Unbuilt's immersive social exhibition space, curating new conceptual work.


The Architecture of Virtual Space

Design Brief

TLDR: Five architecture teams have been given a challenge to design a virtual meditation space. Their work will be exhibited in the first exhibition at The Unbuilt Gallery of Architecture on February 9, 6PM EST, and sold in The Unbuilt Market.

Paper Architecture and Virtual Space

There is a long history of paper architecture. The architecture profession has long valued design research and the proposal of conceptual or polemical design solutions from Etienne-Louis Boullée’s “Cenotaph for Newton” (1784)  to Archigram and Ron Herron’s “A Walking City” (1964). The Unbuilt Gallery of Architecture continues this rich history of virtual architecture while exploring a new tech-enabled medium: virtual space. The Unbuilt Gallery adds a third dimension to traditional paper architecture and the unprecedented element of experience. Virtual reality and real-time graphics enable additional immersion in an architectural thought experiment. 

Metaverse: Cultural and Philosophical Underpinnings

The term “metaverse” was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash. Humans are represented and interact in a virtual 3D space as avatars, and this technology is depicted as the next evolution of the internet. Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel Ready Player One further set the stage for the imagination of an all-encompassing virtual world. The dystopian novel is set in 2045 in which protagonist Wade Watts plays to win a global virtual reality game.

Tye Sheridan in "Ready Player One," Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the best-selling novel. Credit: Jaap Buitendijk/Warner Bros. as reprinted in The New York Times.

The virtual worlds imagined by Stephenson and Cline lay the foundation for our collective imagination about what the metaverse could become, for good and for bad. Sci-fi aside, a real metaverse is indeed coming, and its anticipation has stirred up a great debate and struggle for its control. But what is it? Simply put, the metaverse is a real-time 3D version of the internet. In his seminal work The Metaverse: And How It Will Revolutionize Everything, Matthew Ball defines the metaverse as “A massively scaled and interoperable network of real-time rendered 3D virtual worlds that can be experienced synchronously and persistently by and effectively unlimited number of users with an individual sense of presence, and with continuity of data, such as identity, history, entitlements, objects, communications, and payments.”

Platforms and games have been created that attempt to create elements of a metaverse experience. Second Life, launched in 2003 by Linden Lab, is a virtual world that has its own collection of virtual experiences and venues, and even its own economy. More recent platforms such as Decentraland, Sandbox, and Somnium Space allow users to interact as avatars, purchase virtual land, and place virtual architecture on their site. Unlike many other social platforms, these exist as a single continuous world, and designers must wrestle with context, travel between spaces, preferential views, and locations. They often can only control a single plot of land. Decentraland states on its website: “The first fully decentralized world, Decentraland is controlled via the DAO [Decentralized Autonomous Organization], which owns the most important smart contracts and assets of Decentraland. Via the DAO, you decide and vote on how the world works.”

The technology that enables a truly immersive metaverse experience has been rapidly improving thanks in large part to the efforts of Epic Games. Unreal Engine continues to improve their realtime tools and capabilities and allow for power-users to create experiences at unparalleled levels of customization. Simpler tools like Twinmotion allow for easy onboarding for creatives with less technical knowledge. Acquisitions of companies like Megascans, Sketchfab, and Reality Capture allow for rapid kitbashing or even photorealistic digital twins. Virtual reality tools continue to improve thanks to OpenXR providing a unifying standard for hardware across the VR ecosystem. And while these experiences grow more and more complex, the need to have computing power is mitigated by the proliferation of cloud computing which allows easy access to top-of-the-line machines at affordable, usage-based rates.

Unreal Engine 5 delivers a generational leap with Lumen, the default global illumination and reflections system.


Skeuomorphism is a term used in UX design and outlined by the Interaction Design Foundation:

“Skeuomorphism is a term most often used in graphical user interface design to describe interface objects that mimic their real-world counterparts in how they appear and/or how the user can interact with them. A well-known example is the recycle bin icon used for discarding files. Skeuomorphism makes interface objects familiar to users by using concepts they recognize. Skeuomorphism is related to what ecological psychologist James Gibson termed “affordances.” Affordances refer to action possibilities of objects or other features of the environment. The most commonly cited examples of affordances include door handles and push buttons; their physical designs inform users that they can be rotated or pushed. Skeuomorphism represents affordances in digital user interfaces. It fits with our natural interpretation of objects—but in a digital world.”

