Presence and Form in the Architecture of Cyberspace

Presence and Form in the Architecture of Cyberspace

Børre Ludvigsen

This paper is an introduction to the concepts of cyberspace and those elements by which it may take form as it expands from its science-fiction birthplace to the world of everyman's space of digital dreams, virtual realities and the meetings of minds. As such, it is and will be visited and inhabited by a growing population who's ambitions and aspirations for security, freedom and personal gain will determine the form of that digital space in which they are momentarily present.

The paper was published in NAIM 2/93 (Norwegian Artificial Intelligence Magazine). It was also presented as a talk at the INET '93 in San Fransisco in August 1993 and is included in the proceedings from the conference.

The space of digital dreams

Definitions of terms may be much for many, especially when they are terms in the making. Both cyberspace and cyberpunk are just such terms, with varying meaning for the creators, readers and occupants of both.

This paper will concentrate on that cyberspace which is available and real today. The cyberspace which consciously or unwittingly is populated by many or most computer users in academia. By extension and analogy, pockets and islands of cyberspace are visited daily by millions of computer user everywhere, whether in or out of that matrix of cyberspace collectively called the net.

By way of clarification, let us first then, examine "cyberpunk", in order to eliminate that which we will not be discussing here. In Earth/Cybertech Sourcebook, Lester W. Smith gives a concise definition of cyberpunk:

"Cyberpunk is the term given to a particular genre of 20th-century science fiction. It is coined from two different words: "cybernetics " the science of electronic, mechanical, and biological control systems and "punk" referring to modern street culture. The sense of the combined term is of ultratechnology grafted onto the culture of the street. The theory is that technology is changing so fast that each new discovery is old news before we have even had a chance to consider its implications.

The effect of that technology is a culture shock that not only separates one generation's ideals from the next generation's, but actually shakes the next generation's ideals as fast as they are formed. Mixing genetic material from animal to animal, or even from human to animal; raising crops of human embryos for organ transplants; creating machines that think like humans and humans that think like machines. All of these things, and more, are within our grasp. The problem is that they all tear at the definition of what it means to be human. And without that definition, we have no inherent basis for human rights.

That is the realm of cyberpunk: to explore what it means to be human, or inhuman, in the world of the future."


Blue Pearl (Can you) feel the passion 
from MTV. A sense of non-interactive
cyberspace and the ideals of cyberpunk
pervade many of the popular music
videos that are globally transmitted
to the glass screen on a 24-hour

We should also mention the heroes of cyberpunk, the corporate climbers, bionic warriors, rock-and roll rebels and technological scavengers, as their ideals and aspirations will in large measure be the foundations of both presence and form in the architecture of cyberspace. For although the vernacular is well entrenched in the cyberspace we know, many of the ideas and creations of the science fiction of cyberpunk will find their way into the reality of common cyberspace.

The term "Cyberspace" was coined by William Gibson in his science fiction novel Neuromancer. Many facets of cyberspace as it is variously conceived are discussed in Michael Benedikt's Cyberspace: First Steps. In this discussion, I will restrict the concept of cyberspace to digital space in which we are momentarily present. Particularly that digital space which is described and confined by the internet matrix and its various nodes, pockets and extensions spanning from one to n-dimensional space.

Thus cyberspace is available to anyone and all of us us who are capable of consciously projecting our presence into it. Its form takes its cues from our visions of form in digital space, visual or imaginary. It is the 2-dimensional space of drawings, the 3-dimensional space of synthetic models, the n-dimensional space of sound, time and words. Its media are as diverse as the technology involved, spanning from the pulsating columns of mud that carry telemetry from instruments in oil well drilling bits into the networks of oil companies to the very-high speed broadband optical networks of NREN.


Interfaces to cyberspace 

Peter Cook, Info Gonks, 1968. (Nakamura, Architecture and Urbanism)

The means of letting us into cyberspace are increasingly diverse. From the familiar and trusty keyboards and glass screens of very dumb and somewhat less dumb terminals to 3-dimensional viewing goggles coupled with microphones, datagloves and sensory devices our interface to cyberspace is slowly blurring the demarkations between mind, body and digital space.

Nasa Goggles and VPL Glove. Courtesy
of W. Sisler and S. Fisher, NASA
Ames Research Center. (Krueger, Artificial
Reality II) 

The basis for this discussion is that cyberspace which is embodied in the dimensions of available hardware and software systems. It may be envisioned as an isolated spacial domain on a single-user computer. It expands into a limited territorial domain in a local network, and finally becomes global and universal space when its limitless space is the net.

