Umwelt: Architecture and Interactive Digital Environments

master dissertation 2020 - 2021

This master dissertation looks into the architectural potential of game engines, online platforms and simulations as interactive digital environments. Umwelt, defined as the world as it is experienced by a particular organism or individual, looks into what these technologies mean for the relationship between agents and their environment, how architecture mediates this relationship an increasingly digitised world.

The project is framed within the profound shift we see in the use of digital design media in architecture from representation to simulation: from a static drawing based approach mimicking analogue predecessors, to a dynamic modelling based approach as a proper digital design medium. Interactive digital environments, enabled through game engines, computational design, parametric modelling, augmented and virtual reality, allow for dynamic, time based, narrative and performative aspects of architecture to be designed and experienced simultaneously.

Furthermore, interactive digital environments are more than mediation, more than just digital copies of our material world, more than fictional parallel universes, increasingly our world is experienced, produced and governed through digital interactive environments. These environments are part of the technosphere, the emergent accidental megastructure that spans the globe through, data centres, networks and satellite communication, that is fundamentally altering the environments we inhabit. Interfacing with and critical understanding of these networked technologies is crucial for architecture to make sense of our technology saturated environments.


Starting to Learn from VR-chat by Jana De Timmerman, an architectural mapping of the multiple worlds of VR-chat. The digital spaces present in games are still a blind spot in architectural research and discourse. We see an increasing amount of people living their lives through games, using it as a means to visit different environments or as ways to interact with others. Games like VRChat offer a view of what the physical internet could become, an internet that no longer exists out of flat screens and text but instead becomes a virtual environment where you directly interact with others through both speech and gestures. Moreover, since the worlds in VRChat are mostly build by the users, it gives an insight in the aspirations, dreams and imagination of a large public and how they translate these into spaces. While most the users of VRChat do not have architectural training, it gives architecture an opportunity to learn from this public imagination. This thesis is an invitation for architects to seriously look at the gamespaces and see what lessons we can learn from these user designed worlds. The starting point for the dissertation was the assumption that there is an overlap between the digital gamespace and the physical world. Gamers inhabit both these spaces simultaneously, being present at their desk while at the same time being totally immersed in a digital environment. The dissertation aims to investigate games as full-fledged spaces and by doing that look for these moments where two worlds overlap.


60 FPS is More! by Marnick Beerts is a series of architectural sandbox games, the speedy first-person levels are inspired by compositional strategies of well-known hero-architects and artist. Developed as an architectural design office titled ‘OverclockOffice’ that designs a series of intuitive online interactive platforms for fast-paced content creation in video game like environments. Architecture is slow, often self-referential and takes itself too seriously. If architects are the masters of spatiality, and we as architects should play with space, then why do we as architects develop it from a safe distance and with almost surgical precision? Architecture is not an exact science. We design partly by adhering to rules imposed by the context and partly by tacit knowledge. The latter being a gut feeling that we obtained by trail and error. Reflecting on what we designed and adjusting the design in a next iteration or project. It is in this pace of iterating that the slowness of the architectural design process is felt when comparing it with the pace at which the overabundance of content and images is growing daily driven by media ecology. The tools and software packages we use to design are tools for creation, not for experiencing. For the experience we have other tools and software packages, used in another stage of the design process, in which representations of the design are generated. When designing, the view on the drawing is a god-view cluttered with buttons and icons that represent our toolkit. We couldn’t be further away from experiencing the space in the moment we are designing it than viewing it through the viewport of CAD software or in-between the fumes of the foam cutter. When reviewing, the perspective on the design is determined by the camera in the render software or through the holes in the cardboard model. We design without spatial feedback and represent without design interaction.