Skeuomorphism uses a visual vocabulary of the physical world to make the virtual world easier to understand and navigate. But there is a debate as to whether or not users still need visual cues that reference the physical world in order to use technology. In 2007, Apple and Google embraced flat design, which eschewed skeuomorphism. Flat design, influenced by Bauhaus and Modernism, reduced clutter on the screen and promoted visual clarity above all else. In 2014 Google launched Material Design, an interface design system that uses physical paper as inspiration, but goes beyond its physical limitations. Google states, “Material Design is inspired by the physical world and its textures, including how they reflect light and cast shadows. Material surfaces reimagine the mediums of paper and ink.”

Google Material Design: “Material is the metaphor.” 

In virtual architectural design, skeuomorphism would be the tendency to design references to the physical world. But how much of the physical world, its laws of physics, and normative tectonic realities do we wish to replicate in a virtual experience? The familiarity of skeuomorphic design provides comfortable onboarding for new users, but risks limiting the latent potentials of the digital medium.


In 1901, Frank Lloyd Wright delivered his infamous address “The Art and Craft of the Machine.” He discussed the power of the machine to potentially liberate architects: “The artist is emancipated to work his will with a rational freedom unknown to the laborious art of structural tradition - no longer tied to the meagre unit of brick arch and stone lintel, nor hampered by the grammatical phrase of their making…” Now is a moment in time when this virtual medium can be explored and leveraged to prompt innovative and thoughtful design experiments. Virtual architecture is liberated from the physical realm. Without the pressures of budgets and constructability, architects can realize their complete visions and deliver architectural spaces to anyone with an internet connection. Virtual reality will enable a new generation of thought projects and design research to reach and impact the masses without ever being built.

Architecture and the Brain

One of the intents of architecture is to elicit a strong emotional response in its users. There is a profound intangible experience to being within a space. However, scientific studies on the effects of good architecture on the brain have produced tangible results. An article in The Atlantic outlines the efforts of a team of architects and neuroscientists:

“[The] team operates with the goal of using the scientific method to transform something opaque—the qualitative “phenomenologies of our built environment”—into neuroscientific observations that architects and city planners can deliberately design for. Bermudez and his team’s research question focuses on buildings and sites designed to elicit contemplation: They theorize that the presence of “contemplative architecture” in one’s environment may over time produce the same health benefits as traditional “internally-induced” meditation, except with much less effort by the individual.”

The team found that by simply looking at static images of “contemplative,” architectural aesthetics, subjects’ brains behaved similarly to states elicited by traditional meditation. Finally, the team concluded that “architectural design matters.” 


The program is a Meditation Space as this invokes the issues discussed above. Meditation requires a particular emotional and mental state. Paying close attention to the needs of a virtual UX, design a space that inspires and prompts one to look inward. Users will navigate at 1:1 human scale with an average eye height, and models will be experienced at full scale.


There is no site in the traditional sense. Projects will be sited as extensions of the central hub of the gallery exhibition. Please include whatever context or adjacencies that support your design intent.

Reading References

Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash
Ernest Cline, Ready Player One
David J. Chalmers, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy
Matthew Ball, The Metaverse
Matthew Ball, Metaverse Explained
GeoConnextion, “The Metaverse is Geospatial”
Building the Open Metaverse Podcast: What is the Metaverse? 
Luke T. Baker, Architectural Digest, “Is Your Next Big Break Going to Be in the Metaverse?”
Frank Lloyd Wright, “The Art and Craft of the Machine”
Interaction Design Foundation, “What is Skeuomorphism?”
Interaction Design Foundation, “Skeuomorphism is Dead, Long Live Skeuomorphism”
Google Material Design

Project References

Tadao Ando, Meditation Space in Paris, France 1994-1995
Meditation Pavilions
The Row | Everyrealm
Biennale Cinema 2022 | Venice Immersive