new Journal article: Experiential realism and digital place-making

This article will be published next month in Metaverse Creativity


Despite originating as practical aides for the design of real-world architecture, Computer Aided Design and Draughting (CADD) software tools initially encountered a great deal of resistance, in part because of their initial expense and apparent technical complexity, but also because they were seen as blunt tools, crude instrumentation inadequate for the artistic expression of place. In March 2004, at an informal seminar hosted at the University of Melbourne in Australia, the eminent scholar Professor Marco Frascari argued that computer reconstructions of architecture were far too exact and thus too limited in conveying the mood and atmosphere of architecture. With all due respect to Professor Frascari, this article will argue the converse: that recent developments in interactive technology offer new and exciting ways of conveying ‘lived’ and experientially deepened notions of architectural place-making.


While we may have initially praised virtual reality for not being constrained by limitations, the continued success of games based on challenges and thematic constraints have shown us that limitations may be desirable rather than a necessary evil. Technology can create artificial freedom, but it is a shallow type of freedom if there is nothing to escape from. Therefore, embodying and socially embedding a visitor in a virtual world may at first seem more confining than does the liquid freedom proposed over a decade ago for virtually built environments (Novak 1991), but it may actually improve the user experience rather than detract from it.

While clear and cohesive evaluations of why certain places appear to be rich and meaningful may elude us – for how do you test the experience of a city in a laboratory – virtual worlds and other types of digital environments still require places if they are to be memorable, rich experiences and returned to.

Place-making is experiential, the success of organically developed historic towns versus the criticism of modern architecturally designed urban spaces should remind us that uniform design frameworks may look aesthetically pleasing but are not necessarily experientially fulfilling. While architects can create wonderfully evocative and atmospheric sketches, the built environment seldom conveys the spirit of their doodles and visualizations, precisely because the imagination is not required to look past the lines and the dots; the experience is already filled in. Thus, my response to Professor Fascari is not so much a negation of his criticisms as is a request for reflection. To suggest that digital technology cannot be evocative or memorable is to avoid the real issue: how do we digitally design or otherwise afford a sense of place? That said, I do not suggest there is any one concrete and clear definition and prescription of place. I have suggested five aspects of place that my students and I have attempted to evoke in our projects in order to break down the spatial monotony and shallowness of many digital environments. I am sure there are many more aspects of digital place-making to explore.

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