In his tract against the legacy of the Modernist movement, the architect Reinier de Graaf rails against the professional “God complex” left in its wake. “The hype around contemporary architecture, and the myth of the individual genius that comes with it, seems little more than a convenient decoy that allows us to shed any notion of a collective responsibility – a disingenuous crusade against what are ultimately our own sin,” he writes.
In his conclusion, de Graaf recalls a scene in Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas (1984), wherein a man screams from an overpass at the traffic passing beneath his feet:
To what extent does this man resemble the contemporary architect? A person assuming to possess privileged knowledge, to whom everyone around him appears to be deaf. A person who stands motionless, while everything around him is in motion. A person who prophesises from a bridge, looking over the ones below (who he keenly refers to as “the masses”), but also increasingly a needy person, far removed from the wealth with which he was once associated, and – if economic indicators are anything to go by – pretty soon a lone drifter, in search of shelter… of four walls and a roof.
This is not to say architecture is inherently bad—it isn’t—but that wielding power responsibly is a challenge for any field where individual practitioners can, in principle, have a massive impact through their actions. For that very reason, the God complex is also a concern for doctors, to pick but one other example. The existence of this complex is not an argument against creating tools for these professions—medicine, by most estimations, is better now than ever before—but it is nonetheless a concern.
DesignSpace, a “prototype design tool for the HTC Vive for urban designers and architects,” embodies all of these tensions. It is, on the one hand, a very compelling utility, allowing designers to hover over models of cities and push and pull and extrude new forms and see how thy work together. It’s a bit like standing over a model, only the scale and scope are endlessly changeable. This seems like a potentially useful tool—a city-builder with more tools and points of view.
it is also the view of God
At the same token, DesignSpace is the view of God. You hover above the city, all-powerful to add and subtract as you see fit. The people below don’t even look like flies; there are no people. This is your creation. Up to a point, that’s fine; outside of weird thought experiments it isn’t practical to expect little people to walk through architectural models and give their feedback. A responsible professional should be able to think about people even if they aren’t in every simulation.
But how does being given God’s point of view change a responsible professional? If architects previously feared the God complex, does it not stand to be worse when these dynamics are reinforced by technology, when you’re further removed from people? The controllers in DesignSpace look a little bit like robotic arms. In the demo video, a user is shown flicking new shapes from his virtual wrists. In DesignSpace, the architect is an astronaut—or Iron Man. This is likely a useful user interface, but it is also the view of God. One may not be extricable from the other, but as the power of VR grows this is a problem with which we will need to more frequently reckon.