Before we go on to consider the architecture of cyberspace, the following description of the spacial qualities of cyberspace might lend some insight into its nature. In his article Old Rituals for New Space in Cyberspace: First Steps, David Thomas writes: Gibsonian cyberspace can be distinguished according to three, dominant, "Euclidian", characteristics. First, it is conceived as a common transnational work environment. Second, it is a transportation space designed to accomplish work-related tasks - both a space in which one can travel in real-time or by way of "bodiless, instantaneous shifts" and a space through which human memory and identity are transported globally. Third, it redefines and restructures what it means to be human in technoeconomic terms through a data-based collectivization of the human sensorium or, in the more radical customized and therefore "individualistic" terms, of "personality" or synthetic dataconstructs.


Transporting space.

Vernacular, architectural space being
transported. (Rudolfsky, Architecture
Without Architects.) 

It should not be difficult for those of us who use the net daily to concur with that description. A graphic example of the Thomas' 3rd "Euclidian" dimension is the difference between paper information that crosses national frontiers and the digital. When paper passes a certain size, appearance or material form, it suddenly becomes of great concern to national authorities wishing to examine and levy its contents. What will be their interest when they awake to the realization that the net is a not only a new-found space for the transportation of their information about taxable goods, but a space in which those very goods are transported?

Where we are.

In his book of 1923, Towards a New Architecture, Le Corbusier describes the state of physical architecture 70 years ago: "The engineer's Aesthetic, and Architecture, are two things that march together and follow one from the other: the one being now at its full height, the other in an unhappy state of retrogression."



His visions of a new order where
physical space would be ordered by
materials, light and function to
answer needs were destroyed by that
3rd "Euclidian" dimension where technoeconomic
power became concentrated with those
seeking personal gain from the building
of space rather than those occupying
it. Order was the loser and the modern
city high-rise fell into chaos. (Thiis-Evensen,
Arkitekturens Uttrykksformer.)

At the time reinforced concrete, structural steel and glass had entered the realm of the structural engineering as the first new materials of construction since the Renaissance. However, as materials in the design of buildings they were repudiated by the architects of the time. Even more exciting to Le Corbusier and the handful of modernists that were to shape the architectural environment of this century, were the achievements of engineers in other fields. The great passenger liners of the time were admired as objects of architectural beauty, much as we consider the Concorde, the 747 or the shuttle benchmarks in contemporary travel. Had Le Corbusier known the PC, he might well have felt that the automobile was the PC of his time with its potential of individual freedom and therefore the beauty inherent in its design. The epitome of engineering order of course, was the aeroplane, with its boundless potential of personal communication.


© FLC/ BONO 1999

Le Corbusier

The Villa Savoye, 1929, a graphical
user interface to the "living machine"?
(Le Corbusier, Mein Werk.)  

Le Corbusier's definition of architecture, which is as good as any, declares that "The business of architecture is to establish emotional relationships by means of raw materials".


In the vernacular, time and presence,
"the measure of order in accordance
with that of our world" make themselves
felt in the innocent nature of form
made by function, the interplay of
nature and the built environment,
the presence of the human and the
timelessness of utility. (Sudan -
Rudolfsky, Architecture Without Architects.)

There are several elements in the architecture of physical space necessary for the establishments of such emotional relationships. The most important prerequisites to our understanding of architecture are time and presence, as the definition of architecture goes on to describe the architect: "by the relationships which he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel to be in accordance with that of our world."


Space of dreams 

Religious architecture, both designed
and vernacular have borne forth the
aspirations of projecting presence
into the space of abstract thought.
(Samarra, Iraq - Rudolfsky, Architecture
Without Architects.) 

In the architecture of the physical world it is the presence of person that dictates the order of raw materials. And it is the time of presence that dictates the form of that order. Such form and order, or chaos (for "order" does not necessarily imply the regular) are the foundations of architecture, be it designed or vernacular.


Emotions i cyberspace. 

To the public at large, the very idea that cyberspace can be an environment of emotions seems ludicrous and the butt of jokes. To those who have maintained emotional relationships in cyberspace, the needs for orders of materials by which to add dimensions to those emotions are very real. (Don Orehek, Omni, February 1992)

The state of architecture 70 years ago may with good reason be compared to that of the architecture of cyberspace today. Engineers have laid the foundations of beauty, form and order in their contributions of new raw materials to the dream of "presence in time" removed from "here and now". The natural and well known concept of consciously being somewhere else in the present.

However, in cyberspace, as opposed to physical space, presence seems divorced from order. In cyberspace the raw materials and construction order the concepts. We have not yet become sufficiently concerned with the contents of space and their presence to consider the manner in which they are the elements that should dictate order and form, much as the presence of person dictates the order of raw materials and their construction and thereby emotional relationships in physical space.

Where are we going?

