Welcome to Second Life, a 3D online digital world, population 8,915,412, imagined and owned by its virtual residents, who can buy land, build homes and businesses of all kinds, showcase new products, conduct job interviews, and then, worn out from all of that virtual work, attend concerts or visit night clubs.

Second Life (www.secondlife.com) was founded in 1999 in San Francisco by a company called Linden Labs (http:lindenlabs.com), and has received funding from Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development, Catamount Ventures, and Benchmark Capital. Corporations with a significant presence include GM, IBM, Dell, Coca Cola, Toyota, Intel, and Coldwell Banker. Meanwhile much smaller virtual businesses are making real money on the site in a variety of ventures, including designing jewelry, applying tattoos to avatars, and manufacturing pets for these virtual beings.

Second Life is an Internet phenomenon that, surprisingly, seems to be taking off among adults, including those at large corporations and prestigious universities, before many teen-agers and young adults have even heard of it. It is receiving coverage from the likes of the Financial Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the BBC, and the New York Times.

Although it is peopled by avatars, Second Life is for real. Between 2 p.m. on Sunday, August 19, and 2 p.m. on Monday, August, 20, $1,238,857 in U.S. currency changed hands on the site. The website has even had its share of financial scandals — gambling was banned in July, and one of its banks, Ginko, which had $700,000 in deposits, failed early in August.

Universities see myriad possibilities in Second Life, and Janet Temos, the director of Princeton University’s Educational Technology Center, is spending nearly all of her time there as the university gets ready to unveil its virtual counterpart on Monday, September 24.

Temos earned her undergraduate degree in English at Princeton University (Class of 1982) and holds a Ph.D. in art history from the university. She has worked at Princeton since 2000, and has headed up the Educational Technology Center for the past four years. She can be reached at Persis.Trilling@gmail.com.

Temos, spearheading the Princeton Second Life campus build out, has two avatars, one for her work persona, and one for her social persona. In fact, we were lucky to get her on the phone. “I conduct most of my interviews as my avatar,” she says.

The Princeton community has been enthusiastic about setting up a substantial presence on Second Life, says Temos, and has purchased seven islands with “Linden dollars,” the coin of the realm in the virtual world, which can be converted back to the currency of an avatar’s nation at any number of money exchange businesses on the website. An island of approximately 16 acres costs $1,675 in U.S. dollars, but there is a 50 percent for verified academic institutions. Land use fees for an island run $295 a month — all payable to Linden Labs.

Academic uses for Second Life include language instruction, practice for architects and visual arts students, and psychology lessons. Temos says that there are predictions that within three to five years, everyone with access to a computer will have an avatar. She is sure that virtual reality will continue to grow in popularity, but is less sure that Second Life will continue to be the dominant virtual world.

In-house Princeton talent has designed many of the university’s Second Life buildings, but some, including the art gallery, were just too difficult, so the university hired an architect — identified as Scope Cleaver — to do the work. Eager to speak with Cleaver, we asked for his contact information.

“I think he’s in Canada. I’m not sure,” says Temos. “I do know that he’s in my time zone.” Cleaver, it turns out, is an avatar. She says that he doesn’t want people to know his real identity. But he is making a real living by creating virtual buildings for clients that include Princeton University. With a little practice, says Temos, anyone can erect a Second Life structure, but it’s a little tricky because only Second Life tools can be used. Only a virtual architect with Cleaver’s skills can create a complex building.

On August 15 Temos spoke to the Princeton Chamber about the university’s Second Life project. At first, she reports, members were somewhat skeptical, but as she showed them through the virtual campus, they became excited by the possibilities. Utilizing an avatar from Second Life, she provides a preview of the campus Princeton is building online.

A Virtual Princeton Grows on Second Life

by ‘Persis Trilling’

The Princeton University Gallery of the Arts on the virtual campus of Princeton in Second Life, represents the first in a series of commissioned architectural works by Second Life architect Scope Cleaver.

