The Virtual House
The virtual world is a world of pure imagination. But its starting point is always the material, physical world that forms the basis of our existence.
Is that a paradox?
The material world determines the immaterial world, or, to put it another way, the immaterial world is a category or an invention of the material world. This invention is a means of guaranteeing, through the use of thoughts and images, the survival and continuing existence of the material world. It is not a self-indulgent luxury, fad, or mood. This immaterial world of thoughts and images is indispensable; it is the existential basis of the material and the physical. Without this support, the individual atoms of the material world would be imperceptible, disparate, and lost.
Imagination, creativity, invention – those lucid moments that are part of the daily life – are necessary stages of renewal and ultimately contribute to the continuation of the physical world. It is therefore utterly absurd to isolate the virtual and immaterial from the material, physical world of daily life; the two worlds are inextricably, existentially interdependent. Mankind has always dreamed of overcoming the material burden of the world to retreat into a world of pure mind. Over the centuries this dream has taken a variety of forms and in today’s age of information, it seems to be more relevant than ever before: the ideal world, a world without matter.
Is this an absurdity?
Every virtual image in architecture implies matter. Dependence on matter may well be the very essence – and virtual potential – of architecture. For this reason we try to enhance the material, physical appearance of architecture and explore the boundaries of its material condition, sometimes revealing ordinarily undetected qualities. What embodies weight? What constitutes brightness? What is a wall? What is light? These concepts all bespeak our perception of the physical world at a mental, spiritual level. This is precisely the level that we want to incorporate in our architecture. But in order to reach this level, in order to move in on the virtual dimensions of reality, its material underpinnings must be addressed.
The materiality of architecture is the key to its virtual dimension – the material world is the stuff of which our dreams are made.
For example, the concerns addressed in the Virtual House project are no different from those in any of our previous projects. Every one of our projects is a ‘virtual house.’ Every project targets the imaginative world, the dreams and longings of people. Every project is a provocation; every project provokes questions about the where and the how of the world.
By questioning the appearance of the material world, we question what is there. We try to decode our fascination with the traditional architectures of all cultures: that feeling of astonishment, somewhere between admiration and rejection, at the sight of old farmhouses in the Swiss Engadine that are practically tattooed with frescos, or the desire to understand shoji architecture and the natural artificiality of gardens in Japan or the mystifying, bewildering surfaces and sequences of rooms in Islamic architecture. These forms are all material in the extreme: refined, clarified, and distilled. This is precisely what makes them so virtual. They are virtual because they spur the imagination and cannot be defined by functional or typological, religious or structural, or any other linear explanations. Such architecture is complex because its materiality is the expression of its immaterial value and, conversely, its immateriality guarantees its material survival.
The point of departure for architects today has changed radically. Architecture no longer relies on the traditional handcrafting of materials but is aided by information technology.
In our work, beginning in the late 1970s with our video experimentations, pictures have always been the most important vehicles or messengers of this information. We made video stills of scale models of our projects that disguised the models and shifted the architecture into the realm of film and urban mass media. Pictures are open; they speak not a conceptual but a universal language and therefore go straight to the imagination.
For the Virtual House project we selected a few of these pictures (including two of the early video stills) that help us to imagine our world of architectural ideas in very different ways. They are contained equally in past and future projects but without looking like exact representations. We are not interested in quotations. Perhaps the pictures are only catalysts of our ideas. We chose them because some detail – attracted our attention thus opening the door to a different picture, a different idea, different architecture, a different virtual moment.
Why go to the Internet?
We can take action there – and many others can too. With the pictures we have chosen for the Virtual House we offer Internet users a start for Virtual Houses of their own. Through an open-ended system of communication, anyone can expand on the project; it can take any number of directions. Our idea of virtual architecture involves asking questions and questioning the answers; it is not affirmative; it does not confirm and conserve.
In the final analysis, our Virtual House is a political statement.
Herzog & de Meuron, 1997