Now that we have the elements of cyberspace, its raw materials, its contents, its time and presence, how do we go about forming cyberspace into an architecture that creates emotional relationships, profound echoes and beauty other than the accidental pleasures of the vernacular?


The vernacular of cyberspace is very much like the
ultimately vernacular treehouse.
It is built of the materials and
order of the technology by which
it was created. (Rudolfsky, Architecture
Without Architects.) 

Assuming the attraction of chaos and the vernacular of cyberspace, its existence is only assured through the juxtaposition with designed order. The various concepts, rules and fashions of graphic and visual design may readily be applied to those aspects of cyberspace that can be visually observed and that mimic the visual in physical architecture. Furthermore, manipulating form to follow function is probably what cyberspace has been all about until now.

What seems to be lacking are those elements of physical architecture that give us most pleasure and to which we sometimes attribute beauty. The pitched roof covering the attic that signifies the presence of safety and security. The ordering of structure that underlines confidence in resistance to the laws of physics. The language of plan, massing and form that affords protection from the elements, fulfillment of function, modelling of sound and light, and the expression of the abstract. All these are suffused through design to create environments in which our presence is given meaning. That meaning which arises from our communication with all the elements of our environment and each other.


Elements of architectural beauty. 

Those buildings which appear to give us the greatest sense of physical beauty are those where the order of materials aspire to presence in realms beyond the physical.

(Parthenon, reconstruction by G. Stevens from Papathanassopoulos, The Acropolis [Thiis-Evensen]).

It is infinitely easier and more expedient to create the architecture of fictional cyberspace than it is to give the matrix of cyberspace meaningful form. The various standards and guidelines available today do not form a coherent architectural politic. While the human interface guidelines of various graphical user interfaces (GUIs) apply themselves to what results in an architecture, they do not relate to each other or the underlying technologies by their intent to form "emotional relationships". Nor do they attempt to answer the functions of interrelated technologies. Such attentions when they do arise, come about through external technoeconomic pressures affected more by the health of stocks and shares than the needs of order and planning.

Cyberspace of misery. 

The Los Angeles of Bladerunner. While
the cities of the matrix have yet
to become perpetually wet, underpopulated
dens of inequity, the commercialization
of the net leaves little hope for
the ideals of design. For as the
advantages of adhocracy are stressed,
the disadvantages are largely ignored. 

(c)Bladerunner Partnership 1982, Warner

How do we get there?

In his book of 1924, The City of Tomorrow, Le Corbusier proposes that: A town is a tool. Towns no longer fulfil this function. They are ineffectual; they use up our bodies; they thwart our soul. The lack of order to be found everywhere in them offends us; their degradation wounds our self-esteem and humiliates our sense of dignity. They are not worthy of the age; they are no longer worthy of us. That manifesto may sound strange having been written almost 70 years ago. It is however, unquestionably easier to comprehend for those of us who live in cities than his definition of architecture that has little or no professional common ground with those of us engaged in the building of cyberspace. His reflections on the miserable state of the city was somewhat relieved by the mass destruction of the second world war and the subsequent rebuilding of European cities in the wake of postwar economic prosperity. That rebuilding, much of it carried out in a climate of social and political euphoria, in fact only postponed the state of misery he describes. One need only visit any of the larger cities of the world to witness the results of the absence of order, no matter how abhorrent the central imposition of order may sound to those of us who feel that the very nature of our technology provides the necessary order to preserve both structural and human integrity.


Le Corbusier

From his series of publications L'Esprit
Nouveau of 1921, perspectives and
plans for high rise building in cities
of the future. Note the distance
between the buildings. Not only an
awareness of the quality of dimension,
but the very quantity involved is
essential for giving presence meaning
which is within the realm of comprehension.
While our visions of this kind of
environment my be abhorrent, none
of us have really experienced building
at this scale. (Le Corbusier, Mein

It is in that context that we need to be aware of the nature of the cyberspace we are forming. Have we even lent thought to whether or not we are building the equivalents of urban or agrarian space? Are those topographical concepts even relevant to the space of digital dreams? Is not the space of pleasant dreams essentially pastoral? Just as the space of nightmares are urban? Are those concepts of physical space as applied to abstract space too far removed from the "Euclidian" nature of cyberspace as defined by Thomas? What is probably closer to the nature of matrix cyberspace is the limiting 3-dimensionality of Thomas' "Euclidian" dimensions. Cyberspace must surely have n dimensions. If so, what are the others, and how do we plan them?