The building was designed to house and display works of art created by members of the actual campus community. It is located at the heart of the Princeton University region, which serves as the central campus of the various Princeton regions in Second Life.

The Gallery is distinguished by its irregular profile, a soaring superstructure that supports and defines the light-filled interior. The carapace-like framework of the building is formed of similarly-shaped structural elements repeated on a precise rotation; this feature, and the rich textures that define the building’s components are characteristic of Cleaver’s work. A highly-articulated system of tensioning cables and connecting cubes tie the superstructure together; curved and tinted glazing adds visual interest to the building, and the composition, taken as a whole, achieves a sense of architectonic integrity through the clear expression of structure, function, and visual drama.

Inside, the building reveals its program as an arts gallery. One enters the virtual gallery via a lofty two-storied atrium that reveals both floors of the exhibition space. The qualities of natural light in Second Life are exploited by the large glass wall that forms the main facade of the building. “Natural” light in Second Life is, in fact, quite counterintuitive in how it plays upon shapes, and creating effects that seem true to nature in terms of lighting can add a unexpected layer of effort and artifice to the design process.

Since users control their own personal version of the sun in Second Life, the virtual architect needs to take into account that the building can simultaneously be viewed at various times of day. The Princeton Gallery is well worth a look at the “midnight” setting, which reveals a structure that apparently glows softly in the virtual moonlight. In fact, the gradations of tint on the windows are part of a remarkably clever use of the native Second Life building tools to mediate the unpredictable qualities of Second Life light.

The eye is tricked into seeing reflective surfaces where none exist; “windows” are carefully designed to look as though they are responding to local lighting conditions, whether filtering a bright external sun by day, or containing a softly light interior at night. This attention presents the building to its best effect at all sun settings. And shadows? The Second Life sun does not cast them. When they exist, they need to be added by the architect.

A flight of stairs leads to the upstairs galleries, which afford impressive views of the artworks, as well as of the interior and exterior spaces. The gallery also includes some exterior patios, designed for gatherings and conversation. The gallery fittings, glass cases and display panels that showcase art works were also designed by Cleaver. Their elements complement the building’s other details, and create a comprehensive design vocabulary. This particular attention to detail as well as the articulation of the structural integrity of the building is in evidence throughout. Each element displays an esthetic refinement that is rarely seen in Second Life, since the native building tools are commonly employed for more summary architectural statements.

Cleaver fashions his buildings entirely using the inworld design tools of Second Life, without relying on external 3D or drafting tools to develop ideas. Most of his buildings, he says, start with a single idea, like a seed, and develop from there by means of an exploration of basic shapes, textures and colors. Essential building blocks emerge through experimentation and manipulation until the overriding concept becomes clear.

The craftsman-like, artisanal quality of Scope Cleaver’s buildings has been cited by those commentators who concern themselves with Second Life’s native architecture. The effect in this building, and others by this architect, results in a satisfying internal logic and sense of physical reality that elevates virtual architecture to a new level of seriousness, one worthy of discussion. Yet it is difficult at first to consider a work which, while much more than a project, has no virtual reality beyond the space it takes up on a server. How can we frame a discussion of something so ephemeral?

It may be time to consider whether concepts such as “reality” and “physicality” are valid in any a discussion of virtual architecture. Or, why, perhaps, a tier-one research institution such as Princeton University should be experimenting with buildings constructed of bytes that provide no apparent physical benefit to the institution. Both queries concern larger questions about social realities as mediated through technology, and how environments such as Second Life are changing our definitions of human social spaces, including spaces used for important explorations concerning the built environment.

The Princeton University campus in Second Life is an experiment in how virtual environments can be used in a meaningful way in teaching and learning. The simulation is administered by Princeton’s Office of Information Technologies, Academic Services, as part of its larger mission in helping Princeton faculty members use technology in teaching, research, and learning. Several faculty projects are currently in development in Second Life, each designed to take advantage of the unique aspects of virtual reality.

