Cover Photo: Zaha Hadid Architects

Tatler learns how architects across the globe are building in the virtual world. Additional reporting by Jennifer Choo

The rise of the metaverse means boundaries between physical and virtual realities continue to blur—something that has inspired architects, who are well versed in the design and construction of buildings, to take their talents to the digital sphere.

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For George Bileca, the CEO of virtual reality specialist Voxel Architects, which is based on the Portuguese-administered island of Madeira, constructing in the metaverse “feels like reinventing the wheel”. “The challenge is in switching architects’ and designers’ mentality,” he says. “This is something completely new.”

The firm made a splash in the crypto world in February when it announced it was creating a 1:1 virtual replica of an 11,000 sq ft, seven-bedroom, nine-bedroom luxury mansion being built by Meta Residence, founded by luxury home builder and NFT collector Gabe Sierra. The virtual property is in The Sandbox, while the brick-and-mortar home is under construction in Miami. Both properties will be auctioned at the end of 2022 by One Sotheby’s International Realty as a single lot, and the winning bidder will have ownership rights to both the real home and its virtual counterpart. Dubbed Meta Residence One, it is a project that the firm says is the first of its kind in the world.

Voxel’s team is staffed with architects, designers and artists—and they understand better than anyone how to take advantage of space in a land and building efficiently, says Bileca. The creative process starts similarly to a real-world construction, with sketches and storyboards. The next steps are driven by information such as the size of the virtual land, visual references and the purpose of the structures.

Meta Residence One has the potential to set a new standard in real estate, he says: NFTs, which are digital certificates of ownership, could apply to transactions taking place in the real world, beyond just digital art. Owning a home in the virtual world has other benefits, too: “I think it will also be a [new] standard to virtually walk into the house you will actually buy, where you can host events and [receive] friends from everywhere—people who, because of geographical limitations, cannot meet you in your real house.”

In the same vein, a “non-fungible terrace” concept, created by the Malaysia-based firm Qhawarizmi Architect (QWA), is “derived from the urgent need to rethink terrace housing in Malaysia”, says its principal Qhawarizmi Norhisham. One of five metaverse projects the architectural firm has in the works, in January this year the idea won the Concept Home 2030 Competition, an initiative by Malaysia-based developer Sime Darby Property that envisages how homes could be designed and built in the future.

Malaysian terrace housing refers to the rows of identical or mirror-image houses, which are built side by side and typically offer a front lawn. They are influenced by the architecture of the southern Malaysian city of Malacca while under Dutch rule (1641–1825), which in turn finds its origins in traditional Dutch row houses. In the early 1970s, this style of architecture began to gain traction as the “quintessential domestic dream home” throughout Malaysia, says Qhawarizmi—and remains popular today. “For many Malaysian families, terrace houses are an aspirational life purchase.”

Despite terrace houses being highly desired, Qhawarizmi says their owners are “desperate to express their individuality”. This is where the concept of non-fungible terraces comes in. It takes its name from NFTs. “Non-fungible” refers to something that is unique and cannot be replicated, which Qhawarizmi says is “opposite to the nature of terrace house development in Malaysia, which are typically standardised”.

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QWA has created a platform powered by artificial intelligence, which will create personalised designs for each virtual terrace house buyer. “Each unit is uniquely crafted by its individual owner, then minted on the blockchain,” says Qhawarizmi. “These purchased ‘meta-terraces’ are in the form of NFTs and can be enjoyed in the metaverse as a digital domestic space where buyers can socialise and work.” When the time comes for Sime Darby Property to offer physical terrace lots, non-fungible terrace house token holders can then commit to building their dream home; this also means that, for the developer, future communities can be developed in the metaverse before they are translated to the real world.

But while Bileca has hired creatives with gaming know-how to optimise user experience, and Qhawarizmi has translated a popular home concept to the virtual world, for Zaha Hadid Architects principal Patrik Schumacher, the metaverse is “neither a game nor fiction”.

This year, the world-famous architectural firm revealed plans to build its very own metaverse that promises to be a libertarian metropolis in the virtual world. Named the Liberland Metaverse, it will consist of a city hall, NFT galleries, shops, office spaces and a startup incubator for businesses in the cryptocurrency sphere. The firm’s signature aesthetic—curving façades and sharp angles, for which its late founder Zaha Hadid was celebrated—are seen in renderings of the structures.

The venture is a virtual counterpart of the Free Republic of Liberland, of which Schumacher is a citizen. Liberland is a micronation laying claim to an uninhabited, disputed, 4.3km piece of land between Croatia and Serbia, founded in 2015 by Czech politician Vít Jedlička. “Virtual reality in the metaverse will be no less real than the physical reality in our cities,” says Schumacher. Liberland’s virtual counterpart is a 1:1 “digital twin” of the physical land mass of Liberland.

Open to everyone, its facilities will be used as virtual spaces to conduct social, cultural and business activities, while the rest of the land will be leased or sold to developers and businesses. The rules of real-life architecture do not necessarily apply here: facilities considered essential in buildings, such as kitchens or bathrooms, will not be replicated in the Liberland Metaverse. Weather is not a consideration—and this means the outdoor spaces in the metaverse can be used in more ways than their counterparts in the real world. There are similarities to physical constructions, however: “In both cases, architects ought to focus on social functionality.” This means attention needs to be paid to the use of space in social interactions as well as its aesthetics.

For these architects, work is underway to make their developments a “reality”—albeit virtually. Voxel works with people who buy land in the virtual world “with no idea how to build properly”; it is Bileca’s goal to create a strong identity for his clients in the metaverse, and “construct really beautiful buildings”. Qhawarizmi runs startup digital agency Seetizens Plus, which works in the Web3 and NFT space: it’s creating a tech system that will make the non-fungible terrace concept a reality. “Our work attempts to pave a way for buyers to get the freedom and flexibility of a crafted home in the familiar format everyone loves,” says Qhawarizmi. Schumacher wants the Liberland Metaverse to serve the creatives who are trailblazing Web3 today—perhaps even replacing the need for brick-and-mortar gatherings. “There is no doubt in my mind that virtual environments will be mainstream within ten years,” he says. “All physical venues will be augmented or substituted by virtual venues.”

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