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The Design of Virtual Environments with particular reference to VRML

The uses of spatiality

Architecture as spatial design

Spatiality has its own history. There is reason to believe that space has not always meant the same, even to those who made creative use of it. In his An Outline of European Architecture Nikolaus Pevsner (1943) tells us:
What distinguishes architecture from painting and sculpture is its spatial quality. In this, and only in this, no other artist can emulate the architect. Thus the history of architecture is primarily the history of man shaping space...

But it was not until the 1880s-1890s that architecture as space-making became a theme for definitive discussion. Prior to that time architectural theory concerned itself more with the elements that shape enclosure rather than explicitly with the space created. Architecture was often seen as a sort of sculpture that you could enter or as 'frozen music'. Of course, we are referring here to the explicit notion of architectural space. Clearly, architects had always concerned themselves implicitly with spatial matters. Rooms were proportioned according to spatial considerations. Rooms of contrasting plan area and volume were intermixed so that one experienced a changing spatial impression when moving from room to room. And the way in which various elements modulate architectural space was always taken implicitly into account. But the notion of an explicit 'architectural space' is largely a twentieth century notion.

Architectural space is modulated and defined by the elements surrounding and within it. Gottfried Semper (1803-1879), a German architectural historian, possibly the first theoretician to address the question of architecture as space directly, says 'The wall, partition or screen is that architectural element that formally represents and makes visible the enclosed space as such, absolutely, as it were, without reference to secondary concepts' (Semper 1989).

These modulating elements need be neither complete nor opaque. Thus a pierced screen or a row of columns will delineate a space even though these items will do no more than interrupt visual continuity. It should be noted that, the degree of visual opacity provided by a row of columns or a pierced screen varies in accordance with the sharpness of the angle at which it is viewed. The effect of this is that as one moves about a space surrounded by columns, one gets differing impressions of opacity and transparency, of enclosure and openness.

Space is also delineated by lowering a ceiling over an area or by changing its floor level with respect to its surroundings although, significantly, lowering the ceiling has a seemingly stronger effect than lowering the floor.

When an isolated wall occurs, space seems to flow around it and a sense of anticipation is set up about the the hidden part of the space. It follows from this that a square space set up by walls that do not meet, although still providing a sense of enclosure, will be qualitatively different from one with entirely enclosing walls. Similarly if a ceiling appears to float above the walls, a different type of spatial experience is achieved.

As in the general case of layout or depth perception, textures play a significant role in our understanding of architectural space. Textural effects are not restricted just to the surface of materials; the effects arise at various scales. Thus, in a Gothic cathedral it is not only the quality of the stone that gives texture but also, at a different scale, the repetitive nature of tracery and decoration.

What does the look of a building say that it is? The railway station was a new building type in the 19th century and as such posed a problem to its designers - what should it resemble? To say that it should look like a railway station is tautological, of course. For the Victorians, the answer was, variously, gothic hotel-de-ville, castle, doric temple, etc. In all cases it was felt that something exceeding purely mechanical functionality was required. They were essentially theatrical spaces in which the drama of travel was acted out. Virtual Environments are perhaps our equivalents of the Victorian railway station: we have no direct historical precedents for designing them, and currently tend to fall back on the reproduction of other constructions which seem more or less appropriate.

Planning permission in Cyberspace

In the instance of the monastery converted to a courthouse, who defined the first function? Who, and by what authority, transformed it? What physical changes were needed? Who named the functions?
Markus 1993 p12

We have thought of Virtual Reality in terms of the solitary user, but already CSCW, MUDs, MOOs, Worlds Chat and other systems have made us realise the potential for shared computer 'space'. Many advantages are possible (see p85) but there are concomitant issues which are sure to arise sooner or later. We are currently only used to the model of the software publisher who sells a package offering certain functions, analogous perhaps to selling a product like a car, a power-drill or a food-processor. Virtual Environments and Virtual Objects which are made available for interaction by a single user perpetuate this familiar model. However, when we start to construct environments for shared use, the model cannot be sustained. Increasingly, in the physical world, people expect a say in the decisions made about their environment, and the same will be true of shared virtual worlds. Who decides what can be built? How are decisions taken? Some form of liberal democracy will be needed to further majority decisions without squeezing out the needs of minorities. In an educational context, it is now considered good practice to allow learners to construct as well as to receive information - many courses offer their students the opportunity to engage in projects, as well as using the familiar techniques of written coursework and examinations. With this in mind, courses will also need to consider their attitude to VRML projects made by students.

Postmodern geography and the semantics of space

Geographers have taken an increasing interest in the semantics and the politics of space, whereas they traditionally saw themselves as dealing in the appreciation and mensuration of the physical landscape. To read any recent book on geography reveals a dramatic shift, which has been away from the 'obsession with landscape' (Jackson 1989) to such aspects as the significance of space in urban social theory; gender and the urban environment, posing a challenge to conventional distinctions between the public (spatial) and the private (personal); Orientalism (the concepts of the exotically distant); and the subjective geographies revealed by the characters of Hardy s Wessex novels (Jackson 1989 passim).

While it would be ridiculous to suggest that anyone designing Virtual Environments should feel obliged to read the vast literature of postmodern geography, an understanding of its general drift is useful, since once again it emphasises the meanings of spaces and how we use them.

What social functions converge in one building which were formerly separate? The supermarket now fulfils the functions of many small retail outlets. What functions which were once combined are separated? The pre-1834 poorhouse combined all those functions which subsequently devolved to the prison, hospital, school, asylum and workhouse.

Social views, political views even, inform the design of all spaces. Even gardens, assumed by many to be the epitome of detachment, have a sociopolitical history. The English landscape garden of the 18th Century was designed as a conscious rebuttal of the highly ordered, geometric gardens of the Continent and in particular France, seen as emblematic of authoritarian regimes by contrast with the freedom-loving, laissez-faire English. Pope mocked the whole idea of symmetry in a garden:

Grove nods at grove, each alley has a brother, And half the platform just reflects the other.
Pope, Epistle to Lord Burlington, NoIV, line 117

The history of architecture certainly seems to confirm that those buildings whose main aim is to impress authority, to inflate their own power in relation to the viewer, do indeed tend to be grandly symmetrical. To make a construction which others will move through and inhabit is to impose a decision on the user. It seems likely that the users of the future will not be happy to inhabit the consequences of someone else's remote decision-making.

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