Lebbeus Woods 

By giving alien constructions presence
in space where form is sculpted from
fantasy, we are given a heightened
sense of presence in our effort to
comprehend dimensions, scale and

(Nakamura, Lebbeus Woods, Terra Nova,
Architecture and Urbanism) 

We need to study those elements of time and communication in cyberspace that have created the vernacular architecture of virtuality. We need to recognize the meaning of presence in cyberspace and the manners in which its raw materials can be used to form the orders from which we draw the very basic needs of security and confidence. And from the awareness of meaningful presence we will be able to bring beauty, pleasure or whatever other emotional relationships and echoes we want.

Although the analogies that attempt to stretch our comprehension of cyberspace from that of physical architecture may quite reasonably be counterproductive, it is nevertheless a world in which we are able to recognize the value of time, presence and beauty. And it is through those very analogies that virtual worlds like Abbott's Flatland have so successfully been formed and visualized.



The Sphere enters A Square's living
room. A Square finds the concept
of 3 dimensions beyond comprehension
in his 2-dimensional world. The envisioned
environment can be animated in the
virtual document. 

(From a Quicktime animation generated
by the author from a synthetic model
attempting to visualize the Sphere's
visit into A Square's living room
in Edwin Abbott's Flatland, A Romance
of Many Dimensions.) 

Only by creating cyberspace in which meaningful emotional relationships with the environments in which we ourselves find meaningful presence, will we be able to design alternate realities where others might thrive and find architecturally rewarding.


Lebbeus Woods 

Suspended objects with vaguely disturbing, yet familiar forms allow us to project our presence into alien space with comprehensible dimensions. (Nakamura, Lebbeus Woods, Terra Nova, Architecture and Urbanism.)

A primary aim in the definition of an architectural model for designing cyberspace must therefore be the recognition of form. That which is visible, tangible and audible in physical space as spacialy bounding surfaces. What then are the boundaries of cyberspace. Might they possible be found in the definitions of the concepts of form and shape?

Although the concept of form in cyberspace may seem alien in nature, a glance at the various definitions of form reveals a surprising variety of connections to the previously discussed elements of presence, order, meaningful relationships and aesthetics. Conventionally, form is defined as: shape and structure, beauty, the ideal intrinsic character of anything or that which imposes this character, manner or method, regulative method of expression, orderly arrangement, physical or mental condition, a hare's lair, seat or bench, that by which shape is determined, and the essential nature of a thing as distinguished from the matter in which it is embodied.



The familiarity with tools and media
through which we comprehend dimensions
beyond our own and gain insights
into other worlds are essential to
designing cyberspace.

((c) David Scarf, Magnifications, 1977,
from Thomas and Johnston, Disney
Animation, The Illusion of Life) 

As we attempt to shape and design the environments of cyberspace, the elements of architectural method become inseparable from the essentials embodied both in the animate and inanimate concepts of form. The aesthetics, meaning and presence in form as viewed collectively by athlete, philosopher and architect. That quality of Le Corbusier's writings which are most appealing to those who attempt to gain insight into presence and form in cyberspace is his comprehension and mastery of insight and vision. In other words, his ability to envision form as a framework for presence. By extension, it is that very insight which he turns around to become a creative process by which physical space is given form.



Technical tools need not necessarily
be more complex than the craft of
draftsmanship married to the ability
to envision virtual worlds. Animation,
whether digital or drawn has been
a traditional vehicle for the comprehension
of abstracted space. (Thomas and
Johnston, Disney Animation, The Illusion
of Life)

As tools and methods in forming that cyberspace in which presence becomes meaningful, several of our technologically based means of visualizing real and virtual worlds may be used as vehicles by which to launch creative design. Apart from the formal and abstract methodologies through which spacial design is approached, such as those presented by contemporary architectural theorists as Norberg-Schulz and Heidegger, visualizing and communicative aids for the representation of n-dimensional worlds may also be explored. Environments such as the worlds revealed by the scanning electron microscope which show that which is there but not seen. Also the more recent innovative tools for hypermedia which convey information both abstract and visual and the net itself which projects presence into virtuality are all examples of exercises in insight that may be explored, used and understood in order to gain the necessary experience from which to apply concepts of design.

The essence is that presence is the basis of the expression and construction of form, and form as bounded by comprehensible dimensions is basic to the awareness of presence.


Opening illustration:

W. Eugene Smith
The Walk to Paradise Garden, 1946
(Back to top of article.)

Author Information

Børre Ludvigsen has a degree in architecture from the School of Architecture, Kingston College of Art (England). He has practiced architecture in Norway and helped architects and engineers into cyberspace since 1970. His affiliation with the informatics and computer science department of the Ostfold Regional College started in 1981, where he became an associate professor in 1990 working with the design, sticks and stones of hyper- and cyberspace.

               "London to Paris in two hours." 
               from Le Corbusier's 
               Towards a New Architecture