Second Life is one of many social networking tools currently under investigation at Princeton and many other educational institutions. Along with blogs, wikis, instant messaging, and other networking sites such as MySpace and FaceBook, Second Life is one of many platforms that people everywhere are using to expand definitions of society, associations, and companionship, and which will undoubtedly have a role in higher education. Second Life has a very literal added dimension in its immersive environment, the easily learned building tools, and the visual quality of the virtual world.

Second Life, it should be stated, is a virtual community in which every resident has the power to shape and create his or her own environment. In the context of this discussion, every resident of Second Life also has the power to become his or her own architect. Professional Second Life architects, such as Scope Cleaver, are part of a small, but dedicated group who practice in Second Life, to create buildings that are worthy of comment and study, but where a vocabulary to accomplish that is just being articulated.

The tension that exists between the duality of implied physical reality and total fantasy is one that can only be expected in a virtual world where “reality” is a highly malleable term. In other words, considering the classic Vitruvian definition of architecture as firmitas, utilitas, and venustas, (firmness, utility, and delight) — one has to admit that in Second Life, only venustas really needs to show up for work, and even then, only appears on a good day. How should one build in a world where physics can be turned on or off at will, where structures can float in midair, and where it never rains or snows? What is the role of architecture in a world where physical discomfort does not exist, there are no building codes, where firmness and utility are irrelevant, and delight, when it exists, is a limited sensory experience?

This duality described above suggests the sort of dichotomy that is not entirely dissimilar from others have existed in architectural history — periods, for instance, where there were tensions between the vernacular vs. the academic, or historicism vs. modernism. In Second Life, the debate is most often framed within the architectural community as to whether or not Second Life buildings should attempt to recreate the physical reality of actual structures at all.

Discussing the attraction people feel toward familiarity and convention is probably best left for another forum, but one should consider that there may be cases when “familiar” means something other than “comfortable.”

Princeton is a well-known cultural institution, famed, among other things, for its grounds and architecture. The primary role of the virtual campus is to serve the teaching mission of the university. However, the virtual campus will also function much as the actual one does. It will be a destination for learning, teaching, working, collaborating, forming friendships, or just visiting for the sake of seeing the grounds and buildings. Individuals pursuing these activities may have certain expectations shaped by the actual physical campus. It seems expedient for many reasons to have some identifiable elements that evoke the same strong sense of place that makes the physical campus recognizable.

While the Princeton University Gallery of the Arts may be the most striking and unusual building on the central part of Princeton’s virtual campus, one should also consider its historic neighbors. Three buildings that resemble their real life counterparts have been built close to the Gallery of the Arts. (It should be mentioned that no attempt has been made to recreate the physical disposition of these buildings in Second Life in a way that represents their reality; building a literal copy of even the smallest campus would soon exhaust the technical constraints of Second Life.) These buildings were chosen for their qualities as recognizable historic landmarks, and as milestones in the history of Princeton University. They have an iconic presence on both the actual campus and its virtual counterpart.

The earliest of these structures, Nassau Hall (1758), was the original college building. It was built 12 years after the founding of the College of New Jersey; until then, classes had been held in the home of the current president. Seeking a more permanent home, the trustees of the young college petitioned for a permanent location. The town of Princeton offered land and resources in 1756.

The trustees of the College of New Jersey started an important architectural precedent in hiring a prominent and forward-thinking architect to build Nassau Hall. Robert Smith (1722-1777) was one of the most important architects in the American colonies. A Scottish architect active in Philadelphia, Smith had strong family ties to the Office of Works in Scotland, and it is almost certain he had access to architectural treatises by Gibbs and Palladio, rare in the colonies. Smith was the architect of Independence Hall; Benjamin Franklin was also a client. This implied association with the founding fathers gives some indication of Smith’s involvement with intellectual elite interested in architectural ideas. Upon its completion, Nassau Hall was the largest stone structure in North America.

