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Virtual Architecture

Sibel Acar

Published Apr 14, 2021

The adjective virtual is commonly used to define things and actions "being on or simulated on a computer or computer network” such as “virtual books” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Not surprisingly, the word gained this meaning after the development of computers in the mid-twentieth century. The first usage of the word referring to the computer sense of "not physically existing but made to appear by software" was recorded in 1959 (Merriam-Webster Unbridged, n.d.). However, the first meaning of the word "being something in essence or effect, though not actually or in fact" in the sense of "capable of producing a certain effect," has a longer history which goes back to the fifteenth century (Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d.). By indicating immateriality or different materiality of virtual from its substance, the dictionary of Merriam-Webster Unabridged explains the word as “relating to, or possessing the power of acting without the agency of matter.” These definitions denote that the virtual is an immaterial substitute for something which has the power to act for the material other. Hence, the virtual is an agent of the material reality having the power of representation. As Henry Bergson discussed in the early twentieth century, the potential of the virtual is the power of its possibilities exceeding the presence of the object. The virtual is not limited by material restrictions of the thing itself, “the objects merely abandon something of their real action in order to manifest their virtual action” (Bergson, 1911, p. 30).

Dictionary meaning of architecture is "the art or practice of designing and building structures, especially habitable structures, in accordance with principles determined by aesthetic and practical or material considerations” (Merriam-Webster Unabridged, n.d.). According to this definition, architecture is something designed and built. Architecture starts with an architectural imagination then it is materialized by drawings and models, finally, if the project gets a chance it is constructed. This definition reduces architecture to a construction process that poses a problem. History of architecture has many unbuilt or imaginary architectural projects which materialized new ideas, new sensibilities, triggered influential discussions yet they were not constructed. If Tatlin’s Tower, Fourier’s Phalanstery, Città Nuova of Sant’Elia, The Peak Project of Zaha Hadid are not architectures then what are they? Since the end of the twentieth century, in the discourse of architecture, architecture is started to be defined as, a continuous process of production of architectural ideas, buildings, and their representations through different media. In the article, Architectureproduction (1988), Colomina proposes that “architecture, as distinct from building, is interpretive, critical act.” To her, an interpretation can have a linguistic condition in the discourses of theory, criticism, history and be carried out employing different modes of visual representations such as drawings, models, photographs, and films (Colomina, 2002, p. 207).

Referring back to the concept of virtual, in the introduction part of her book The Virtual Window From Alberti to Microsoft, Anne Friedberg delves into the meaning of the word by discussing its long roots which refer to representations that can be either simulacral or directly mimetic (Friedberg, 2009, pp. 8-9). Considering representations of architecture, architecture has two types of representations. While drawings, renderings, models represent an architectural imagination of an unbuilt structure; photograph, video, and other pictorial images can communicate on behalf of the existing building. Accordingly, projects of unbuilt architecture refer to simulacral meaning of virtual, representations of built architecture such as photographs that meet the meaning of mimetic virtual. In the domain of architectural production, the liaison between built and represented is peculiar, unavoidable, compelling, vital, contesting, and certainly critical. The virtual is not persistently reserved in any actual form or materiality supposed by its object yet it is a proxy, continuously transforms from one form to another.

Exceeding its own materiality, virtual architecture refers materiality of buildings. Architectural drawings and computer renderings speak on behalf of architecture, regardless of whether they are built or not. The imaginary iconic projects are included in the canon of architectural history and taught in schools of architecture. Unbuilt projects such as competition entries or proposals are added to an architect’s portfolio. Usually, we cannot understand if an architectural project is being constructed or not by looking at its drawings. The creative process of architecture not only includes the creation of designs and their constructions. It also includes a wide spectrum of acts interpreting architecture such as discussions, critiques, illustrations, photographs, renders, videos, diagrammatic analyses, explanations even mocks such as Alan Dunn’s cartoons ridiculing modern architecture which all communicates through and in the form of different media. In this regard, representations of architecture which communicates to its audience on behalf of architecture constitute the domain of virtual architectures in which drawings, pictures, texts, models having a vivid life and revealing architecture more persuasively and effectively than the buildings themselves. Therefore, virtual architecture is not limited to those of which is produced by computer-generated technologies, all kind of representations of architecture which is capable of producing a certain effect creates the domain of virtual.

Since the last decades of the twentieth century, particularly as a result of the advances of communication technologies, not only the production but also the dissemination of all kinds of representations which are old and new, analog or digital, expanded in an unprecedented way and speed. Accordingly, many acts producing redefining, altering, or reproducing architecture are occurring in the domain of virtual.


Bergson, H. (1911). Matter and Memory. New York: Macmillan. 

Colomina, B. (2002). Architectureproduction. In Rattenbury, K., ed., This is not Architecture, New York: Routledge, pp. 207-221. 

Friedberg, A. (2009). The Virtual Window From Alberti to Microsoft. Cambridge: MIT press. 

Virtual. (n.d.). In: Britannica Academic [online]. Available at: =1 [Accessed 17 November 2018]. 

Virtual. (n.d.). In: Merriam-Webster Unbridged [online]. Available at: http://unabridged.merriam- [Accessed 17 November 2018]. 

Virtual. (n.d.). In: Merriam-Webster [online]. Available at: https://www.merriam- [Accessed 17 November 2018]. 

Virtual. (n.d.). In: Online Etymology Dictionary [online]. Available at: [Accessed 17 November 2018].

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