Millions of dollars spent on a plot of digital land, firms specialising in designing only buildings for the metaverse, brands and celebrities getting involved. Our journey into a future that until a few years ago would have seemed science fiction.
Think of arriving in Downtown Manhattan when it was still all countryside and buying a plot of land in, say, SoHo. Not a bad investment, right? According to those who are investing on real estate in the metaverse–or rather, in the digital worlds where you can buy land on which to put up all kinds of buildings–today we are going through a similar pioneering phase. Buying a piece of land in blockchain-based and still relatively uninhabited environments such as Decentraland (300,000 users) or The Sandbox (500,000) allows you to own of a piece of those digital worlds where – it is thought – we will transfer more and more of our daily lives in the future.
First of all, it is important to clarify one thing: the metaverse does not yet exist. That is to say, there is no single immersive, open, virtual reality world where one can work, play, attend concerts and move around without restrictions of any kind – imagined and described by Mark Zuckerberg, among others. Instead, there are various individual (virtual reality or not) digital environments, each with its own specific functions. Some, such as Fortnite, give particular emphasis to gaming; others, such as VRChat or Zepeto, look like immersive social networks; still others, such as Horizon Workrooms or Microsoft Mesh, are designed for work. And then there are those such as Decentraland or The Sandbox, which allow you to buy (and sell) land in cryptocurrency, and then to construct all kinds of buildings on these lots: art galleries where you can display your most prestigious NFTs, digital clothes shops or places to invite your friends’ avatars to.
The architect of the metaverse must have knowledge of traditional architecture, but also of conceptual art.
As crazy as it sounds, not only has the idea worked, but prices have skyrocketed: in November last year a plot of Decentraland was bought for $2.4 million by a company that wants to build a commercial site for luxury brands. A few months earlier, an investment fund had spent $900,000 on Decentraland to acquire a piece of land, betting on the continued growth of its value; crazy prices were also seen on The Sandbox, Axie Infinity and others.
B20, BitBuzz, ConsenSys, House of M, Max Stealth, MoCA
One of the reasons why prices are rising so fast is that these plots are not unlimited. On Decentraland, for example, there are 90,000 15 virtual square metre pieces of land. Scarcity, as always, creates value and prompts people to put their money into this kind of investment. In addition to the crazy speculation typical of the world of cryptocurrencies, however, there is something else. A company such as Tokens.com has bought a plot of land in Decentralandand has built a digital tower on it: the aim is to make money by renting space to brands that want to organise events in the metaverse.
The hunch is that, in the metaverse that is gradually taking shape, a real economy will be created, accompanied inevitably by new jobs. Among these, one of the most promising seems to be that of “metaverse architect”. In recent months, there has been an exponential growth in specialised architectural firms working full-time on the design of structures to be built in the various digital worlds.
Firms such as Polygonal Mind and Voxel architects, or designers such as Kirk Finkel (known as Untitled; xyz), have already receivedwide media coverage and have been paid up to $300,000. Hardly surprising, considering their clients include not only avid crypto-nerds, but also companies like Sotheby’s and celebrities like Snoop Dogg. “We work primarily with companies, brands, investors and art collectors to give them a digital presence in the metaverse through the buildings we create”, George Bileca, CEO of Voxelarchitects, tells Domus. “We have worked with companies such as Sotheby’s, ConsenSys and Real Vision and today real estate developers are also beginning to show considerable interest”.
From one perspective, designing for the metaverse seems like every architect’s dream. No physical constraints, no safety regulations, no construction sites, no engineers and builders to deal with. Pure creativity. “The architect of the metaverse must have knowledge of traditional architecture, but also of conceptual art. Because you are free from the limitations of the real world, creativity is emphasised more than the technical execution”, confirms Bileca. “That said, there are rules in the metaverse as well. Here the structures are made of polygons or voxels (three-dimensional pixels, ed.) and you need specific skills to build with these ‘materials’. Finally, the role of structural engineers has been taken over by the developers, whose job it is to make the building feel ‘alive’. They are the ones who create all the interactions: being able to open the doors, get into the lift or turn on a switch. When you design in the real world, these are natural interactions, but in this meta-space, it is important to think about every single element. In the end, it is not the design that brings the building to life, but the tiny details”.
But why should we open a door, turn on a switch or get into a lift if we are in a virtual world without any physical boundaries? “When we started designing in the metaverse we took inspiration from real-world structures. That was to give newcomers a chance to adapt to this space, by offering them a reassuring environment”, Bileca continues. And that’s probably why many of the metaverse structures advertised – such as the one by digital artist Andres Reisinger – often have windows, beds and a whole range of accessories that are useless in the digital world (who would want their avatar to lie on a bed and do nothing?).
We design meeting points for people to gather from all over the world with just one click.
“Today, the architecture of the metaverse looks a lot like the architecture of the real world”, explains designer and digital architect Kirk Finkel. “Many virtual buildings even have bathrooms. But these environments don’t have the same constraints as the physical ones, so why should they be the same? I think this is a missed opportunity for architects, who tend to recreate what they already know. We have different rules at our disposal, a different language made of polygons instead of bricks”.
There is another element that clearly distinguishes the job of an architect in the real world from that of the architect in the metaverse, and that is the fact that no digital building is meant for private use. Who would enter the metaverse and then hang about at home alone or with their partner (worse: their avatar)? “The architecture that is created here is mainly concerned with public space”, continues Finkel, who works primarily with artists, curators and art institutions to create virtual environments for digital art. “We design meeting points for people to gather from all over the world with just one click. My training in urban design has helped me a lot: basically, what we create is more a project for the public sphere than an actual ‘building’”.
Will a new aesthetic of the metaverse also emerge, perhaps beyond the very wide –and inevitable– use of ultra-futuristic and cyberpunk design? “Actually, it depends a lot on what virtual world you’re building in”, Kirk Finkel concludes. “A place like Somnium Space (virtual place built on Ethereum, ed.) has a basic aesthetic that is ultra-realistic, where you can walk through the fields at sunset but surround by floating buildings. Older environments, such as Cryptovoxel, have a more raw appearance reminiscent of the internet of the old days. Back in 2018, artists used to come here to buy land and build installations or host their studios. It felt like Berlin a couple of decades ago. But now that these virtual worlds are becoming mainstream, the metaverse as a whole seems to look less and less like Berlin and more and more like Las Vegas”.