headsets is hopeless when managing big numbers. And for the visitor underneath the headset, looking like a scuba diver playing blind-man’s bluff in a room full of strangers, this can be a major turn-off.

Thus, traditional exhibitions do readily communicate a lot of information to a lot of people, with a minimum of faffing around.

And for a large-scale VR show, that’s a lot of new electronic devices to produce, power and dispose of. That aside, in terms of material efficiency, VR does show promise as it’s nothing but light. And scale is no limitation – you could have virtual pavilions the size of palaces.

But if we do decide international shows can no longer be justified, what else do we lose?

The official action at the Venice Biennale and the Milan Salone may be the headline shows but the real business happens off-stage, at the VIP dinners, in the late night bars and the hazy hotel lobbies.

As with any international trade show, it’s not just about ‘exhibition’ – it’s also about ‘congress’. Recreating the social dimension is the paramount challenge that any virtual exhibition must overcome, if it’s to be serious competition for a real-world ‘fiera’.

That might seem a deal-breaker, but it’s not impossible to imagine how congenial real-world spaces, designed to operate in tandem with virtual or augmented reality could go a long way to bridging that gap.

Instead of a studio trip to Milan or Venice, imagine a group outing to a local venue, kitted out with the VR equivalent of karaoke booths where a group of colleagues could take a virtual tour of full-size spaces from across the globe, lubricated by great table-service.

It’s not whether a virtual experience is better than a trip to Italy but about what could constitute a good-enough substitute if we can no longer risk the real thing.


Oliver Salway is a founding director of Softroom and is currently exploring the potential of VR as both a practical and artistic medium. He will be a judge for Best Use of Immersive Technology, one of the new categories in the Archiboo Awards which launch in May.