Las Vegas helps us understand how virtual environments fall short

Las Vegas helps us understand how virtual environments fall short

A few months ago, I visited Las Vegas for the fourth time. Not much has changed: It’s still a battleground of corporate brands vying for attention. Want to buy a Prada bag in Venice, see a Michael Jackson hologram concert, or try one of Taco Bell’s new Cantina Margaritas? Architecture supports this function by playing a different role than normal: Rather than being an end in itself, it serves to lure, capture, and contain its subjects—and, in turn, separate them from dollars. theirs – turning public space into a stage. In Vegas, the workers are the background dancers, and you are the star of the show.

Perched high above the dark moat in my castle at Hotel Excalibur and with a fresh cup of coffee and a laptop open to the various digital metaverses, my eyes darted from the screen to the flashing lights of the Strip below. I blinked repeatedly, restoring my vision as I scanned between the two worlds. The words of a wise friend Walaid Sehwail echo in my head from a conversation we had while researching a previous article on AN. To paraphrase: “The driving force of a metaverse isn’t about new forms of communication, or NFT art, or immersive space, it’s about brand experiences.” It’s not that the best use of a metaverse was to deliver branded experiences, rather that’s the bulk of the capital interest in the metaverse.

shop ups on metaverse
(Courtesy Ryan Scavnicky)

Here! A year later, the only whispers I hear about the metaverse are the single, dwindling cry of a monthly Facebook ad from UPS that somehow made its way down my algorithmic throat. “Come visit a UPS store in the metaverse!” sponsored content calls out. The post — from a corporation ranked 34th on the Fortune 500 list — has eight likes and 11 comments. I scroll through the comments section with childish glee, hoping to find a number of people who share my bemused confusion about the whole gambling thing. “How do I get to the upper floors?” says one commenter. (You can not.)

Las Vegas is the metaverse IRL (in real life). It is an island of brands, images, shapes and alluring signs pointing in the direction of debauchery and distraction. It’s vibration. Oh, and gambling. A lot of gambling. In a metaverse, you can change the avatar you inhabit by changing your “skin”, which usually involves pulling up a menu and swapping clothes. You can be a businessman, a velociraptor or a broccoli. (These improvements sometimes come at a price.) But in Las Vegas, you change your skin by walking from one narrative space to another. In Excalibur I am a death or glory knight gathering my courage for an upcoming tourney; but when i cross the road to new york, the hotel and casino of new york, i become a hardened city, eating a slice of pizza and hitting the hood of a yellow taxi while puffing out my chest and yelling “i’m walking” here !” In both cases, you can’t be everything you want – you may just be what someone has packaged and sold you as a potential identity with the express purpose of chasing a follow-up sale.

billboard in las vegas
(Iwan Baan)
man stands in front of blank billboard in metaverse
(Decentralland/Courtesy Ryan Scavnicky)

2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the work of Denise Scott Brown, Robert Venturi and Steven Izenour Learn from Las Vegas, a study comparing the city of sin to Rome. Through a map of the city of Las Vegas and its comparison with the famous Nolli Map, the book sheds light on public space and its significant presentation as the core of the built environment. They also discovered a chasm between the so-called “cultured” and the architecture of the profane. The book advised that learning literally from everything—and thereby rejecting or restructuring what is considered “canonical”—is a revolutionary way to be an architect. This disruption has been replicated with the emergence of immersive digital architectures.

To commemorate this anniversary, various institutions have commissioned updated studies. The Neon Museum produced “Duck Duck Shed,” a series of talks and conversations about the city today. And this fall, Iwan Baan exhibited a series of photographs of the two cities together at the American Academy in Rome, where he is Richard Grubman and Caroline Mortimer Photographer in Residence. (A selection of these images were published in the October/November issue of AN.) Three pictures from this exhibit illustrate what we can learn from Vegas once we accept it as the IRL metaverse.

First, consider this picture of an obnoxious billboard near the Strip and compare it to similarly obnoxious billboards in the Decentraland metaverse. The pairing captures both worlds by displaying a huge signal barrage. The empty surfaces invite viewers to buy into the country’s pyramid scheme and, in turn, add to themselves, like a voracious beast. Like real-world real estate commodities, digital assets are only as valuable as the sum of the interest in similar surrounding assets. The draw explains why there are many developments that aim to replicate the atmosphere of Vegas, but simulations must be good enough to turn a profit, not replicate an authentic place: See Reno, Nevada; Windsor, Canada; or Biloxi, Mississippi. Similarly, there are many who do not believe in crypto independently, but have thrown in their Bitcoin in the hope that as others join the returns, creating rippling markets of other currencies: Dogecoin, SHIB, Other “meme coins”, such as examples.

gold tower in las vegas
(Iwan Baan)
brown rectangular house in the metaverse
(Decentralland/Courtesy Ryan Scavnicky)

Next, a picture of the Trump Hotel in a sea of ​​developed lots, set against a single “house” and surrounding vacant land for sale in Decentraland. The availability of so much land and the exorbitant costs associated with its development cost the average person or user more. It’s like hitting a wall in your world building. The visibility of those conspiracies suppresses the narrative; she breaks the scene, discovering the creation of a common kingdom is not the goal, but, rather, walling off those who have the means to build.

Then, finally, consider the sublime solitude that occurs when one steps out of the Belt. This photograph shows a pedestrian crossing the space between a parking garage and a freeway with the Mandalay Bay Hotel in the distance. Single and Sober Vegas is, well, sobering. I once left the main drag and was swallowed up by the sudden banality of an empty hotel ballroom, only to become the sole occupant of a 37-foot-ceilinged bathroom facing a wall of 37 open urinals. . In a metaverse, one may encounter a well-developed facility or building next to a large area of ​​owned but undeveloped land. With limited build distances on some engines, the view of emptiness stretches to the horizon, which is ridiculously filled by a background of hills that cannot be removed. In both cases, the noisy architecture loses its luster when viewed from the wild wobegon that surrounds it.

According to a description of the work, Baan’s exhibition “looks at Las Vegas and its spectacle of impossible buildings and infrastructure – to rethink Rome, a city shaped by power and money for centuries.” These are not neutral images, just as Scott Brown’s own city photography was made with similar goals. Baan’s views, the text continues, “taken expressly for this occasion, compel us to question whether we can consider architecture without moral judgment, a perspective that Venturi encouraged for Las Vegas, in the ecological and social contexts of the twenty-first century.”

tower and glittering gold highway in Las Vegas
(Iwan Baan)
the man stands in front of the glass building in the metaverse
(Decentralland/Courtesy Ryan Scavnicky)

We have the same problem with metaverse architectures today. But now, it’s further complicated by how much actual architecture has been called into question – its ethics and work practices aren’t as steadfast bastions of morality as we thought. Venturi and Scott Brown are right that looking at everything is radical, in the sense that it shows us the radical conditions of spatial production. Of course, we should not look with the intention of repurposing kitschy content for trendy new design ideas, but with the ambition to disseminate architectural thought widely enough to become a multifaceted force for design quality and fairness. This, at times, exposes the pre-existing limits of the discipline as purely stylistic and classist in nature in its judgements.

The same goes for the metaverse: Those who refuse to take it seriously risk ignoring the harsh reality of economic production today. And as for how the metaverse might relate to Rome, well, that’s a story for another day.

Ryan Scavnicky is the founder of Extra Office, a design practice that engages developments in contemporary media to discover new channels for architectural content. He currently teaches architectural design, theory and criticism at Kent State University.

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