Smith’s Nassau Hall was gutted twice by fire and rebuilt with alterations by Joseph Henry Latrobe in 1802, and John Notman in 1855. The most significant changes included adding height to the structure (both architects did this) and reducing the original three identical doors on the front facade to one central entry door, which Notman enlarged and framed on a grand scale.

The Second Life reconstruction closely matches the current appearance of Nassau Hall, which is to say Notman’s Italianate remodeling, with later, minor alterations. It also includes the Memorial Hall, a two-story atrium added in 1919 by Day and Klauder to remember Princeton’s war dead, and the faculty room as enlarged by Notman and later altered. The Second Life version of Nassau Hall does not recreate the three stories of offices with a central corridor in each wing, but rather reserves these spaces for large teaching or meeting halls.

Next, Chancellor Green Library (1873) was the first dedicated structure to serve as a library at the College of New Jersey. Its construction served as the inauguration of the famous building campaign undertaken by President James McCosh (1811-1894). McCosh was fundamental in rescuing the College of New Jersey from a downturn in fortune in the first half of the 19th century. McCosh assumed the presidency in 1868, and decided to increase the prominence of the College in enrollment, physical size, and educational excellence.

He hired architect William Appleton Potter (1842-1909), a prominent proponent of the High Victorian Gothic movement. Chancellor Green is one of the finest examples of Ruskinian Gothic in the United States. The building in real life is now part of a center for the humanities at Princeton.

The Second Life version of Chancellor Green is both the literal and intellectual center of the virtual campus. In Second Life, the building is restored to its original function as a library, and will serve as a delivery point for the library’s digital resources. The river, bridges, and island that surround the island are imaginary, and repeating the doors on both sides of the flanking hallways is a liberty taken to improve the virtual campus’s circulation pattern.

Finally, Alexander Hall (1896), also designed by W. A. Potter, was built to commemorate the occasion when the College of New Jersey officially changed its name to Princeton University, an event that marked the fulfillment of McCosh’s dreams to transform the college into a university with an international reputation for excellence. Faculty member Woodrow Wilson, one of McCosh’s former students, delivered the inaugural address to celebrate the event. Alexander Hall was built to serve as a commencement hall and a venue for public lectures. It is built in the Romanesque style popularized by H. H. Richardson (1811-94) earlier in the century. In real life and Second Life, it functions as a space for concerts and public lectures.

To return to the discussion of the Princeton University Gallery of the Arts, and its relationship to the other buildings on Princeton’s virtual campus, it may be possible to draw a few conclusions that invite discussion about virtual architecture and its role in creating a meaningful environment. All four buildings mentioned here share the qualities of being unique, modern for their time, richly textured, carefully crafted, and built in the spirit of advancing the mission of an educational institution. Each of the Second Life buildings is in some way responding to the unique environment of Second Life. The building by Scope Cleaver is native to this environment and perhaps fits most comfortably; the other structures are in the nature of time travelers who have learned to adapt themselves to a totally new world.

Historically speaking, it is ironic to note that the last innovative building that culminated McCosh’s architectural campaign introduced an important, but relatively static phase in the architectural history of the university. East Pyne Library, the structure W. A. Potter added to Chancellor Green Library in 1897, is acknowledged by some to have inspired the collegiate Gothic style, dominant at Princeton in the 20th century, and which has been adopted at many other colleges and universities around the world. The collegiate Gothic style deliberately reproduces the architecture typical of medieval English monastic foundations, institutions that developed into universities such as Oxford and Cambridge.

While this article focuses on the buildings in the central campus, and their relationship to Scope Cleaver’s Princeton University Gallery of the Arts, it should be noted that there are other buildings by Scope and others on the larger virtual campus. Of particular note are the Princeton U-Store on the Princeton South region and the Princeton University Information Center on the Princeton West region. Both are by Scope Cleaver; both are also being sold as pre-fab buildings in Second Life by Scope’s design firm, SCDA.

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